A GROUP of theologians is beavering away at Christian unity breaking the stones to put under a foundation. They are called the Anglican/Roman Catholic international Commission.
The Catholic team is headed by Bishop Alan Clark of East Anglia and the Anglicans by Bishop H. R.
McAdoo of Ossory, Ferns
They have already reached among themselves considerable agreement on the subject of the Eucharist and the validity of Orders. Now, this week, they are issuing a statement on "authority in the Church" much too late in the week for me.
But predictions of unity are now legion. The experts have been surprised by the size of their own areas of agreement. More and more people are talking of the Pope's status as Patriarch of the West with a Patriarch of Canterbury (and a lot of other Patriarchs too) beside him. It is all very beguiling.
Now this is Christian Unity Week, which means, in the place I live, a huddle of Christians before lunch every day, briefly, in the Anglican church. In previous years we have used the three main churches in turn. Our several fundamentalists simply will not play. In previous years we used to use each others' churches and chapels in turn. But there was always a solid and irreducible Christian core who went to the wrong meeting place. So we meet in the Anglican church which, anyway, is the warmest. And we pray, without dangerously committing ourselves or being specific, for unity.
But what happens on the other side of unity? Do we have a Canterbury Patriarch and a Westminster Cardinal? (Patriarchs now have the precedence.) Do the followers of the Roman Rite get bits of
the old cathedrals to use? Imagine the parish bitternesses between the new and the old Catholics. Certainly there will be fewer in the united Catholic Church than there were in the Roman and Anglican Communions separate. There will be a rush of conservatives to the Orthodox Church.
And as if to prepare for this, Rome, not so long ago, lifted its excommunication of Constantinople and Constantinople its of Rome. Not that that made any noticeable difference to the relentless distaste of the Greeks or the bottomless suspicion of the Russians for Rome.
Binding on nobody
This International Commission is binding on nobody. It is a group of professionals exploring received ideas. What they decide or suggest is fascinating, but it could disappear as utterly as the immediate results of the Malines Conversations. Or it could be an idea whose time has
Of course it is part of the endless process of reinterpreting traditional and revealed truths which come veiled in language. Such meetings should be educational. They should remove surviving tensions. They should clear away the theological undergrowth.
During and after Vatican II, the Catholic Church has chopped down a great deal of undergrowth, even though some of it was wonderfully beautiful. We are about as ready as we ever will be.
But despite the pious and learned work of the Cornmission, there remain the rock and the centre of the Catholic Church upon which no compromise or reinterpretation may be committed.
The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet in April. It is absurd to think of it as a summit at which agreement can be made. It is far more than skirting round questions of married clergy or women priests or rephrased definitions of old dogmas.
In the end the claim to be the Church founded by Christ cannot be abandoned. Far, far more than ever before, we recognise the truth and holiness which exists in other forms of Christianity and in other religions.
But the closer it comes, the clearer it can be seen, surely the more difficult unity begins to look. This is not despair. This isnot to disparage the work of the theologians. We have given all we have to give. The people will not be convinced by, or changed by, theological subtleties. There is a great deal of talk of unity, but I suspect there is a growing impatience with the idea. The various Christians now tolerate each other as never before. As a spectator I would have thought that what we now pray for is not unity but for co-operation in diversity. When we achieve that plateau and make it habitable organic unity will still be beyond the horizon. But a genuine co-operation, based not on goodwill but on understanding and honesty, which might turn the plateau into a launching pad.
Irish church building
THE USUAL standards of
architectural criticism used not to be applied to Irish church building. After all, the designs had been commissioned by good priests and paid for by the pennies of the poor and the legacies of shopkeepers.
From the last century it emerged almost invariably in a spiky, skinny, fish-boned gothic which afforded plenty of platforms for statues.
That it existed at all was the wonder of it. Nor did the faithful seem to worry. The Carmelite Church in the centre of Dublin has nothing architectural to commend it and yet it is as busy all day as the concourse of a great railway station, and the people who come in have not come to look around.
Now a new book tackles the whole vast subject of Irish church building with affection, understanding and scholarship.* The pre-Reformation churches are well covered, but I
was fascinated by a whole new approach to what happened in and after the 18th century.
There is a sympathetic account of the Church of Ireland
which was an evangelical, a class-ethnic Church. Its members were persistent builders even in parishes where they were hardly represented, putting up those lonely little gothic churches, a square tower and a plain nave and a graveyard behind a wall.
It was a Church with its own occasionally eccentric ethic.
The writers quote one epitaph they do not say from where. The monument is to Miss O'Looney. It reads: "She was bland. passionate and deeply religious, had several watercolours hung in
the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts, and was a first cousin of Lady Jones. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven".
But their clergy were often singularly learned and their rich laity often generous, with sites and money to their Catholic and disenfranchised majority. (1t did help to keep the tenants happy and out of trouble.) But then they had a great deal to be generous with and great reasons for generosity.
In the middle of the 18th century the Protestant bishop pulled down the medieval cathedral in Waterford because he was alarmed by the pieces of old masonry which fell from time to time. During the demolition they found some fine medieval vestments. The Protestant handed them over to the Catholic bishop. The wildly luxurious and much travelled Earl of Bristol, the Bishop of Derry, was generous to Catholic builders. After all, he wore the purple when he travelled Europe in state, leaving his name on countless hotels.
And in Belfast, the Protestant citizens gave generously toward the building of St Mary's Church there. And when it was opened in 1784, the First Belfast Volunteer Company, all Protestants, under the cornmand of their Captain, all in full-dress uniform, formed a guard of honour in the forecourt and presented arms to the priest as he went in to say Mass.
And if they were anything like all the other Volunteers of that time. it is certain that they made a right mess of it. But it's not how they did it that counts, it's the fact that they did it at all.
The Catholics in Ireland began church building earlier than the English Catholics. They built, well hidden, in the middle of cities, off alleys and behind shops, and Authority turned a blind eye, partly in the hope that it would damp down discontent.
The oldest intact postReformation Catholic church in Ireland is St Patrick's, again in Waterford. it is a jewel. It looks like a court theatre with a great gallery round three sides and another gallery at the end above that, and all white and delicate.
It only needs an overeducated archduke lolling in the front row, listening to Mozart, to make it complete, *"The Churches and Abbeys of Ireland" by Brian de Breffny and George Mott. (Thames & Hudson, London, £6.50).
Jesuit priest and writer
JOHN F. X. HARRIOTT, SJ (and there is no prize for guessing what "F. X." must stand for) has recently had two paperbacks published.
One is called "Fields of Praise" and is a collection of his occasional pieces on the radio and even in this newspaper. "A Pride of Periscopes" is a collection of his columns from The Tablet.
Now between the Catholic Herald and The Tablet there exists an ancient state of holy war, and holy wars are peculiarly dangerous and merciless. Too much is at stake for generosity or mercy.
Some very terrible things have already happened. When parties from the two sides meet at the altar steps of Westminster Cathedral or in one of the more fashionable side chapels, you will hear the steely sound of rapiers being loosened in their scabbards.
Although it is not true that the bravos of The lablet put poison on their daggers, it is none the less one of the chief functions of the Cathedral Administrator to keep the factions apart. One day he will nod off and there will he blood on the piazza near Victoria Station.
It is therefore uncommonly generous to mention the provenance of Fr Harriott's work. His columns are in fact well worth saving and keeping. He has one beyond journalism and writes in a relaxed and
elegant manner about almost everything under and even inside Heaven.
He is liberal, says the unexpected, makes no tiresome effort to shock or be fashionable or be anything but soundly Catholic in a pleasing and gentle manner.
1 fear'that the habit of buying specifically Catholic books is on the decline. Here are two you ought to have close by so that you can read a chapter and put it down and restart your day with a new gentle and genuine insight.
I think that the most pleasing thing about John Harriott's 'writing is his unassumed humility. This does not stop him being lively and occasionally cross.
I confess we meet at our ease from time to time, but I do heartily recommend these books, especially to those jaded by the internal controversies and bitter regrets that are in danger of boring the Church to death. John is not boring.