by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
The Incarnation unites us all round the crib at Bethlehem. But what kind of unity is there among Christians today? Here, the Archbishop of Canterbury looks ahead to January’s centenary Week of Christian Unity. It raises uncomfortable questions, he says, not least about communion.
A hundred years on from the establishing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, how much further forward are we? And what exactly are we praying for during this week of prayer? On the whole, it’s become a fixture for most “mainstream” denominations, a few days when the more enthusiastic or more biddable members of the congregation turn up to someone else’s church for a well-mannered but often rather lukewarm joint service or two, or perhaps for a talk by a prominent local leader.
The aspiration that we end up relating better with each other, or even that we end up more willing to engage in witness and work together is entirely worthy, and is probably widely fulfilled. But are we praying for anything more than this?
For some people, the answer is clearly “no”. To look beyond this fostering of local goodwill, they would say, is always in danger of slipping towards the yearning for some universal institution with clear central control – at worst, a Pullmanesque Magisterium, some people’s nightmare of Roman Catholicism.
And if we can’t and shouldn’t be looking in this direction, what we pray for is presumably more of the same. Whether or not we use the language of “reconciled diversity” popular in some circles, the message is that any higher level of organisational union than what is generated by friendship and cooperation is going to be both problematic and unrealistic.
This is actually a long way from the original vision of those who first proposed the annual Week of Prayer. And I suspect that it represents not only a certain failure of nerve but also a degree of confusion about the alternatives envisaged. One of our current problems is that we seem to be able to think only in terms of the polarity between loose associations of individuals and centralised, controlling organisations. To appeal to other kinds of unity puzzles and even sometimes offends.
Yet, when all’s said and done about the pitfalls of organic metaphors for the unity of Christians – the Body, the Vine, even the Family – we need to recover something of what they are about if we are to avoid the potentially worse pitfalls of falsely constructed oppositions. The New Testament uses the language of the Body of Christ so as to drum in a message about unity not simply as cooperation (with its implication that we all begin in isolation and then agree to work together) but as a sort of mutual creation: we constitute each other.
What I do is essential to who you are in Christ; what you do is essential to who I am in Christ; we are contributing to shaping what’s possible for people we’ll never know or meet. When the Christian community is one, it is functioning interactively, it is a process in which life is being communicated around the system, a life whose source is the free gift of Christ through his Spirit.
What I miss in the lower-key accounts of unity is just that conviction of how we need each other so as to receive this communication of life. From the beginnings of Christian faith, Christians have seen this as literally embodied in the central act of worship, in the Eucharist. We come together to be fed – fed by a reality wholly other to us yet made wholly accessible to us; fed so that we can feed one another.
The Eucharist isn’t an occasion when we set out to celebrate our togetherness and to encourage each other by the degree of our warm fellowship and close agreement. It is as we meet that we are fed by Christ, and because we are fed by him that we become able to feed each other. Somehow, no account of unity that doesn’t bring us to this place is going to be adequate.
And this is where the uncomfortable questions begin, the questions that lead us beyond a simple affirmation of each other’s good faith. To meet at the Eucharist so as to be fed by Christ means meeting in the confidence that our assembly is more than the gathering and action of one local community celebrating its sense of spiritual fellowship. It assumes that there are answers to questions about how a celebration of the Lord’s Supper is “open” not only to the universal dimension of the Communion of Christ’s Body but also to the transcendent reality of Christ himself in the Spirit.
If Christians can recognise in each other’s celebrations the ways in which these concerns are acknowledged and met, they are recognising Christ in each other – not only that recognition of Christ in the other which may happen with any individual of good faith touched by the Spirit, but the recognition of Christ specifically at work in and as his Body.
My point is twofold: first, that sharing in the Eucharist is the right and proper goal for all ecumenical endeavour, since it is there that we see fleshed out the fundamental reality of a community in which people are “feeding” each other, communicating life to each other, because they are fed by Christ; secondly, that this inevitably entails some complex reflection and questioning about how eucharistic life in its fullness may be recognised in this or that community.
Because we are rightly wary of the mechanical and juridical categories of ministerial validity which used to accompany this sort of question, we tend to fight shy of some of these questions about how we recognise in one another the full and abundant life of Christ in the Body. But to raise these matters is really just a way of asking whether we are doing justice to the full richness of the biblical understanding of unity. When the Lima Statement (of the World Council of Churches), “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”, appeared in 1982, there was, I think, a real feeling that we were moving forward in sketching out a common language for talking about these great themes. The same holds for the early Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) documents, especially the one on ministry. The sadness is that some of the impetus behind texts like these has faded, so that we are in danger of losing a common conversation about the essential tools of recognition – recognition conceived not in a legalistic framework but as a necessary aspect of how we open ourselves to the communication of life.
Along with the rest of my Anglican ecclesial family, I don’t agree with the official Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching which sees eucharistic communion as depending entirely on the attainment of a comprehensive agreement on doctrine. But I must also grant that this discipline at least shows that what is understood by the Eucharist (and thus, by extension, the recognised ministry of the eucharistic president) is to do with very basic aspects of faith as an activity of the Body, not of the individual.
To speak about mutual recognition is, of course, to grant implicitly that unity is not about absorption into a single mega-institution; it is about distinct and even divided communities freely consenting to be reconciled because they have recognised one life, Christ’s life, in each other. To keep on insisting that this is bound up with recognition of where eucharistic life is present in its fullness is not to prefer legalistic scrutiny over spiritual fellowship; it is simply to hold on to the conception of Christ’s Body as the organ of a unity in which everyone genuinely lives for and “into” the welfare and salvation of everyone else, because all are carriers of life for one another.
In our current rather bemused or becalmed ecumenical environment, we could do worse than revisit Lima and the Arcic texts on ministry and the Church as communion, and reacquaint ourselves with the questions that we all have to confront about how we can see this or that ecclesial body as authentically more than just local and contingent. And perhaps we shall learn as we do so that the alternatives are not careless pluralism and cast-iron centralism. Between them lies the biblical conviction that we are responsible to each other for the faithful communication (in every sense) of the one Christ, and that we have to be in search of the structures that will properly serve that end.
So what will I be praying for in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? For a deepened awareness of my need for Christ’s life received through the eucharistic community – deep enough to make me more eager to find the visible and sustainable forms that will keep me open to this life and hold me in it, “never to be separated”. A te nunquam separari …