Week of prayer for Christian unity


Photo: © Tonya Fitzpatrick, World Footprints. All Rights Reserved

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and it will be marked this Sunday by a pulpit swap, with Richard Fermer from the Grosvenor Chapel coming to the Church of the Immaculate conception to preach at the 11am Mass and myself going across the garden to preach at the Grosvenor Chapel.

My first thoughts are to be grateful for what has been achieved.  We live in a part of London where there are reminders of a time when it was very different.  We are conscious of Tyburn and Smithfield, of the places where Catholics and Protestants put each other to death in ways designed to horrify and instil fear.  The early history of the Jesuit’s in Britain was of operating underground in a time of violent religious conflict.  Even in more recent times Catholics in this country, perhaps because they saw themselves as slightly beleaguered religious minority, sometimes emphasised their separateness and superiority.  This was matched by a strong residual anti-Catholicism in many of our fellow countrymen.  Thank God, by and large, this has changed.  I have experience this in my own life time, particularly since the renewed understanding of our common faith in Christ than came with the ecumenical movement and Vatican II.  As most of my relatives are Anglican or non-conformist and as I owe some of my own spirituality to my early years in the local village Anglican primary school, it is something I very much welcome.

We can rejoice that different Christian denominations can work together, pray together and respect each other, even while acknowledging the differences between us.  In some ways the divisions which produce the most heat are, today, not those between denominations but are about issues which cut across those boundaries.  Different denominational authorities may have taken different decisions but the underlying questions about the role of women, how to deal with areas of sexual morality when people’s practice and experience do always match the ideal of life long heterosexual marriage, questions of liturgical and devotional practice, are still live issues within denominations, including Catholicism.  The implications of Christian faith for the political questions of the day also divide.   To take an example from outside this country.  The 2016 elections revealed a great divide in American society but Hillary Clinton writes of the importance of her Methodist faith in shaping her political views and President Trump also asserts his Christian faith.  The divisions of the “culture wars” cut across denominational boundaries.

It is perhaps worth reflecting on what can lead differences to become violent divisions.  One is fear. 

I think we cannot understand the events of Tudor times without remembering the dreadful experience of civil war, the Wars of the Roses, which preceded them.  Securing power and avoiding conflict were the priority for the state.  On the Catholic side there was a fear of the damage division would do and, as it would have been seen at the time, how heresy might endanger people’s immortal souls.  That was used as a justification for terrible violence but alongside it was a fear of loss of power, status and political power if things were allowed to change.

Another fact which goes along with this is cultural and national identity.  Asserting our separateness was important for British Catholics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The denominations which seem most resistant to ecumenism are sometimes those linked closely to ideas of national identity.  For Western Christians the disputes of the tenth century about the “procession” of the Holy Spirit may seem obscure, but tied in with the division with the Orthodox is a different understanding of the relationship of faith to identity, especially where that identity seems threatened.  For some that threat is too real and raw for an easy sharing with others.

We need to pray for God’s light, for God’s gifts of unity and peace.  We must also examine ourselves.  We must recognise where arrogance, a sense of superiority, fear, a desire to protect our own identity or position gets in the way of being open and respectful to our fellow Christians, whether that is between denominations or within them.

Fr. Chris Pedley SJ