by WILLIAM BURRIDGE, WF
Not even the glibbest of prophets of renewal could have foreseen the striking changes in inter-Church relationships which have taken place over the past ten years. But at least one surely expected something impressive as a result of the dramatic measures which 'launched ecumenism on its official way.
There were the familiar cornings and goings of non-Catholic observers in St Peter's and among the avalanche of bishops coming down the steps after each morning session of the Council.
There was the worldtelevised Meeting of Pope Paul and Dr Ramsey in all the splendour of St Paul's Outside-theWalls, and the vast spaces of St Peter's aglow with television lighting which gave a brilliance that even Michael Angelo could not have conceived to the marbles and the bronze and the great white expanse of the linen altar as the envoy of Affienegoras, in trailing purple robes, advanced towards Pope Paul beneath Bernini's baldachin°, in the historical gesture of friendship between East and West for all the world to see.
Much, indeed, might be expected of such majestic visual proclamations.
One could more readily understand the total collapse of charismatic vision in an observer of the half-dozen men in their everyday coats clustered round a table of cakes and tea on Charing Cross Station some three years later.
The man with the teapot was Martin Gillett, a London Catholic, who had conceived the idea of promoting ecumenical relations by concentrating on the Blessed Virgin Mary and had now arranged to meet these few Anglican and Methodist acquaintances to make a start.
He had been told as kindly as possible by friends and wise ecclesiastics that his venture was almost certainly doomed to failure: a long history of appalled and pious abhorrence, popular jibes or urbane dismissal had created a highly sensitive position against Catholic s !Maria! devotion.
Even the politely theological, especially of the evangelical and non-Conformist traditions, felt that in Maria] matters . Catholic thinking and practice had got really out of hand. Martin Gillett's proposed Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was felt, , would not be accepted; it might even be an unfortunate . provocation.
But the unpredictable happened.
Within no time Anglicans, clerics and layfolk, of varying traditions; Catholics, lay, religious and clergy; Greek, Orthodox, and clergy and laity of various Free Churches were joining in the membership and activities of the society, among them Anglican and Catholic bishops and high-ranking Methodists and theologians of international repute, besides a solid body of flock of many walks of life.
Three characteristics of the society arc that, unlike other ecumenical bodies, it is actively conducting multilateral dialogue, that each member is free to be himself and is expected to be so, that the society is based firmly on doctrinal considerations.
The last element is of capital importance. The society has found that once people consent to friendly dialogue about Mary on this sound basis they find themselves in an atmosphere of mutual respect and charity — the first requisite for ecumenism. Secondly, the study of Mary's place in doctrine leads on to the consideration of the fundamental issues of Christian belief.
The primary common ground for all the members is the Mother of Christ in the Scriptures. Scripture also provides the society's standard prayer, the Magnificat. Dialogue at this level leads naturally to the discovery of what the different Churches, and traditions within them, mean by her motherhood.
This in turn demands a study of the Incarnation. Then the question arises whether there is for Mary firmly in the ranks of us the redeemed a special dispensation of grace. Has she a special role among her fellow members of the people of God? This in turn raises the question of grace, original sin, redemption, the mission of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Church.
Study of these matters and of the historical aspects of the place of Mary in Christianity, and all the aspects of Christian life and culture, provides the main feature of the regular meetings both in London and in the branches in Oxford, Birmingham and Gloucester (it is hoped to open others in the North and South shortly), invariably beginning with a paper by experts who are often leading personages in the field of ecumenism.
Many of these papers are printed and are gradually building up to a very worthwhile collection of Marian and ecumenical booklets.
The venues for special meetings and ecumenical services from time to time are as impressive as the membership — Westminster Cathedral. Westminster Abbey, the Chapel of the Houses of Parliament, the assembly hall of the Methodist East End Mission, Salisbury Cathedral among them.
One can best illustrate the amplitude of the society's achievement by the gathering at the Anglican Church of St Andrew, Holborn, London, with Cardinal Heenan; Archbishop Athenagoras, the Orthodox Metropolitan in Britain; Bishop Kenneth Sansbury of the British Council of Churches; Dr Sherard Allison, the then Anglican Bishop of Winchester, and Dr Kenneth Greet, Secretary-General of the Methodist Conference, who gave the address.
And to make the event quite, unprecedented in such a setting, at the end of the ecumenical service Cardinal Ileenan presented a Papal Decoration to Martin Gillett.
But perhaps the most remarkable achievement of so young a society is the organisation of its International Ecumenical Conferences. Nothing similar has been done in England, and they have surely made an important contribution to putting this country on the ecumenical map.
Two such conferences have already been held. A third is to take place in Easter Week at Westhill College, Selly Oak, Birmingham. The subject is God and Mary: the place of the Mother of the Saviour in God's plan of salvation.
The previous conferences attracted some 200 participants from Britain, Ireland, the Continent and the United States. The forthcoming one bids fair to outrival them, Under the patronage of
Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham; the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Laurence Ambrose Brown; Dr Eric Fenn, President of the Free Churches Department of Birmingham and the Rev George Bradford Caird, Moderator of the United Reformed Church.
With Dr Eric Mascall, the renowned Anglican theologian, and .17r Edward Yarnold, Si, of Campion Hall, Oxford as programme advisers, the conference will hear papers by Alasdair Heron of Edinburgh university and the Dublin School of Ecumenics on "Predestination and Mary"; by Dr J. Dominian on "The Impact of Family Structure on Personality," with particular reference to Our Lady on Christ; by the Rev John MacQuarrie, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, Oxford, on "The Divine and Feminine"; by the Rev Marie Isaacs, Lecturer at Heythrop College, on "Mary and the Lucan Infancy Narrative"; by Bishop Alan Clark, President of the Catholic Ecumenical Cornmission of England and Wales, on "Born of the Virgin Mary"; by Fr Edward Yarold on "The Grace of Christ in Mary"; by the Rev John Ross Mackenzie, of Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, on "The Theme of Eve and Mary in Christian Thought" and by Fr John McHugh of Ushaw and the University of Durham (whose magisterial work on Mary in the Gospels is due out shortly) on "Genuine Devotion to the Blessed Virgin."
The programme, as always, makes ample provision for prayer and meditation, and besides ecumenical services provision is made for the separate celebration of Mass for Catholic participants and Communion Services for each of the other principal groups respectively.
All in all, in this annual reflection afforded by the Octave of Prayer for Unity, there is a great deal of inspiration to be drawn from this society.
It has about it many of the characteristics which we are supposed to look for in postVatican II action. It is unprecedented, it was unpredictable on purely human — and indeed validly prudent — calculations.
It was initiated and has been carried forward by a layman, but in happy relationship to inalienable episcopal responsibility, it is thoroughly ecumenical thus, the cochairmen are a Catholic bishop, Bishop Langton Fox, and an Anglican bishop: a successor to the Bishop of Willesden, recently translated to Bath, is awaited and the society's council is as widely representative as its membership.
But especially it has that balance and poise which belong to genuine ecumenism, rooted in sound theology and an awareness of the role of the Spirit. It has unpredictably provided a bridge across the gap between Christians.
A bridge does not fill the gap, it only spans it: it makes it possible for the territories on both sides to be explored and, like all bridges, it creates a point of convergence and turns an amorphous mass of dissent into an ordered pilgrimage of thought and prayer.
But the society is conscious that whereas men can and must build bridges, only the spirit in His good time can close the gap. Meantime this society, in particular at the forthcoming conference at Westhill College, will offer those who are fortunate enough to attend it an enriching experience of that mutual reverence in the pursuit of truth and charity which Pope John, throwing open his windows, assured us is the firm and happy foundation of genuine ecumenism.