I,AST WEEK, within days of a Hierarchy
meeting which gave new guidelines for Church unity work, Cardinal Heenan invited Dr. Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, to preach in his cathedral. Even weeks ago, such an open-handed gesture seemed many years away.
In fact, the bishops of England and Wales as a whole have shown courage and wisdom in the document they have just approved for the guidance of priests and people on the practical steps which can be taken to unity between the Christian Churches.
The one principle that they insist on, taking up the point emphasised by the Vatican Directory on Ecumenism last May, is that "our first contribution is our own spiritual renewal." This is not so much an instance of the old caution in dealing with the separated brethren as a breaking of vital new ground in our own way of thinking.
What the bishops are saying here is that the aim of the Catholic Church in this country is to co-operate in the efforts of other Churches at the diocesan and parish level to work in partnership. But to do this properly, say the bishops, the Catholic Church must be sure to find its own soul and keep it : and this process has been going on especially since the Vatican Council.
Since then the Church has been chipping at the dead crust of mere observances in our religion so as to get to the heart of it. In accordance with the Constitution on the Church, this has involved two parallel processes : reexamining—and where necessary attempting to restate—the accepted versions of our dogma, morality and sacramental practices; at the same time going out to non-Catholic bodies to see where we can learn from them important elements of the Gospel which for historical reasons have been underplayed by Rome.
In other words, unity is not the be all and end all. Much more immediate is the necessity of putting into operation the kind of Christianity which Christ gave us, to the best of our understanding. This undoubtedly involves the aim of unity, which was what he so earnestly prayed for.
But it would be an empty unity which was achieved by denying what we believe to be the will of Christ, whether we are Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists or any other kind of convinced Christian. Although there is confusion in the practice of the Gospel today, the one thing we do know is that it does not mean unity at any price. This would be lowering religion to the level of party politics, where the number of yeses counts for everything and real values for little or nothing.
But having reached this stage, there is ground for more positive hope. As the Churches progress in their give and take on matters like baptism, preaching and nonEucharistic services, where there is no question of compromising one's beliefs, a new light seems to be dawning on the ideal of unity.
This is the possibility that true Christian unity may turn out to be a harmony in the spirit of Christ rather than a monolithic organisation of Christians. It does not seem to be looking too far ahead to foresee a time when all the Christian bodies will openly recognise and share the particular gifts of the Spirit which each possesses.