Project Canterbury Christian Unity: The Problem for Anglicans
W. B. O'Brien, S.S.J.E.
n.p.: n.pub., n.d.
I. It is our lot to live in an age when the forces of strife and destruction are very active and threatening, and extremely formidable. But it is also an age when, among Christians, the forces which make for unity, peace and concord are remarkably widespread, and insistent in their appeal to heart and conscience. As Christians, mindful of the age-long struggle between good and evil pictured to us in the Apocalypse, we cannot but believe that the real significance of our age is to be found, not in the turmoil of the world around us, but in that movement of the Spirit by which, throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, men are being led to long for, work for, pray for, suffer for the restoration of unity among the scattered groups of the followers of Christ.
It is a familiar thought among those who are exhorting us to enter upon schemes of corporate union that we are to seek to bring out and to make actual a unity which already exists. We shall more readily agree to this as a general statement of a reality underlying our very manifest divisions, than as a principle of easy application to the problems of union. But it does testify to the truth that there is an essential bond which unites all those who worship one Divine Lord and Master sent into the world to be its Saviour. Such a fellowship acknowledges indeed 'One Lord,' but not, I fear, 'one Faith,' or 'one Baptism.' Thus in our present unhappy state we have not only to strive to keep the unity of the Spirit but to give eager diligence to seek from that same Spirit that healing renewing grace, that change of heart and will, that enlightenment of conscience and understanding which are only possible as the effect of His operation, so that all that now impairs our unity, all the prejudices and misunderstandings which hinder it, all by which we ourselves are blindly opposing it, may be swept away.
We may, with thankful hearts, see much evidence of this work of the Holy Spirit among us to-day. There is an eager diligence in the cause of unity such as, surely, the world has never seen before. If we consider only the limited area of the Anglican Communion we see tokens of a far-reaching activity. We have had the Malines conversations with Roman Catholics; we have had a very cordial interchange of courtesies with the Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church; we have established a status of intercommunion with the Old Catholics; we have made approaches to the Swedish Church and the Danish Church; we have had our talks with Presbyterians in Scotland; with the Free Churches in England; we have formed an elaborate scheme for union in South India; we are working to the same end in North India, in Persia, in Central Africa; we have the great pronouncements of the Lambeth Conferences, and we take a prominent part in the world gatherings of representatives of all Christian groups (save Roman Catholics). All this is the effect of the movement of the Spirit in our midst, it is a part of the response made by those whose consciences have been stirred to a passionate desire for unity.
We may see another evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in the fact that we are talking much less about heresy or schism or the errors of Rome or of some other Body. It is not that such words as 'heresy' and 'schism' have no longer any meaning for our times, or that there are no errors left in Christendom, but that everywhere a new sense of responsibility for our divisions is springing up. We are too conscious of our own contribution to the disunion of Christendom to care to apply terms of sheer condemnation to others. When the late Lord Halifax startled the Church of England out of its complacency by saying 'we ought to repent of the Reformation in dust and ashes' he was uttering a sentiment which, mutatis mutandis, has its application to every Christian Body. We are learning to cease to 'glory in our shame.' Not very long ago good men felt it was their bounden duty to utter stern denunciations of those who differed from them in grave matters of faith. Harsh terms were used in the same spirit that harsh measures of repression were taken in earlier ages. Now we are conscious of a distinct call to think and speak charitably of those who differ from us. We believe that sympathy, mutual understanding, mutual belief in the good faith of each-other, mutual respect for honest convictions which we cannot share, but which cannot lightly be put aside by those who hold them, is a way more worthy of our Christian calling than violent denunciation and bitter controversy. 'Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love.' Humility is indeed a great means of keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, i.e., humility which is knowledge about ourselves, not self-depreciation, but a resolute facing of the truth as far as we can see it. Wherever in any Christian Body men are awakened to their own limitations and errors, to their own grievous loss in their separation from their fellow Christians, wherever there is less satisfaction with themselves, more generous appreciation of others, more forbearance in love with views which they do not themselves hold, there the Spirit of unity is at work.
II. Within the Anglican Communion this movement of the Spirit is not an impulse urging us in one direction only. By the very fact of our comprehensive character we are being urged in two diametrically opposite directions. For some of us the first step towards unity for Anglicans must be the restoration of Communion with the great Western Church which has now for four hundred years been interrupted; but others would turn first to our Nonconformist brethren. At the present time any effective step in one direction must increase the separation in the other. This means, of course, for all of us a very great demand on our charity. We who look to Rome must not exhaust all our charity and forbearance upon our Roman Catholic brethren, and those who look to Nonconformity must keep some charity for their Anglo-Catholic brethren. But it is of even greater significance to note that, since 'God is not the author of confusion, but of peace,' this twofold urge of the Spirit suggests a very constraining reason for patience and caution. General Gordon has a quaint story of a mortal admitted to Paradise on the condition that he would not utter a word while he was there. He kept silence for some time, though he saw many things he wanted to put right, but when he saw a cart stuck in the mud and horses harnessed at each end and pulling in different directions, being a carter by trade, it was altogether too much for him. He cried out in protest, but the moment he did so he was hurried away. Looking back at the last moment he saw that the cart was out of the mud, for, being in the heavenly sphere, the horses had wings. It is not without significance surely that we in the Church of England have our affinities in such contrary directions. Human wisdom will say our endeavours are futile, we are neutralizing each other's efforts by this inherent contradiction, and human impatience will cut the traces on one side, if it can, and think to set forward God's work. Do we not need rather to wait patiently upon the Divine purpose? Within the Anglican Communion Catholic and Protestant are providentially bound to the same cart, and, we must own, to different ends of it. We are a microcosm of Christendom, but one within which the opposing elements live and worship together in one Communion. We do pull in different directions, but despite many a foreboding the traces have not yet snapped. They will have a great responsibility who cut the traces on one side or the other. What in our shortsightedness seems an intolerable hindrance to union, whether in one direction or the other, may be in the Divine wisdom the appointed means of our deliverance.
Alas, we can hardly dare to think that this spirit of patient waiting upon the unfolding of the Divine purpose is very manifest among us at this time. Men are pressing for results. Feeling, as never before, the grievous evil of disunion, and feeling, especially in the Mission Field, the palpable folly of persisting in our divisions, the hope has been conceived that by a carefully constructed Scheme of Union, drawn up in a spirit of generous concession on either side, containing some anomalies frankly and clearly acknowledged, it may be made possible for certain Bodies of Christians in South India to live and worship together as one Christian Church, accepting Episcopal Government and unitedly using the two Sacraments of Baptism and Communion. The Scheme as drawn up after long prayer and toil has attracted much notice and much admiration, and is considered a model for all similar attempts at union. It presents serious difficulties to Anglo-Catholics and Congregationalists alike. The friends of the Scheme have, I think, more patience with the Congregationalists than with the Anglo-Catholics. Indeed the opposition of the latter is considered to be so unreasonable and obscurantist that all their remonstrances are being disregarded, and every effort is being made to get the principle of union, as set out in the Scheme, accepted by the Anglican Communion. Many whom we should have expected to feel serious apprehension about the Scheme, or at least to show understanding for those whose conscientious difficulties about it are so profound, have declared themselves friends and supporters of the Scheme.
And yet the Scheme can only be accepted and put into force at the cost of trampling upon principles which are profoundly sacred to a large and influential section of the Anglican Communion; principles which are enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Constitution of the Church of India, Burma and Ceylon; principles which are our inheritance from the undivided Church, and which are held intact by the vast array of Bishops in the Roman and Orthodox Churches. It is hard to understand the attitude of our own fellow Anglicans to their Anglo-Catholic brethren. Do they really think that no principles are involved, that no serious innovations are being made, that no consciences are being hurt and that there is no providential ordering in this strange union of Catholic and Protestants within our Communion?
Perhaps the reply would be that they are moved by the Holy Spirit and that they must follow Him wherever He leads. Yet surely there is a very vital distinction between the blessed impulse of the Spirit by which so many to-day are roused to work for unity, and the particular form of 'eager diligence' by which they try to respond to it. To be moved by the Spirit is not the same as being infallibly guided by the Spirit. Even though we thankfully acknowledge our present-day aspirations towards Unity as the expression of all that is best and highest in our age, we cannot therefore claim that the movement they inspire will be immune from the possibilities of human error. We are but in an experimental stage, it is not yet twenty years from the first meeting at Tranquebar when the Scheme for Union may be said to have had its inception. While we own the Scheme as a sincere effort to respond to the working of the Holy Spirit, it is only one of those efforts which are being made as we grope for the path which will lead us out of our entanglements. Around us there are not only influences which make for good but also the forces of 'spiritual wickedness in high places' who know well how to deceive men by lofty ideals while they impel them into paths which lead not to peace but to strife. It is no denial of the Spirit to watch with caution and, if necessary, oppose the efforts of human response.
While it is true that these efforts have broken down barriers and exposed some quite needless causes of separation, and above all have brought to many a wonderful experience of fellowship in the Holy Spirit, it is also true that they have left in the minds of many on both sides the realization that there is a residuum of difference which is not less but more formidable than we had thought. This residuum lies in just those contrasted conceptions of the Church which make both Anglo-Catholics and Congregationalists feel it impossible to accept the compromise offered in the Scheme for Union. These two conceptions are, humanly speaking, irreconcilable. Both can be stated systematically and persuasively by those who hold them respectively. Catholics and Protestants would alike acknowledge that the belief which the other holds, and in which they cannot themselves share, has for those who hold it the value of truth and cannot be set aside in their present state of light without the sacrifice of truth. This mutual respect seems to be one of the lessons the Holy Spirit is teaching us at this time. But Anglo-Catholics and Congregationalists are far more intelligible to one another than either of them is to the Friends of Reunion in South India who can find no place in their Scheme at all for the inevitably exclusive element in Catholicism or for the passion for liberty in Congregationalism. It was Symeon's paradox that truth is not in the middle and not in one extreme but in both. I cannot as a Catholic believe that truth will be found in equal measure in the Catholic and Congregationalist conceptions of the Church, but I do believe that when the Holy Spirit has made us one the result will be a richer and fuller understanding of the truth than either of us now has. The more speedy settlement of conflicting elements by those who would cut off the extremes, whether on one side or on both, can, I believe, only result in an utter impoverishment of the truth. Catholics and Congregationalists are alike in saying with Symeon, 'The truth is not in the middle' and that is why we can never accept your Scheme. We may well question whether true statesmanship is being shown by those who seem to be pressing on for the acceptance of the Scheme at all costs, and whether they show the highest faith in the working of the Holy Spirit. Surely if we cannot see our way to reconcile these divergent views
about the Church in one system, as indeed we cannot, it is for us to wait upon the Holy Spirit. Few would deny that there is much vagueness and lack of clear thought about what we mean by 'the Church' at the present day. This vagueness and timidity about clear principles, which seem to offer such an excellent opportunity for union, is actually our great danger. It is impossible to avoid equivocal statements in a scheme drawn up for people who do not use ecclesiastical terms in the same sense. Even charity and humility become elements of danger when there is no clearness of definition in matters of faith; they lead to emotional states in which judgement is strangely deflected and proposals can be entertained without realization of the surrenders of principle they involve.
III. We should indeed be wanting in faith if the discovery of our human helplessness were to lead us to despair. On the contrary we believe that this discovery is just what the Divine patience has been waiting for. God can help us and will help us when we know our need. It is this knowledge which calls forth the exercise of faith and which moves us to prayer. There is one very evident sign of the Spirit's working of which we have not yet spoken. It is very much in evidence among those who are sometimes accused of being wanting in the desire for unity because they oppose, or at any rate do not take part in, the proposals for immediate steps towards union. Within the last few years there has arisen a movement for co-operation in prayer among separated Christian groups which has rapidly grown and spread. It does not all spring from any one human source; it has sprung up as it were spontaneously at different points. It involves us in none of the problems or perils which beset schemes of human devising. Each group of Christians is left to pray among themselves according to their own rites and modes, no one is asked to surrender any principles or beliefs which they hold to be true. This unity in prayer is not formed by intercommunion, or by gathering different groups into one place of worship, or by seeking the basis of the lowest common denominator of belief; it is as opposed to proselytizing as to intercommunion; it has no great faith in conferences, none whatever in compromises. It finds its bond of union in the agreement to pray for that unity which is in the mind and purpose of Christ for His Church. This unity comes into being as the prayers of all meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There our prayers are purified in the fire of His love and High Priestly intercession. We look up to Him in His glory from our separated places of prayer, all acknowledging Him as our one Lord and Master, and His will as all our desire. Thus, though our unity is not yet established on earth, it has a real existence in Him 'by whom all things consist, who is the Head of the Body, the Church.' From Him, our great High Priest, it will increasingly flow down to us, 'like the precious ointment upon the head that ran down unto the beard, even Aaron's beard, and went down to the skirts of his clothing.'
Our desire is towards Him and His purpose; we do not ask that our views shall prevail, or that we shall triumphantly absorb all others into our own communion, but that His will may prevail over us all. This communion in prayer does not require of us that we should make any united decision as to which belief is true, or which ministry is valid, but we do unite in praying that truth may prevail. Such united prayer does indeed establish a real though incomplete unity of Spirit, it does form a bond of peace as all alike cry out of their sinful state of separation to the one Lord and Master that He will pardon them and change their hearts. Surely if we were praying like this we could not strive for a union which excludes Catholics, and treats their most cherished convictions as the obscurantist ignorance of a few extremists; nor could we strive for a unity which satisfied our desires as Catholics and left our Nonconformist brethren outside. We do not want Him to give Protestants a victory over Catholics or Catholics a victory over Protestants, but we do wish our Lord to triumph gloriously over all our prejudices, blindnesses and self-will. Such a prayer calls for patience and for self-sacrifice. But would any of those who are striving for unity deny that it would be an effective means to unity? It would transform us inwardly before we were united outwardly. As we were changed much that is now impossible would become not only possible but inevitable. The hearts of all would be continually renewed and enlightened from the same lifegiving source, from the Life which is the light of the world. As the Russian priest Bulgakoff has most truly said, 'Prayer is a sacrament in which our intercommunion is already, though partially, realized'; realized not at the cost of further division, not by trampling upon what our Brethren hold to be truth, but realized in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, there to be safely kept and nourished until He shall show us how to realize it here on earth as He shall will.
One notable instance of this united prayer, though of course not the only instance, is to be found in the remarkable spread of the Church Unity Octave in the last four or five years. This movement was started a good many years ago by two Priests of the Anglican Communion, one of whom, Father Spencer Jones, is still with us. It is now spreading over the Continent and through the United States. It has received authorization and encouragement from Roman and Orthodox Bishops far beyond anything it has received from the Bishops of the Church in which it originated. The possibilities of this movement towards united prayer were for some time obscured by the requirement that those who took part in it should agree on certain controversial propositions as to the basis of unity. It was our Roman brethren, and notably the Abbé Couturier, who released the movement from this complication and urged the observance of the Octave without reference to points of controversy and in entire freedom as to the manner of its observance. It was a truly enlightening development and has resulted in the simultaneous observance of the Octave (Jan. 18 to 25) by Romans, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, French Protestants and many others, in numbers which each year show a large increase. We should not indeed limit our efforts of prayer to this one occasion. Many of us, maybe, can set apart some time each week for this work of prayer, the most potent work we can do for union. The keeping of the Holy Hour on Thursday evenings, the recitation of one or more decades of the Rosary, the giving of a set time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament or before a Crucifix may be the best means of uniting ourselves in prayer and desire with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
For us in the Anglican Communion there is, as we have seen, a special strain in the call to work for union. Any marked advance in one direction or the other must cause apprehension to those of the other side. At the present moment it seems as though our recognition of the manifest signs of the working of the Holy Spirit among bodies of Christians whom we cannot but regard as having separated themselves from the historic Church had swamped our sense of proportion. While we are thinking less arrogantly and more justly of our Nonconformist brethren we have become alarmingly insensible to the spiritual value of the Faith, the Order and the Tradition of the Church in all its imposing coherence and Apostolic authority. There is therefore all the more need to pray to that Holy Spirit who has guided the Church ever since the time of the Apostles, and who guided our Anglican forefathers into the great Catholic revival of the last century. He does not need to destroy His work in order to fulfil it. Perhaps our greatest danger to-day is not lack of zeal or of vision but of discipline, patience and proportion.