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Ecumenical realism with a dash of hope

13 January 2017

Church unity demands openness to a future that is hard to imagine, but worth the work, says Robert Beaken


Better together: Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis at vespers in San Gregorio al Celio, in Rome, on 5 October

Better together: Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis at vespers in San Gregorio al Celio, in Rome, on 5 October

I FOUND myself surprisingly moved by the photos of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis at a service in Rome last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI in 1966 (News, 7 October 2016).

Both men pledged their Churches to work for full reunion, despite disagreements arising over the ordination of women, and, more re­­cently, over questions of sexuality. I do not be­­gin to know how these and many other diffi­culties may be overcome, but I do believe that they must.

I hold no romantic view of the Churches: the Church of England and the Roman Cath­olic Church each have their good and bad points, and things of which they will have to repent on the Day of Judgement. And yet the whole Church is Christ’s, not ours: it is paid for by his blood. Belonging to the Church, and participating in its life, is part of the “package” of what it is to be a Christian. The disunity of the Church can never be regarded as God’s will.

So I applaud Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis, and urge that, however difficult, we must keep alive the hope of Christian unity.

I recently had a long conversation with a woman who had read my book The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918. She was avowedly not a Christian. She was af­­fronted, however, to read that the Great War led to a revival of prayers for the dead. She had clearly “done” the Reformation at school, and was annoyed to find the Church of Eng­land reviving what she saw as a Roman Cath­olic practice.

Here was someone who, although an ag­­nostic or atheist, regarded the Reformation as a seminal moment in history when, she be­­lieved, England overthrew a dangerous foreign power and embraced the start of modernity.

I am reminded of Owen Chadwick’s dictum that the people of England have always been more Protestant than the Church of England. All who work and pray for unity between the two Churches must recognise that many people in England are cultural Protestants, and regard Roman Catholicism as something alien that was repudiated once and for all in the past.

There may well also be cultural Roman Catholics, who perhaps do not go to mass often, whose perception of Catholicism in­­volves the rejection of anything Anglican, and who would also find such church unity chal­lenging.


IN DEALING with church unity, the Church of England may have another problem nearer home. When Archbishop Ramsey met Paul VI in 1966, the parish-communion movement had been active in the Church of England for a generation-and-a-half. The C of E had prob­ably never been so eucharistically centred.

Emmanuel Amand de Mendieta, a Belgian Benedictine monk who became an Anglican in the late 1950s, was sent to see the French-speaking John de Satgé at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and was delighted to find matins and evensong recited daily in church, and holy communion celebrated by a priest wear­ing a surplice and stole.

Half a century later, things have altered. The average Anglican worshipper today prob­ably goes to church once every three or four Sundays. For much of the time, he or she probably attends a non-eucharistic morning service, which will go under a number of names. Although this service is held in an An­­glican parish church, in style and content it is probably not widely different from what may be found in the Nonconformist chapel up the road.

Similarly, colleagues tell me that some dio­cesan services that, 20 years ago, would have been eucharistic, are so no longer: commu­nion is felt to be “inappropriate” or “divisive”. Anglicans whose predominant experience of worship is informal and largely unsacramental may find a Roman Catholic mass perplexing or alien.


IN 1927 and 1928, after 20 years of prepara­tory work, the Church Assembly overwhelm­ingly voted for a revised Prayer Book. This brought the 1662 Book of Common Prayer up to date, and provided an enriched commu­nion rite that could be interpreted as being slightly more Catholic.

A small group of extremist Anglican Evan­gelicals, supported by Nonconformists and others, twice persuaded the House of Com­mons to refuse the Revised Prayer Book. They believed that what was at stake was not just an Anglican service book, but the identity of the Church of England, and of the nation. For them, to be English was to be Protestant.

It would be worse if the C of E and the RC Church were to devote decades of prayer and hard work to secure church unity, only to find that their ecumenical experts were out of touch with the people in the pews who felt un­­easy about unity; and, at the same time, mem­bers of non-Anglican denominations and non-churchgoing cultural Protestants got up an agitation against Anglican-Roman Catholic unity.

Church unity would require Parliament to amend a great deal of legislation. Remember the vociferous protests by various Protestant groups, secularists, and others outside West­minster Abbey when Benedict XVI attended evensong there in 2010.


ECUMENISM needs a cold dose of reality from time to time, to prevent its getting car­ried away. And yet we cannot give up simply because church unity seems far off, and the road hard. Co-operation at a grass-roots level would seem to be vital. This could be for so­­cial and pastoral projects; but Anglicans and Roman Catholics also need to attend services in each other’s churches, and to experience the insights of spiritual traditions other than their own.

It is not enough to cite the events and pre­judices of past centuries as if they settled church separation for ever. We must ask our­selves: what sort of Church would Jesus Christ want us to build to serve him and his people in the future? We shall have to relearn parts of our history, and be open to new ways and ideas.

The resulting challenges and changes may, at times, be painful, but they will also bring joy, as we allow ourselves to be guided and formed by the Holy Spirit. I haven’t a clue what a reunited Church would look like, but I eagerly pray and look forward to it.


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, in Essex.

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