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Leader comment: Time to move closer

18 January 2024

JOINT enterprises take a bit of work — and an act of will. This leader comment, intended to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, has been back and forth a couple of times between The Tablet and the Church Times. It is being published simultaneously in both papers. One important message behind the Week of Prayer is that such work is necessary if the scandal of disunity in the Body of Christ is to be overcome. Many of the barriers between Anglicans and Roman Catholics have started to fall away, some of them through diligent debate between international theologians, some through personal friendships, many through the coming of a new generation that refuses to adopt the antagonisms of the past.

A major problem now is a reluctance in these two portions of the Body of Christ to grasp the opportunities presented to them by progress so far. It is as if the stirring ecumenical mantra — doing everything together except those things that must still be done separately — has been buried under a mountain of institutional inertia. Why does each body still act as if the other did not exist? Why are statements about political and social matters not made together as a matter of routine? Why are investigations and commissions not jointly resourced? Why is an initiative such as the visit of Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby, and the Kirk Moderator to South Sudan so rare?

What is lost in this disunity is an opportunity to learn from each other, and the lesson most needed is how to exercise authority in the light of the gospel. Joint initiatives have stumbled over the question how each body decides what to do. Anglicans are organised through a sophisticated network of dispersed authority, meting out to individual dioceses and provinces what to Roman Catholics is a surprising degree of autonomy. In their turn, Anglicans are surprised by the unity that attaches to the personal authority of the Pope. As Roman Catholics begin to explore, belatedly, the concept of synodality, they may be puzzled to see that a system designed to guard against autocracy seems to encourage open dissent in a way that the utterances of a single leader do not. In the light of negative reactions to the Anglican introduction of same-sex blessings and the Vatican’s publication of Fiducia Supplicans, lifting the prohibition of the same, a cynic might observe that many in the Church do not wish to exercise the freedoms that they are offered — or more precisely, do not wish others to exercise those freedoms.

Yet ordinary men, women, and children in the pews read the same scriptures as each other, say the same prayers. They see the need to welcome strangers, and together they welcome; the need for pastoral care of the wounded and excluded, and they care; the need for social action, and they act. It is here that Christian unity has stopped being a hope for the future and has become the present reality. It is leadership from below, impelled by the Holy Spirit.

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