Thinking Anew – ‘That they may be one’

“Our influence for good in the world depends on the quality of our relationship with Jesus Christ, not the church we attend.” Photograph: Getty Images

“Our influence for good in the world depends on the quality of our relationship with Jesus Christ, not the church we attend.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

The material for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ends on Monday, was prepared by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland, an ecumenical community comprised of 50 sisters, from different generations, church traditions, countries, and continents. We are told that “in their diversity the sisters are a living parable of communion. They remain faithful to a life of prayer, life in community and the welcoming of guests.”

Similar ecumenical communities exist in other places such as Iona in Scotland and Taizé in France and, closer to home, the Corrymeela Community in Co Antrim, founded by the Rev Ray Davey, a Presbyterian minister. As a prisoner of war, he had witnessed the bombing and destruction of Dresden and the experience convinced him of the futility of war and the importance of community in a divided world. Thus, Corrymeela was established in the 1960s and quickly became an important ecumenical voice for and model of reconciliation throughout the North’s violent years and since.

Such communities is that they show that people of faith can step beyond their denominational loyalties without abandoning them. We are who we are, and our religious identities and backgrounds matter. However, we go seriously astray when we use them to claim we are superior and closer to God than those of other traditions. The late Henry McAdoo, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and co-chair of ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) defined his approach to ecumenism in this way: “This is my faith; now show me yours.” In his later years he was saddened that the churches failed to build on the substantial progress that he and his co-chair Alan Clark, Roman Catholic Bishop of East Anglia, had made.

Anyone seeking to justify or explain away division should pay more attention to the prayer of Jesus “that they may be one”. We can pray for unity and reconciliation until the cows come home, but we are wasting our time if we don’t work for it.

In the early years of the church, St Paul was confronted with division among converts in Corinth: “For it has been reported to me . . . that there is quarrelling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ . . .” These divisions were not simply a matter of who-got-converted-by-whom; there were real issues to be discussed but for Paul belonging to Christ together was what mattered, a point made in the theme chosen by the Sisters at Grandchamp for this week of prayer: “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit” (St John’s 15: 5-9). Our influence for good in the world depends on the quality of our relationship with Jesus Christ, not the church we attend.

Fr Richard Rohr, OFM, is a Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a book of daily meditations, he suggests an even broader approach to ecumenism: “When another’s experience of God isn’t exactly the way I would describe it, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t had an experience of God or that their experience is completely wrong. We have to remain with Francis’s prayer: ‘Who are you, God, and who am I?’ Isn’t there at least 10 per cent of that person’s experience of God that I can agree with? Can’t I at least say: ‘I wish I could experience God in that way?’ What characterises anyone who has had just a little bit of God is that they always want more of that experience. Could it not be that this Hindu, this Sufi, this charismatic, this Jewish woman has, in fact, touched upon the same eternal Mystery that I am seeking? Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt? I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth. The problem for me is when they think they have the whole truth.”

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