Each year in January we mark the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it seems timely that we should reflect upon the fact that Jesus was himself acutely aware of the danger of disunity and discord, and prayed earnestly himself, especially at the Last Supper, that his followers might be and remain one. Sadly, as we all know, we and history let him down badly.

Coming from that forgotten tribe, the Catholic Unionist Gentry of old Ireland, my parents were brought up in a world where one’s religion was a force more for isolation and defensiveness than the bond of fellowship in Christ, which I now see as its overriding force for good in my life; and while I am conscious of a certain reserve which recoils from ecumenical enthusiasm of the more exuberant sort, I have a deep sense of the importance of what has been achieved in just 50 years, an achievement which goes far beyond what I imagine most Catholics thought possible just one generation ago.

I would like to quote from the Joint Statement for relations between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches: “There are in the Ecumenical Movement neither winners nor losers: rather, as Christians of different denominations we are on a journey together to discover still deeper divine truths”. If some of you feel disappointed that progress and enthusiasm for unity has slowed in recent years, it may be that this is in itself a sign that we have gone almost as far as it is possible to go without compromising the few, but deeply significant, differences which divide us still and which should not be simply brushed aside for the sake of a cosy but shallow accord.

So where should we – where can we – go from here? If the leaders of Christendom in the first millennium were largely preoccupied with Trinitarian heresies, the second millennium just ended has to be seen, sadly, as the era of schism, of division. As early as 1054 the breach between Byzantium and Rome was complete and was lamented by one writer as a rending in two of the seamless robe of Christ. Half way through that millennium the unity of the Church in the West in general, and of the medieval ecclesia anglicana in particular, was further severed by a fatal blend of theological controversy and political expediency – the so-called Reformation.

And now, as we settle into the third millennium of the Christian era, just as our ancient divisions have turned to cordiality if not complete resolution, we find that with alarming speed, our world has become dominated by disputes between factions which notably identify themselves, not by their nationality, but by allegiance to one of the three great ‘Religions of the Book’, worshippers all of the same One God: Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Yet it all seems to be going horribly wrong.

Is it time, perhaps, for our ecumenical endeavours to take a broader and deeper view than they have since they were launched in the 1960s, and see the significance of the fact that very many of the protagonists on all sides of the present stand-off are serious believers in God?

Each and every Christian is called to be a peacemaker, and if I have suggested one area that might merit attention at the present time, it should not be to the detriment of the parallel call to the work of Evangelization – bringing the Good News of Salvation to the godless. The particular charism of our generation has been to appreciate the need of working towards a common mission by Christians of all traditions to enlighten atheists, agnostics and the sheer ignorant in our own towns and cities in preference to competing against each other for proselytes among established religions. Some of us may feel a little depressed by the relative1y weak outcome of our respective Decades of Evangelization; but humbly learning by our mistakes, picking ourselves up and trying new initiatives until we get it right, could actually provide a real impetus towards the goal of greater unity as we jointly face an increasingly godless culture in our own land.

May our efforts be blessed and bring us all together to His eternal kingdom.

Father Charles 25 January 2015

There is still time to read the call from the Bishops of England and Wales to reflect on Marriage and Family Life in this full-colour document in pdf format, “The Call, the Journey and the Mission”, which can be viewed by clicking on The Call-Journey-Mission of the Family (2) or downloaded. In addition, the Bishops are calling for feedback on this document in order to prepare the two who will attend the Synod on Marriage and Family Life in Rome this autumn. Responses to the document can be made by clicking here.