A LAYMAN’S OPINION CONCERNING THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH

francis-and-justin-ii

I have just finished reading a rather remarkable and very interesting interview in CRUX a Roman Catholic Publication the title to which reads “Pope in Sweden Could Break Ground on Intercommunion”.  You can find it here: https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2016/10/21/pope-sweden-break-ground-inter-communion-bishop-says/

The article is  an interview with English Roman Catholic Bishop William Kenney auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham who is one of the key figures in the Roman Catholic Church working on a reunited Christendom and who is co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The interview centers on the upcoming five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation to be held in Lund, Sweden on All Hallows Eve (The Eve of All Saints Day) October 31, 2017.  His Holiness Pope Francis will be participating in the commemoration and Bishop Kenney is hoping that the Pope will use the opportunity to put forth a gesture concerning church unity in general and inter-communion with Lutherans in particular.

Bishop Kenney after discussing the recent official pronouncements resulting from ecumenical dialogues such as the Joint Declaration on Justification,  Ut Unum Sint, and Evangelii Gaudium  makes, what is to me, an incredible statement:

I think it’s very important that people know that the Reformation was a great misunderstanding, we all got it wrong, on both sides, and we’ve lifted excommunications and condemnations and apologized. So we can all be friends.

To me, an Episcopal layman, it is a hard concept to accept but one I would like to believe is indeed a reality.  And I have always suspected that mutual ignorance, misunderstanding, suspicion and isolation have perpetuated a division which should have ended many years ago.

However, one thing seems very clear to me and that is that this Pope, Francis, is in the words of the interviewer: “famously impatient with theological dialogue”. The question goes on to characterize the Pope as not being against such dialogue but rather “convinced you need to act together to create spaces for the Holy Spirit to act, and that’s what will bring about the unity.”  We saw this belief put into action during the recent meeting of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in which the Pope and the Archbishop sent out teams of Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops to perform various missions together. It reminds, somewhat, of the Elizabethan settlement concept of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi meaning the law of prayer is the law of belief.  Of course that was in a completely different context and was enforced by the power of the state.  In the present instance the idea is that working together will promote learning about each other so as to remove the barriers at the bottom which have for the most part been removed at the top.  And, as we all should be aware our prejudices gradually become instruments of comfort, sort of best friends, which we find extremely difficult to relinquish even when we know that is high time we send them away. Dismissing preconceived notions will take more than theological agreement amongst theologians and professional churchmen.  It is at the lay level that the real unification will come through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

This brings me to a personal story and a witness as to how different Christian groups working together can bring about a unity of action, worship and belief. Some years ago, too many to comfortably recount, I was involved with a group called Homeworks.  At the time Homeworks consisted of young people,  generally of high school age,  who volunteered their time to assist low income, aged, and ill persons in the maintenance of their homes. Many people in this category find themselves unable to either financially or physically maintain their homes which then become condemned by municipal authorities resulting in eviction and in many cases homelessness.   In these situations Homeworks steps in and provides repair services to bring the home up to code so that the residents might continue to live there.

During this time the two main groups involved in Homeworks were Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.  It became the custom to begin each work session with common prayer of some kind. Sometimes we read the Morning Office from the Liturgy of the Hours and sometimes from the Book of Common Prayer.   As time went on and we all got to know each other in the most splendid fashion the director became convinced we needed to have a common Mass.  After much negotiation with the authorities in the respective churches a plan was worked out.  The plan involved separate consecrations of communion wafers one by an Episcopal Priest and one by a Roman Catholic Priest.  The wafers were them kept in separate ciboria ( a receptacle shaped like a shrine or a cup with an arched cover, used in the Christian Church for the reservation of the Eucharist) under lock and key to make sure there was no “intermingling”.  When the appointed time arrived joint prayers were said by two lay officiants one Episcopalian and the other Roman Catholic.  I was privileged to be the Episcopal lay officiant with our director being the Roman Catholic lay officiant.

All proceeded smoothly until we came to the distribution of the wafers.  We formed two lines, one for Episcopalians, and one for Roman Catholics.  I feel sure, though I do not remember it, that a very solemn pronouncement was made that should one venture into the “wrong line” something akin to  eternal damnation was sure to ensue.  But this Mass took place about seven thirty a.m. and the attention span of high schoolers, even in the best of conditions and when threatened with hell fire, might not be what it should be.  There were initially five young people in my line and twenty five in my co-officiant’s line and then something happened.  My line began to grow and soon there were over fifteen in my line.  At the time I assumed these young people had awakened enough to realize that they were in the wrong line but even so I tried to gain the attention of my co-officiant in order to place him on notice of the situation, but to no avail. As it turned out I gave communion to a fair number of Roman Catholics that day and my co-officiant may have served several Episcopalians as well.   After all it is to be expected that young people with things to do look for the smallest line to get in and, considerations of “real presence ” and “transubstantiation” to the contrary notwithstanding, a “wafer is a wafer”, Episcopal or Roman Catholic, they all look alike, and taste the same.

Looking back on this now it seems humorous but at the time it was purgatory with a vengeance. The Roman Catholic parents were “not amused” and I am sure both Bishops endured a good deal of heartburn over it.  However, I have always suspected that Bishop Baker and Bishop Henderson had gotten together and had a good laugh about it. After reading the interview with Bishop Kenney in Crux I feel certain that Pope Francis would have heartily approved.

So perhaps the Churches are finally on the road to reunification through a method which has proven effective in practice.  Agreeing on theology is not enough. We must share the burden of service with our brothers and sisters in order to get to know and eventually love them as we do ourselves.  Perhaps the phrase Lex labora, lex credenda describes this method aptly: The rule of our common work shall be the rule of our belief and worship.

We pray Lord that we all may be one and that we do not allow our preconceived notions about our brethren, or our ignorance of them,  keep us from embracing them as our brothers and sisters so that we might truly become a people who share one bread, one cup.  Amen.

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