IS ECUMENISM dead? Is the "one, true Church" approach as firmly established as ever? Are our relations with other communions confined to polite words and friendly gatherings? Will any concrete steps toward unity, despite endless dialogue and continuous reports, ever be actually taken in the foreseeable future?
Who knows? Each person has his own answer and many Catholics openly admit, even boast, of being "completely anti-ecumenical." Many of the latter are of the younger generation and their views are interesting to hear. Perhaps we are all "tribalists" at heart.
Certain ecumenical gatherings, however, can be of particular interest when, as is often the case, they bring with them juicy slices of English religious history.
Tribalism is temporarily forgotten. All, for the moment, is eirenic euphoria; and ecumenism, as if in a conjuring trick, is vividly present for an hour or so in its quintessentially English form of genteel civility and politeness.
The Anglicans are particularly generous in lending their beautiful.buildings to Catholics for special occasions. (Nobody dares to breathe the thought that actual unity would produce large-scale redundancies.) A wistful and eloquent preacher at the London Oratory has meanwhile reflected the repugnance of many to abandon Roman tradition and, as he put it, "imitate Anglican parochialism. He was not being intentionally uncharitable, but merely, if somewhat extravagantly, extolling the Palestrina/Mozart tradition.
Celebrating St Augustine
TWO notable examples of generous Anglican hospitality should go into the diary for this month. Tomorrow, at Waltham Abbey in Essex, the Canons Regular of St Augustine have been invited to celebrate Mass to mark the 16th centenary of the conversion of St Augustine. Bishop McMahon of Brentwood will preside, backed by a combined boys' choir from Brentwood and Chelmsford Cathedrals. A large congregation is expected.
The actual name of Waltham Abbey church is "Holy Cross and St Lawrence", since "Holy Cross" was the battle cry of the Saxons at Hastings, after which King Harold's body was brought for burial to Waltham Abbey.
What remains of the Norman church is breathtakingly magnificent. How can one begin to describe it, even with a memory aided by photographs? Perhaps the most striking features are the zig-zag decorated arches, supported by pillars spectacularly grooved with spirals and zigzag, which tower up to the gallery and clerestory.
The stained glass in the east window, designed by BurneJones, is vibrant with life and intense colour. The tower, with its striking stone and chequerwork, was built during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.
`Catholics take York'
THAT LAST sentence perhaps makes me guilty of the very "tribalism" I was mentioning before.
Let me thus change the scene to that of the speldorous ambience of York Minster where, on the first Saturday of this month, the first Mass to be said by a Catholic priest since the Reformation took place. The principal celebrant was Bishop Augustine Harris of Middlesborough, assisted by Bishop Francis Walmsley. (Mass has been said by Catholic priests on several ocasions in the crypt but never before in the Nave of the Minster itselt.)
The occasion was the 400th centenary of the martyrdom of St Margaret Clitherow, patroness of the Catholic Women's League. Permission for it has been graciously given by the Dean and Chapter of York Minster.
The CWL was holding its National Council weekend at York university, whence 1200 attended at the Minster joined by 600 more members for the Mass. The nave was completely packed, extra chairs having been brought from all the chapels.
After the entrance procession, during which James Walsh's "Litany of the Saints" was sung, the Chancellor of the Minster, Canon John Toy gave a charming welcome on behalf of the Dean and Chapter.
Afterwards he sat in his canon's stall beside the lectern from which Dom Alexander McCabe, choirmaster from Ampleforth, conducted the singing.
At the offertory, the collection, which had been arranged in advance, was presented by the League's Secretary, Mrs Joan Crossman, to Canon Toy for the Minster Restoration Fund.
Priests from the Middlesborough Diocese concelebrated with the two Bishops and the Abbot of Ampleforth and were assisted in the distribution of communion by CWL members who have been commissioned as special ministers.
Roots run deep
DESPITE such memorable occasions, one must unfortunately admit that the "tribalism" touched on earlier tends to predominate.
If you are English you are taken to be Anglican. If you are Irish you are generally Roman Catholic. If you are Welsh you are nonconformist or a member of the "Church in Wales", not the "Church of Wales", because of disestablishment a century or so ago.
If you are Scottish, you tend to be Presbyterian. Very few want to change. Why should they? And if you are from, say, Northern Ireland, you are in the very thick of tribalism at its most intense and sometimes horrendous. As one Bishop there once told me, "they imbibed hatred of each other with their mother's milk."
He added that since the troubled days started in the early seventies, Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ministers had never been closer.
They organised ecumenical services where and whenever they could. But their flocks only mocked. They were saying, in effect, to their pastors, "it's too late."
`Order in the House'
TO TURN to more cheerful subjects it is a pleasure to mention the conferring on Sir Harold Hood of the highly distinguished papal title of Knight Grand Cross within the Order of St Gregory.
Too numerous are Sir Harold's contributions to Catholic life in Britain to single out any one in particular. The fact that he has been a director of the Catholic Herald group for more than 25 years is interesting but irrelevant to the bestowal of his most recent honour.
The rank in the Order to which Sir Harold has just been promoted is held by only four other Englishmen, Lord Longford, Group Captain Cheshire, Pat Keegan and Gerard Young.
Only noblemen, such as the Duke of Norfolk, and royalty, can receive a higher papal honour, and this usually means membership of the Order of Pius IX.
The Order of St Gregory, on the other hand, has a longer history, having been founded by that somewhat hoydenish and alarmingly reactionary Pope, Gregory XVI.
He founded it (in 1831) to honour the memory of Pope St Gregory the Great who was born in Rome in about the year 540, and was one of the greatest Popes of the Church's early history. He reigned from 590 until 604. In what lay his "greatness"?
AS A MERE papal deacon, Gregory led a procession of penance through Rome's streets to assuage the divine wrath which was thought to be responsible for the murderous plague then affecting the city.
With men dying of thirst all about him, Gregory suddenly had a vision as he and his followers approached the massive mausoleum of Hadrian on the right bank of the Tiber.
Above the mighty fortress tomb he seemed to see the Archangel Michael with a flaming sword which he was putting back into its sheath. This Gregory took to be a sign that the plague would soon be over. And it was. Hadrian's sepulchre was renamed Castel Sam' Angelo.
THIS Famous Roman landmark came into the news recently when the present Pope blessed the Archangel and his companions who adorn the roof of this mighty edifice. A few days later he blessed another famous Roman monument, visible from his own rooms in the Vatican, whence indeed he pronounced his blessing.
This was the famous obelisk which stands in the centre of St Peter's Square, and was originally brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula as a trophy from Egypt. Caligula placed it at the foot of the Vatican hill on the spot traditionally associated with the crucifixion of St Peter.
The blessing of the obelisk by Pope John Paul was to mark its 400th centenary on its present site. When it had been removed there, on the orders of Pope Sixtus V, there was nearly a disaster. More than 100 men and 70 horses were needed to haul this unwieldly object to its new home.
As it was being pulled up into an upright position the ropes began to buckle and threaten to break. Total silence had been ordered on the thousands of onlookers on pain of death. But one brave sailor defied the ban and shouted "water on the ropes!"
Such water was quickly applied, the ropes, thus strenghtened, being enabled to complete their job.
Can one imagine silence being imposed on any crowd in the Piazza San Pietro of today?
Times have changed, in more ways than one.