Page 4, 19th January 1973

19th January 1973
Page 4
Page 4, 19th January 1973 — Crucial year for Christian unity

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.


Locations: London, Sydney


Related articles

How Free Is The Church In China?

Page 4 from 19th November 1982

By Fr. William

Page 4 from 26th July 1968

French Catholic Writer Shows A Way To Captivate General...

Page 6 from 22nd July 1949

With Love From The 'have Gots' To The 'have Nots'

Page 5 from 11th September 1981

Il, Ast Year The Prefect Of The

Page 3 from 22nd November 1985

Crucial year for Christian unity

THERE is no human pro

ject which does not need a budget. Accountancy must 'be 'brought in at some time. By this I mean not that one must reduce everything human to money or expense, but that at some point or other, however right the purpose, profit and loss must be squarely faced. Even more so is it true that when a man builds a house, he must work out whether he will be able to finish it. To do this he must face the cost.

This is being proved inescapably true of the pilgrimage of the great Christian Churches. who have undertaken the long road to unity. If there is one clear thing emerging out of the experience of 1972, it is a growing suspicion that much more is involved in the growth towards unity than goodwill or even prayer. Much more is involved than the almost oppressive hard work of theologian or ecumenist, as they pursue the sometimes elusive goal of doctrinal agreement. Much more, certainly. is 'involved than the persistent hope that the Christian Churches will move together inevitably and wake up one day. almost in surprise. to a glorious dawn of unity.

A price has to be paid; and if asked what is the overall obstacle to Christian unity. one would say, without fear and trembling. that we do not appear willing to pay that price. Only two years ago, the present Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, with prophetic vision, described the costliness of the pilgrimage we have undertaken together. Speaking at Sydney, on December 2, 1970, he said:

"In these days it is clear that ecumenical work is a continuing and costly task. . . . History cannot be written overnight, and the honest hesitations of a sensitive conscience always demand our respect and understanding. There is no easy way. The reconciling work of Our Lord was achieved through suffering and the cross. The unity. which the ecumenical movement strives to serve, has to be bought at a similar price."

The same message has been recently given by the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches: "Fellowship is not cheap. . . . The cost of fellowship is the Cross. It is only as the Cross becomes a' central part of our life that we will really draw closer together in unity and witness." (Inaugural Address of Dr. Philip Potter, August, 1972).

As. then. we approach, in a few days.* the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, there is a demand upon us, first to consider the price and see whether we are willing to

* This is the text of an address given by Bishop Clark, Auxiliary of Northampton to the Westminster Christian Council at St. Peter's Church. Eaton Square, London, on Wednesday, January 10.

pay it, and secondly, to recognise our own incapacity to do this without the redeeming grace of Christ, without which we would not even want Christian unity. Not for one moment do I wish to minimise the joy of now being pilgrims on the same road and sharing the same experience of the difficulties of the way.

Yet I would suggest that this coming year is crucial, and will require of us once again that conversion of mind and heart, that replacement of a heart of stone by a heart of flesh, without which. like any other human enterprise. a great shout fades away into a whimper, and what was heralded as a great step forward, is no more than a shifting of position within the same space—like a tired man who moves his weight from one leg to the other. but makes little headway against the wind.

Obstacles to unity

It is in this context, therefore, that I would approach, more specifically, the visible obstacles to Christian unity. By "visible" I mean those one has seen and felt and encountered. It is all too easy to speak about 'what should be the obstacles to unity. but in the end this is sheer waste of time. Our very disunity

and lack of success means that there are still things. or attitudes, or facts of history that block the way. However, the word "obstacle" is not such a discouraging word as it might first appear. You can only have an obstacle on a road that is either already there or under construction.

We can speak of obstacles on the road to unity because the road has already been at least begun and, in point of fact, has made considerable progress. When, therefore, one attempts to isolate what are those obstacles which we should remove, here and now, this is not meant to indicate that nothing has happened, that nothing deep is stirring, or that nothing great has already been achieved.

Remembering all this, let us accept. sadly. that the cause of Christian unity suffers from the same weakness as any other initiative to unite men. It encounters a depressing apathy in just the same way as the efforts of other communities to revolutionise their ideas. One has to face the same lack of consistency of purpose. One has to challenge the same temptation to remain immobile. because, as a group, we are inclined to imagine that this is 'necessary for our security.

Yet, when it comes to Christian unity, this apathy is far more pernicious even than the excesses of the socalled ecumaniac, who would "remove" obstacles by pretending they are not there. At least the latter forces us into facing the issues and justifying our disunity. If it is the will of Christ that his Church should be one, then it is dis

unity which must be justified, not the unity which we already possess.

All Christians, therefore, arc under the judgment of God if, within their own limited possibilities, they do not on every occasion seek to be in union and communion with one another. If they must differ, then this must be done in all sincerity and truth, and requires of each of us a humble searching of the heart.

The first obstacle. then, to movement towards Christian unity is not exclusive to it, but it is there nonetheless— apathy and disinterest.

Lack of concern

However, it would he a misreading of our present situation if we were to accept that we are facing here common run-of-the-mill sloth or listlessness. Things have moved too far for such a general reaction to be a major Obstacle to Christian unity. The kind of apathy which we encounter in many. Christian congregations, even sometimes in those committed, apparently, to ecumenism, is a much more positive and dangerous reaction.

The seeming lack of concern, the judicious refusal to be committed, is the outward face of an inner attitude of resistance. One is confronted by a scarcely veiled acceptance of where we find ourselves now, with the degree of unity which we, by the grace of God, already enjoy. "Let this be enough. There must always he disagreement. separation, division. Real unity is beyond our grasp. We must be humble enough to be content with what we've got."

The clergy, perhaps. are more guilty of this sort_ of apathy. if apathy it is, than the people they are charged to lead. But the fault belongs to the whole Christian community. It is a sorry picture, because it seems to be a kind of cowardice, a hesitanzy. almost a refusal to trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, there has been outstanding leadership at the top, and the note of urgency has been repeatedly struck.

This attitude of resistance can effectively kill the generosity of those who look for guidance and leadership at a more local level as they yearn for the unity of Christ's Church. Yet it is far more than mere human frailty. It is dalliance with the temptation of the noon-day devil of the psalmist, the devil who has no desire to sec the success of continuing effort and enduring hope.

In the final analysis it is a denial of the Christian imperative that postulates the will to heal what is broken. This is not, let it be said without ambiguity, an encouragement of those who would seek unity, as one French ecumenist put it so trenchantly, a bon rnarche—"on

the cheap." It is rather a summons to obedience; obedience to the will of Christ.

It would probably be best to put what seems to be the second obstacle under the general umbrella of mistrust. This is not to condemn those who do not trust their fellowmen, however eminent or competent in their own field. Stupidity is as much a mark of human endeavour in the field of ecumenism as in any other human initiative. Nevertheless one is very sensitive to a prevailing feeling of mistrust towards those who have dedicated themselves to working for doctrinal agreement. There is the same kind

of mistrust for others who are trying to express in their lives together the faith they already share.

There are too many who voice the fear that those whom Church authority commissions to engage in ecumenical dialogue at the theological and doctrinal level, are, at the least, quite out of touch with what ordinary people feel and

believe. and are even guilty of betraying the faith of the communities or churches they represent. Not for one moment am I asking for special treatment for such people. Any agreements of this kind must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. 'But isn't it time we dispensed with accusations of 'deliberate ambiguity or scarcely hidden betrayal? There will be no ecumenical dialogue if charity does not begin at home.

Contradictory positions

write it would be dishonest to

ite off mistrust as merely stupid or emotional. If one can particularise a little, there is surely a content to the mistrust many feel regarding diaogue with churches which are reputed to allow a degree of comprehensiveness that appears to embrace contradictory positions. Argument at this general level—whether the accusation is true or not— could go on to the end of. time and would certainly cause the collapse of the ecumenical movement. In any case it is

much saner, and far more Christian, to point to apparent contradiction and to task those involved how it can be reconciled with Christian faith.

A much more positive and simple approach is demanded. There could never have been an ecumenical movement unless Christians did believe in one and the same Lord, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who disclosed himself in the Person of his Son. It is in him we all believe: it is in him we all find our salvation. But behind all the words we use to profess that belief, it is of immense importance to be able to say what we mean.

Agreement at the level of faith, which is cardinal to the recon ciliation of divided Christianity.

requires that we labour with determination at disclosing to one another the meaning of the faith, in so far as we are able— a faith which is the Holy Spirit's gift to all of us. "What think you of Christ? Whose Son is he?"

Whatever the words. there must be a definite meaning if Christianity is to be credible. Otherwise we confess ourselves incapable of any understanding of the Word God has spoken in his Son. If we do not understand, how can the world come to believe? To say, then, that agreement is impossible with those who can't agree among themselves is not a very respectable defence mechanism.

No Christian Church, furthermore, can ever be content with its present understandings. It must take hold of its faith once again, continually think it through, and be ready to express it in a way that others, brought up in a different language or tradition, will be able to comprehend. Deeper issues are involved here than are immediately apparent, but not to recognise them only increases the mistrust. For the basis of Christian unity can only be a common understanding of the faith, and that faith must 'be articulated if a common understanding is to be reached.

It cannot, te -Pere, be a matter for surp that all of us have met tho. who, rightly or wrongly, are deeply troubled that the foundational truths of the church to which they belong are being watered down or grossly diluted in order, they feel, to achieve a superficial agreement, unrecognisable as the expression of the faith in which they believe. If there is one important and practical conclusion to be drawn here. it is that there is a vast amount of ecumenical work to be done within each church or Christian community. We do not want to hear the derisory comment : "Physician heal thyself."

It must be clear to you by now that in isolating one or two of what seem to me to be major obstacles to Christian unity, 1 am really analysing our basic Christian attitudes. It would not be too difficult a task to indicate specific areas of disagreement and difference which bar the way to a common understanding. My point is that such disagreements, at the level of doctrine or morality. are incapable of being confronted unless we first examine ourselves.

We are the ecumenists, and the problems are not mathematical or scientific, they are inextricably involved in the way people feel -and feel strongly — about God and his love for men. what he has done and continues to do. Other speakers have surely spoken to particular areas of debate, and shown the almost fantastic progress that has been made over the last ten years (Eucharistic Agreement). Mine has been a humbler task — an attempt to reveal those obstacles, within the human spirit. that make ecumenical dialogue and co-operation extremely hazardous. At least they will help us to face an accounting and a costing of that enterprise we call the ecumenical movement, which they are in fact hindering.

Deepening of faith

Are we ready, first to admit that it is going to cost us, one by one. each and all, immense labour and much persistence? Nothing of this magnitude the healing of the wounds on the Body of Christ — can possibly be achieved without a dying to ourselves, a humbling of our pride, a laborious sifting of our ideas. and the heartbreak of a love more than human. It is all summed up in the rich word "conversion," meaning. literally. to turn back from where we are to where we should be. re-orientating our spirit.

Far from any belittlement of the faith that is in us, this great effort of the Christian spirit will demand a deepening of our faith beyond imagining. It will demand a courage we do not yet possess to profess that faith. Humanly speaking, this enterprise is condemned to failure. The signs of the times, seen in too human a perspective — the increasing 'hostility of the secularist—would appear to spell out that eventual failure. There is too much apathy, too little trust, too much failure to try to understand.

Only the stirring grace of the Holy Spirit can save us from ourselves. It is the moment, therefore, for all Christians, the little flock to turn to Christ, who did not lose the faith which was in him as he undertook the "impossible" mission of the saving work of God, his Father, It has never been truer that what is impossible to man is as nothing to God, the Omipotent Lord and Creator, But in Christ he has revealed a programme which involves men and women, such as ourselves, if it is to be completed. Like those who presented themselves to St. John the Baptist (surely the most suitable patron of the Ecumenical Movement), we have to summon up enough courage and say: "and what must we do?"

If we are looking for an easier word than ecumenism to understand what we must do, let us name it a work of reconciliation between all those who confess his Name. Reconciliation requires the abiding presense of the great virtues of integrity, forbearance, patience and persistence. We, too, like our Saviour, must consecrate ourselves anew, knowing that the present situation is shameful and disfiguring, and that whatever happens it must not remain : knowing at the same time that goodwill and 'human compatibility are simply not enough, that if it is true that what unites us is far greater than that which divides us. it is also true that we are often united for the wrong reasons, and we are often divided for the right reasons.

. The mission seems impossible, and were it not for the lesson of the cross, we would have to relapse into silence and leave it all to the mystery of God's omnipotence, But this is not the mood of the Christian ecumenist, who knows that Pentecost is an enduring event in Christ's Church, and that there are moments and times in history when the strength of God's Spirit is manifest in power. Today is such a moment.

blog comments powered by Disqus