A Wounded Unity

19 October 2016 • Persistent link: iarccum.org/?p=3999


This piece was prepared for a study day on “Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue after Fifty Years” at Norwich Cathedral, October 8, sponsored by the cathedral and the Living Church Foundation. Our thanks to the Rev. Canon Peter Doll and the Rt. Rev. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, for their extraordinary hospitality.

Not much more than 100 years ago, Pope Leo XIII issued the papal bull Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void.” Yet 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI placed his episcopal ring on the finger of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. The Second Vatican Council, in Unitatis Redintegratio, declared that among the communions of the West, “the Anglican Communion occupies a special place.” Pope Paul VI, following Vatican II’s logic, even referred to Anglicans as “our beloved sister church.”

Yet this month’s events in Rome marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican Centre in Rome could not be celebrated by sharing the body and blood of our Lord. Instead it was marked by Scripture and prayer, a service of Vespers with Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby seated side by side at the altar of the very church where St. Gregory the Great sent forth St. Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to England.

I was privileged to be there with a contingent of TLC writers and editors, and I found it a very moving, bittersweet occasion. One hundred years ago it was difficult to conceive that such a thing could ever take place. Fifty years ago it seemed that God may well be doing a mighty new work, healing the wounds of division that have so long separated us. This month in Rome we celebrated the very real communion that we share, and committed ourselves to intensifying our shared witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, with Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin sending out bishops two by two to work and pray that we all may be one.

Justin and Francis, in a moving display of generosity, also exchanged gifts: the pope gave the archbishop a replica of the crozier of Gregory the Great, and the archbishop placed around the pope’s neck his well-worn Coventry cross of nails. Yet at the same time, in their common declaration, they recognized that “serious obstacles” prevent us from sharing one sacramental and embodied life together in the one body of Christ, among them the nature of authority as exercised in our churches, the ordination of women, and questions concerning human sexuality. It is difficult to conceive that, apart from a sovereign act of God, we will in our lifetimes overcome these obstacles and share one bread, one cup.

Archbishop Welby spoke at Morning Prayer the day after the ecumenical Vespers, led by the young people he has gathered to Lambeth Palace in the Community of St. Anselm, among whom are numbered not only Anglicans but Roman Catholics and other Christians from many lands. The Community of St. Anselm, he remarked, experiences a pain of division in their common worship, due to their inability to share one bread, one cup, and one faith; and notwithstanding the real communion that they share, the pain is not taken away with time. Rather, the pain of their divisions is sharpened, felt more deeply as sin and wrong, precisely as they grow closer together in Christ.

With this story, the archbishop named well the experience of the events in Rome. It was at one and the same time a joyous and hope-filled celebration of communion, and a poignant experience of the great distance we have yet to travel. It is precisely the sweetness of the still-young but very real common faith and life that we do share that makes it so painfully difficult to leave, to go our separate ways and go back to our largely separate lives.

How should we think about this? I would like to suggest that there are two temptations that we must endeavor to avoid, both of which represent in different ways a turning aside from the ecumenical call of our Lord that we all may be one.

The first temptation is to respond to the serious obstacles that still remain in the way of full communion by doubling down on our distinctiveness, emphasizing the blessed righteousness of our path and the benighted error of the other side. We may as well keep on going our own way, so it might be said, for the dream of reunion is now impossible, and undesirable if it means compromise with injustice. At times in Anglican circles this is said with respect to our quite recent decisions about same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. Rome’s conservatism cannot be allowed to stand in the way of justice, so it is thought, for justice delayed is justice denied.

Of course the shoe can go on the other foot. Walking through the Vatican Museum, I came upon a room in the old papal apartments painted floor-to-ceiling with a depiction of the dogmatic declaration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. There in the center of the room was the pope in the act of declaring the dogma ex cathedra, surrounded by the whole Church on earth and the heavenly host above rejoicing, at the pinnacle of which the blessing of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit descended from on high. Nowhere was there any hint of the church divisions exacerbated by this move. Nowhere did I see any depiction of what Vatican II was later to call the “separated brethren” of the East and the West, not consulted in the matter, for whom it would be a stumbling block. The painting did not depict a humble proposition offered in faith to God’s catholic and apostolic Church, but a triumphant definition by a part of the body that took itself to be capable of speaking for the whole. I do not mean by this to suggest that this painting represents the entirety of Catholic ecclesiology; it does not, as the Second Vatican Council made abundantly clear. Rather I mean to suggest that it represents a temptation we all face. Down this pathway lies the sin of steamrolling ahead in the pursuit of our objectives, quickly as possible, come what may, and perhaps dismissing others as beyond hope. So too lies the sin of focusing on exaggerated versions of the specks in the eyes of other Christians, and ignoring the logs present in our own.

If the first temptation is a kind of giving up of the ecumenical vocation as simply impossible, the second temptation represents a way of dismissing it as unnecessary. The really important thing, so it might be said, is not interminable dialogue about doctrine and authoritative ecclesial order, but that we all work together to share God’s love in a suffering, divided world. We will all have different theological views, and that is actually mature and healthy, so long as we respect each other’s positions and live together in reconciled diversity. Doctrine divides, but service unites. What really matters is that we join together to serve the poor and the suffering, to bring in the excluded, to do justice, to love mercy, and to be advocates for the dignity of every human being. In this great goal, theology and church order pale in importance, and more often than not just get in the way.

This should not be dismissed in toto as mere temptation. The 19 pairs of bishops were sent out in significant part to find fresh ways of working together in what Catholics call corporal acts of mercy. Surely, we ought not wait for the results of the next round of theological dialogue to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst. The temptation lies elsewhere. It lies in forgetting that the center of the gospel is not to be found in the work of our hands, but rather in the sovereign and saving work of God in Jesus Christ. We do not join together in order that our good works may be made more effective. Though we of course endeavor to be effective, we join together in order that we may be a truer witness to Christ, who died that we all may be one. Faith and order concerns serve that great gospel imperative, and therefore remain essential. It is a great act of self-deception to imagine that the common works of Christians will ever be very effective in the world’s eyes. During a seminar day convened by the Anglican Centre in Rome, we were informed that yet another humanitarian convoy had been bombed in Syria. Archbishop Welby reminded us of the 5 million dead in the civil wars in Congo, of whom we almost never speak.

We will never bind up all of the wounds of our suffering world. If effectiveness were the chief criterion for Christian sanctity, then the holiest man of our times would be Bill Gates. Yet the world has just witnessed the Church’s solemn recognition of the holiness of Mother Teresa, whose corporal acts of mercy in solidarity with the suffering and the poor were extraordinarily Christlike, even though Christopher Hitchens and other critics were right: she and her sister Missionaries of Charity were never very effective.

We were joined at the papal Vespers by several sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, who have a convent attached to the church. One of the sisters showed a member of our group to the room where Mother Teresa stayed when she was in Rome. She was heading out after the service to visit some homeless Muslim refugee boys she had gotten to know. What we have to offer our suffering broken world, this sister knew, was the crucified and wounded and resurrected Christ. In our bittersweet Vespers service, nighttime in our darkening world, we discovered again that amid the wounds of sin and error that divide us, which we cannot now imagine overcoming, what we share is the wounded, crucified body of Christ. That is what we have now. But thanks be to God, it is precisely from this place that the Church began, bowled over on Easter Sunday by the completely unexpected miracle of new life. May we all turn to Christ and show him our wounds, confessing our sins, that he may heal us and forgive us and lift us up from the dead, that we all may be one.