Spirituality: the True Path of Christian Unity - Praying Together

Michael Woodgate



As I began to prepare this talk I stared around the room (as one does, hoping for inspiration) and there just above me I saw Rublev's icon of the Trinity. That, I thought to myself, is both the goal of unity and also, through baptism in the Blessed Trinity, the beginning of unity. At our baptism we are immersed into the One in Three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our life in God begins as an embryo. Now, that life must begin to grow and go on growing along with all other Christian people. Our Blessed Lord has given us the Church as the means by which we can grow and mature. At the heart of that growth there must be prayer and sacramental celebration. And that prayer and sacramental celebration, espy the celebration of the Eucharist, is what we must do together. We must be united in heart and soul not only with Christ Himself, but with our fellow Christians. But we are not. Different Christian traditions cannot even share the same Eucharist and some, who are not united in theological belief, may share in the same eucharistic celebration but are divided as to what they sharing. So we have that disunity which our Lord foresaw on the night before He died: "I pray, Father, that they be one". It is a disunity which is not only a scandal but also a nonsense - literally, makes no sense. We are all baptized into the one Father, Son and Holy Spirit and yet divided in some of our major beliefs, not least in our ecclesiology. We all have the same goal - complete union with Christ and one another in the Blessed Trinity in the heavenly places. Again, our disunity makes no sense. BUT IT IS VERY REAL.

Christ's Passion and Scars

All this we know, but sometimes it helps to put it in perspective. The root cause of our disunity is sin. Sin, as we know, must be overcome by love and that love reached its zenith, its highest point, when our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross and rose again on the third day. The Cross. That's where we must go after the icon of the Blessed Trinity - to the Cross. My concern for Christian unity goes back to my student days at Durham University in the late 1950s. The then Principal of St Chad's College had a sister-in-law (his wife's sister) named Marjorie Milne, an Anglican laywoman who had once tried her vocation in the religious life, and in 1958 she came to live in the shadow of the Cathedral (to my mind, one of the seven wonders of the world). She was a most remarkable woman and had made it her life's vocation to pray for reconciliation and above all for the reconciliation of all Christian people. Previously, both in Oxford and Coventry, she had spent three hours each day in the cathedral of these cities praying for unity. She now began to do the same in Durham at St Cuthbert's tomb. Marjorie had been greatly influenced by the life of the Abbé Couturier and her prayer for unity was that it should be in the way Christ wants and by the means He chooses. Her great concern was prayer for unity according to the Passion of Christ. One day Marjorie came to speak to the students of St Chad's about her apostolate and enthused some of us to such an extent that we gave up our lunch every Friday to pray for (was it only?) half an hour in the church of St Mary-le-Bow close to the college. One of the things I particularly remember about her talk was what she called SCARS - in fact, that is what Friday's prayer session was called. Why that title? Quite simply because we were praying that the wounds of disunity borne by the Body of Christ would heal and so become only scars. It wasn't so long after that that the Second Vatican Council was convened and the movement towards unity took a huge leap forward. I'm not claiming our poor prayers at Durham caused the 2nd Vatican Council, but I do believe they contributed as one more drop in the ocean. But Marjorie was not only an intercessor, she also lived a very ascetic life, rising at 6 am, washing in cold water and eating very simply. Her offering was not just her prayer, but her very simple lifestyle. In this she reflected the Abbé Couturier and even more so when she was diagnosed with cancer, for the Abbé, as we know, was a man who had suffered much. In word, both he and Marjorie were holy people.

Getting down to business

So is all this just past history, reflecting a different age and an earlier stage in the progress towards unity? History it may be and an earlier stage it may be, but it still, I believe, has much to teach us, much to re-awaken in us. Unity between Roman Catholic and other Christians, not least Anglicans, did not look very bright in the 1950s, even though a lot was happening especially between Anglicans and French Roman Catholics. Then in the wake of Vatican II unbelievable progress seemed to be made, with Robert Runcie during his episcopate at Canterbury actually speaking of the possibility of the Church of England having some kind of uniate status with Rome by the year 2000. The year 2000 has come and gone and since 11-11-92 the spiral towards unity has entered a dark cloud. But we must believe it is a spiral and not a descent. This is where the prayer becomes so important. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity each January, inspired so much by Paul Couturier, must surely return to what it was - a week of prayer. It is so good to know that during 2003 something is to be done about this, with several conferences and other events in commemoration of his Fiftieth Anniversary, including a fresh look by the authorites at the forthcoming 2004 Week of Prayer materials, partly suggested by a project called Couturier Links of Ecumenical Fellowship (CLEF - meaning in French, as some of us can hardly have failed to notice, the key - the key to the answer to OUR LORD's prayer that we may all be one). In our congregations there are a lot of elderly or retired people - and thank God for that because the day when our congregations lack that section of the community, I should really tremble, for it would mean the practice of the faith is dying out. This is a section which (theoretically anyway) has more time than most, and perhaps some of them could be invited to spend extra time and a special time in prayer each week for unity. At one time there was the practice in quite a number of Anglican churches (a practice deriving I believe from France, a land of so many excellent Christian initiatives) of lighting a candle every Thursday (the day when according to the Gospel our Lord prayed for the future unity of His Church) as a focus for prayer for reconciliation. Why not revive and extend that practice to all churches, and even those normally closed might keep open sometime each Thursday so that prayer can be offered? And why not all of us find a time that day or perhaps Friday to pray for unity? What about that Friday practice of self-denial? Couldn't that be offered for unity - our eating less, our self-denial of alcohol, chocolate, or some other little extra? Even treat it as fast day. Hardly tough, but it is an offering which can be used by God.

Pain of disunity

But before we can get down to really sincere prayer for unity, I think we have to ask ourselves: do I experience emotional or spiritual pain over the disunity of the Church? I often hear of people feeling pain when they are excluded from receiving Holy Communion in a Roman Catholic church, but this can be much more a personal hurt than pain in the proper sense. I also hear of Roman Catholics feeling pain because a friend or relative who has come to Mass with them is unable to receive. That comes closer to pain, because it is on behalf of another. But do we experience a little (for it can only be a little) of the pain experienced by Our Blessed Lord when He prayed that His Church might be one and doubtless foresaw its subsequent disunity? For a moment let's look at the reality of the situation, for it can help our prayer if we do. Those of us of an older generation brought up before Vatican II (and, of course, I am generalising wildly) have grown up acclimatised to disunity. We remember how Roman Catholics were not allowed to take any part in School Assembly Prayers and we took it all for granted. I can remember a former Bishop of Exeter saying that Anglicans should not take not take part with Free Church Christians in walks of witness on Good Friday. On that day of all days we should be feeling our disunity especially, I seem to remember was part of the reasoning. The fact that Mrs Brown goes off to the Methodists, Mr O'Reilly to the Roman Catholics, Miss Smith to the Church of England, Ms Green to the Quakers each Sunday is not something we have been brought up to believe is scandalous. Those raised in the wake of Vatican II have perhaps been more aware of Christian disunity, and some have wanted to do something about it and we have seen Christians in certain localities, at any rate, working together in LEPs or more loosely-knit groupings, trying to do together all that they can do together. What is the situation with an even younger generation? We live in an age where the philosophy is "I must do what is right for ME." So the fact that Christians worship in different ways and believe different things seems far from being scandalous - rather promoting a true sense of personal freedom. It is also an age when young people and children know very little history, almost nothing about the Reformation and the history of the Church, not least in the U.K. and so Christian disunity means little to them. Roman Catholic children are unlikely to have non-Catholic friends who go to church at all. Those non-Catholic children at Catholic schools who do go to church (and at our own secondary school there are more than you might think) probably don't advertise the fact. So once again Christian unity is not on the agenda. Young people in any case are not very aware of rules which disallow inter-communion. To talk of the pain of disunion to-day is to talk of something that few are even aware of. SO THAT'S WHERE OUR PRAYER MUST BEGIN. We must pray that Christian people of all traditions may be aware of the scandal of disunion and allow that scandal to go to their hearts. Let me give a brief example. I know a lady who was recently received into the Catholic Church from a Free Church. She had been brought up in an unbelieving home and had not been baptized. She came to the Christian faith in mid-middle-age through a Free Church tradition. She had begun to lapse from this but her enthusiasm for Christ was re-aroused by visits to a well-known pilgrimage centre. Here she met a good practising Roman Catholic lady and through her was received and confirmed. She is now a daily Mass-goer, has absorbed Catholicism and its treasures as a duck takes to water and her life is certainly very Christ-like.. Now, coming from that kind of background you might expect her to be concerned about Christian unity. Well, she is concerned but only about her lack of concern. "I now have everything that I ever wanted" she says, "and find it very difficult to be interested in Christian unity in any way. The Catholic Church has all I need." I actually have great sympathy with her and indeed great empathy, so what I am saying about the pain of disunity (or rather, the lack of it) says a lot about me. On the other hand, whenever there is the baptism of a child of a mixed marriage and maybe one or more of the God-parents are baptized non-Catholics, I find myself reflecting on what we have in common - how baptism is the common starting point for all Christians.

The Cross and Our Lady

This focus on the pain of disunity takes us straight to the Cross, of course. This takes us to the heart of the spirituality of the Abbé Couturier. In 1941 his Protestant pastor friend, Jean de Saussure, sent him a "Meditation on the Virgin, Figure of the Church". For a Calvinist, it is a most amazing piece of writing. It consists of a prayer to Christ crucified. As he looks at the Cross, the author speaks to the Lord about His Mother and the Beloved Disciple, from both of whom Jesus has departed by an act of supreme detachment. The intimacy of John and Mary is compared to that between the believer and the Church, that Church which Jesus bequeathed to each of us as a Mother and protectress. I quote from the end of the meditation:

Saviour, thanks be to You for giving us so fair a Mother. Since in Your mercy You have deigned to make us Your brothers and sisters, how should Your Mother not be our Mother? And - bond yet more intimate - since she was Your Mother, how could she not belong to us who are the members of Your Body, to us who are one spirit with You?

The Abbé Couturier recognized in this meditation from a Protestant source a very positive work and not one of theological controversy. In 1950 he himself was to publish a collection of Protestant and Catholic articles with the title, Dialogue on the Virgin. One of the contributors was none other than the daughter of the founder of the Salvation Army. There is no time,nor is there any need, in a gathering such as this to develop the theme of Mary as Mother of the Church and therefore Mother of all Christians. It is one which clearly Paul Couturier seized on along with other of his contemporaries. It is also one which was seized on by Martin Gillett, the founder of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is this Society, I believe, that has helped to bring to fruition some of the vision of the Abbé - seeing Mary as a beacon leading us to work and pray for unity. That unity which we all share through the sacrament of baptism and which starts us on our pilgrim journey towards complete union with the Blessed Trinity, means that we all share in Mary's spiritual motherhood. Her mantle is cast around us all and therefore to pray to her especially for unity is only right and fitting. She is most certainly a sign of hope on our pilgrim way to the unity of all Christ's people.

I should like to finish with a brief prayer to Our Lady:

O Mary, holy maidservant of the Lord, pray for us all that we may be made one in Your beloved Son Jesus Christ.



Father Michael Woodgate, a long standing member of the Society of Retreat Conductors, is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark. This address was given at the October 2002 joint Anglican and Roman Catholic annual pilgrimage of the Catholic League to the Monastery 'De Wijngaard' at the Béguinage in Bruges.

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