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Giles Fraser: Seeking out unity in the wilderness

Preaching is always a challenge at the best of times. But preaching in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of English Roman Cath­olicism, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, on Tuesday, just three days after the inauguration of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, was especially chal­lenging.

It was on the very spot where three former C of E bishops com­pleted their lightning change to Roman orders, doing in two weeks what others take seven years to achieve. It felt rude to mention the goings-on of last Saturday. It felt dishonest not to.

In truth, I still do not understand the whole idea of the Ordinariate. Apparently, it is some way of folding aspects of Anglicanism into the broader Roman Church. But which aspects: some hymns, synodical gov­ernment, wives? Most of those who would avail themselves of this option have been crypto-Romanists for years: much more Roman Missal than Book of Common Prayer.

Yet it does not matter whether the Ordinariate makes little sense to those like me. If people come to the conclusion that their spiritual home is really within Roman Catholicism, then they ought to secede, and they should to do so with the blessing of all involved.

What I am really not sure about is how all this was intended by the Pope as a contribution “to the wider goal of visible unity between our two Churches”, as Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, de­scribed it in his sermon on Saturday.

Unity for the Roman Church seems to be on her terms, and hers alone. From an Anglican per­spective, it often feels like a one-way street. Thus what some regard as dialogue, others see as little more than an invitation to swim the Tiber.

All this suggests that we may be entering another ecumenical winter with Rome. The Gospel reading for Tuesday was Mark’s version of Jesus’s baptism, after which Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for 40 days. The editor of The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, told me about the story that you should always watch the birds in the desert; for they eventually fly to where the water is.

A sermon began to form. Forget church politics. The wilderness — even an ecumenical one — is an op­portunity to discover what is most important: to search out the source of life, and to share that life with others. This is what all baptised Christians are called to do. We are led to the source of life not by a flock of birds, but by that divine dove, the Holy Spirit. This is the basis of our unity.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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