An ecumenist gives thanks

 — Jan. 13, 200113 janv. 2001

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity promoted by Abbé Paul Couturier is about to be observed once more. It is extraordinary — and easy to forget — how far the Christian Churches have come along the ecumenical road. A Methodist lay preacher and prominent ecumenist charts his own journey of enlightenment.

It seems a far cry now from the mid-1950s when Roman Catholic ecumenism was in the main led by the Abbé Paul Couturier and other French pioneers, though a church historian could look further back to the Malines Conversations in Belgium between Catholics and Anglicans, and to the work of the Sword of the Spirit during the Second World War, when Cardinal Hinsley co- operated with William Temple, by then Archbishop of Canterbury. I well remember being involved with Oxford’s Catholics in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in its refashioned form — praying for the unity Christ willed for his Church by the means he chose. With some trepidation some of us ecumenical cognoscenti went to St Aloysius’ in St Giles, where we were invited to take part in Benediction. Well, there was no harm in entering in at the deep end, was there?

During my time as a student at Oxford, Pope Pius XII died. I was then a somewhat raw ecumenist, whose first experience on such ground had been to give a vote of thanks to a local vicar, J. B. Phillips, while I was at Reigate Grammar School in Surrey. Now I wrote to the Catholic chaplaincy expressing my solidarity with Catholic students in their loss. At the chaplaincy was one Père Nolet. He was very lively. I once asked him if he had read Teilhard de Chardin. Oh yes, he answered, telling me he had read his work in manuscript in the 1930s. Thus I came to realise there were many faces to the Catholic Church, the longest surviving multi-racial, multi-cultural organisation history has known.

Coming from a somewhat limited Anglican background, at Oxford becoming a Quaker, then subsequently entering Methodism, which had drawn me since my time as a national serviceman, I had little grassroots knowledge of Roman Catholicism. Even when I went to our local presbytery in Reigate, the town in which I grew up, to ask if Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris was available, I was firm in my comment to the parish priest that I was not a Catholic. (He suggested I try the Catholic Truth Society bookstall in the church, where indeed I found what I wanted.) Slowly, as I came to read Thomas à Kempis, Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton, amongst other writings, I came to admire and respect the great mystical tradition within Catholicism, as well as the contribution of French Catholics, ranging from Francis de Sales to Père Grou to the Abbé Pierre and other French worker priests. De Caussade, especially, I found to my taste and his Self-abandonment to Divine Providence I still relish. Above all, however, I was influenced by the mighty lay theologian and writer Baron Von Hügel, whose Letters to a Niece, as well as his more philosophical works, I came to respect greatly.

Catholics in Britain were still very cautious in their ecumenism, despite the immense worldwide underground river led especially by Germans and French. Cardinal Heenan had written a life of Cardinal Hinsley, but his time as Archbishop of Westminster had ended under a cloud when he, and other bishops, took actions which inevitably led to the closure of the pioneer catechetical college, Corpus Christi, in Notting Hill, west London. This was most unfortunate because at the time I was director of the neighbouring Notting Hill Ecumenical Centre and was about to approach Corpus Christi with a view to co-operation. My dream was that between us we could have built up a unique British adult Christian training centre, focusing on our need to minister more effectively in the big urban centres. It was not to be: Corpus Christi bit the dust and I took the Notting Hill Ecumenical Centre to the Anglican church of St James’s, Piccadilly, where I felt it had a better chance of survival. It lasted there until 1977, though work started under its aegis has continued even until now.

In the 1970s I was twice the British representative on the World Council of Churches‘ team which met a Vatican group from the Secretariat for Christian Unity to prepare material for the January Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. By then Père Michalon with his massive biblical knowledge was the formidable leader of the Catholics. Some of us on the World Council side felt the material we issued needed to be more contemporary. So we tried to weave each year’s contributions from a particular region of the world into material that would be usable across all continents and situations.

One year the World Council senior figure became incensed when the prayers and readings over which we had sweated and argued for days were discarded in Rome under some small-print agreement between the Faith and Order department (which at the World Council had the ultimate responsibility for the material) and the Secretariat for Unity. The department wanted the material used in countries such as Poland where the Catholic Church was dominant. If it was too avant-garde for them, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could easily go by default.

Besides coming to understand some of the Vatican’s ways in the 1970s I realised more deeply Catholicism’s many faces, even in Britain and Ireland, where I became involved in a politics of forgiveness project from about 1976. In 1973, for example, the ecumenical centre sponsored That’s the Spirit, a week-long festival in 10 central London churches, to give a voice to those involved in new forms of worship and prayer. During the week there were two Masses at the French Church, just off Leicester Square. One was a Mass with dance; another a Teilhard de Chardin Mass, which included in the worship reflections made by the French Jesuit, together with slide material. A right-wing Catholic group caused such disruption at the start of the service that the police had to be called. They said they could do nothing as the demonstrators were on private property, but eventually the protest ended and the Mass continued, late but defiant.

Another strand which influenced me, going back to my Notting Hill days, was the work of the Centre for Jewish Studies run by some of the Sisters of Sion. This drew me into the orbit of Holocaust theology and study of the behaviour of Christians to Jews in history. I had been alerted to our need to rediscover our Jewish roots as Christians in the 1950s by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now this initiative was expanded and enriched, partly in the 1980s by a scholarship which took me to the centre at Tantur, just on the edge of Jerusalem, set up under the support of Pope Paul VI. Here I studied forgiveness in monotheistic religions. I stay in touch with one peace group in Israel still.

Individual Catholics such as Dorothy Day in America, Ernesto Cardenal and the liberation theologians in Latin America continued to influence me. So too did the prayers of Michel Quoist, whose Prayers of Life were then much in vogue. Indeed, my first book, Citizen Incognito, was very much in Quoist’s colloquial manner. At about the same time with Dr (now Professor) Leo Pyle I co-edited essays on Methodism and Catholicism called Dissent and Descent. It was, I think, the first attempt in a book to see the similarities in the two traditions in Britain. But even though there were contributions from Dr Gordon Wakefield and Dr Monica Lawlor and others of similar stature, we found it difficult to arouse substantial interest in our respective constituencies.

My ecumenical involvement continued with a request to write the history of the first 10 years of the Ammerdown conference and retreat centre near Bath; and to be a consultant to the Sisters of Maria Assumpta when they refashioned Hengrave Hall in Suffolk and made it an ecumenical centre and community after years of running a boarding school there. As I look back on all this — and preaching at Corpus Christi during Mass in the January Week of Prayer; taking part as lecturer in a retreat at Worth Abbey during Holy Week; with others organising a day on Cambodia in Westminster Cathedral — I realise how events have moved on from the frozen hearts and minds we all had in the 1950s.

But what of the doctrinal obstacles to Christian unity? As I reflect on the centuries of both faith and conflict within the Roman Catholic Church, I have come to appreciate that Catholicism contains, often unawares, a core approach which it holds on trust for all Christians. It is not that the Catholic Church is the Church of infallibility, it seems to me; rather, it should be seen as the Church of fallibility. That in my view is the significance of St Peter in history. For St Peter was a big sinner, who was also close to Christ.

During the Jubilee Year Catholics have looked afresh at their Church’s false moves and bad history, as Pope John Paul II has urged them to repent and seek forgiveness for wrong-doing in the Church’s past. In this way the Roman Catholic Church has incarnated perhaps more than others the fact that the Church of Christ is the Church of penitence.

Christians, it is clear, are fallible, sometimes gullible, sometimes appalling, yet always potentially glorious human beings made in the image of God, and so is the Church as the Body of Christ. That I believe is the core which Catholics hold for the rest of us, some of whom are far too respectable, often apt to miss the passion of Christ for those who do wrong. Because of this, for me Catholics hold the keys of the kingdom and the Holy Spirit is with them, because of which the Church is indestructible.

But are there things Catholics still need to learn from the rest of us — Eastern Orthodox, world Protestantism in its many forms, Anglicanism? Let alone from the other world faiths? And if so, what are they? Perhaps we can only find out if we continue to struggle with each other, face openly our disagreements and conflicts, and allow what the Quaker, Douglas Steere, a notable ecumenist who was present at much of the Second Vatican Council, once called mutual irradiations.

Posted: Jan. 13, 2001 • Permanent link:
Categories: Opinion, TabletIn this article: exchange of gifts, spiritual ecumenism, WPCU
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Catégorie : Opinion, TabletDans cet article : exchange of gifts, spiritual ecumenism, WPCU

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