Michael Daly CJ Blog

A Companion of Jesus

Chistian Unity

I found the following article (which was written some years ago) on another website and thought it was worth posting it in full.  Josephine Way, who wrote the article notes, “But the objective is unity not uniformity; we do not minimise our differences but see them as a gift for one another, an enrichment to be treasured, not a problem to be solved”.  Way, puts forward three things that are necessary for the ecumenical spirit to continue, ” …. a change of heart, including repentance for past misdeeds, the will to listen to and learn from each other and the acknowledgement that all denominations are full members of Christ’s universal Church”.

Michael Daly. C.J.    November 2010


Christian Unity

Only people confident enough to live with uncertainty do not feel the need to condemn others as wrong, so that they may be the ones who are right, which is why in ecumenism, as in all attempts to create unity, the dynamic of separation is always stronger than that of reconciliation. The apocryphal story of the castaway who had to build two chapels on his desert island, one to attend and one NOT to go to, has a grain of truth. .An early example of this tendency is the Coloquy of Ratisbon in 1541 when Catholic and Lutheran divines reached agreement on the question of justification, only for this to be repudiated by the leaders on both sides. The Counter-Reformation  refused to adopt certain good practices, simply because they were approved by the other side; it took 400 years for Rome to accept mass in the vernacular. But what is so encouraging in the developments of the last century is the way the different denominations are coming together, Nonconformists placing more emphasis on the Eucharist, and Roman Catholics reading and studying the Bible.

A modern view is that the Church of Rome lost ecclesial fullness (which Ut Unum Sint declares that it alone possesses) in the 11th century schism with the East and the Reformation of the 16th century.(1). But Catholics were taught, and many still believe, that other churches culpably broke away from the ‘one true’ church. A prayer for Wales, now mercifully dropped from the directory, asks that all, by ‘acknowledging her authority and obeying her voice may … serve Thee as Thou desirest’, as if God wants everyone to be a Roman Catholic! Christian Duquoc argues that we are all merely provisional churches working towards a fullness which will only be seen at the end of time.(2) We are not THE CHURCH but a church.

Lumen Gentium asserts that ‘Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices’; thus people are convinced that  our set-up with male deacons, priests and bishops, the latter two celibate, is the way God wants it. However, as Jan Kerkhofs has shown, ‘the threefold ministry is a third-century concept attributed to the Divine Founder’(3) and clerical celibacy has only been enforced, not without difficulty, in the last millennium. It seems feasible that Almighty God finds all manner of Christian ecclesial systems, those without sacraments like Quakers and the Salvation Army, Nonconformists  with congregational systems of governance, let alone churches which ordain women, equally acceptable so long as they sincerely seek to follow Christ. Other ways are not WRONG, just different, and ‘one size’ does not fit all types of individuals and societies.

The most painful feature of the struggle for unity is the Roman Catholic embargo on members of other churches receiving communion. It is not enough for other Christians to accept that they receive Christ in the sacrament (for some the Eucharist is a commemoration only), they must also acknowledge the authority of the pope.  The Church declares that the Eucharist belongs to Christ but treats it as its private property. The exclusive institutional church looms so large in Roman Catholic imagination that it seems to take precedence over the inclusive Kingdom of God. Benedict XV praised the beginnings of ecumenism between other churches in 1920 but it was unthinkable at that time for Rome to take part because of this Catholic understanding of the Church. Cardinal Hume in his address to inter-church families declared that intercommunion was a ‘countersign to unity’;  the ruling that RC’s may not take communion in other churches, as if their sacrament were somehow invalid, is a second slight which they accept with Christian  forbearance.

It is discourteous of Rome to lump all other Christians together as ‘Protestants’, and also to call them ‘non-Catholics’; (does this make us ‘non-Anglicans’ or ‘non-Methodists’?) It seems extraordinarily arrogant for Roman Catholic bishops to accuse the Anglican Church of putting back the cause of unity by ordaining women, while the latter are seeking ways to accommodate the papacy as some form of central focus. John Paul II has invited other Christians, (but not us!) to indicate what kind of papal leadership would be acceptable to them. A congregation in Boston USA, sickened by their bishops’ cover-up of clerical sexual abuse and by closing parishes to pay compensation to the victims, declares that it does not want to see itself as part of the Church of Rome (4), but this is an impossibility since it is only by this central authority, how ever badly exercised at times, that the institutional church has survived.

What alarms people about the concept of ecumenism is the fear of losing their distinctive identity; they imagine a kind of mishmash merger, a lowest common denominator church. Alice Thomas Ellis expressed an extreme  version of this fear when she described ecumenism as ‘mixing something pure…with something polluted’. But the objective is unity not uniformity; we do not minimise our differences but see them as a gift for one another, an enrichment to be treasured, not a problem to be solved.

The twentieth century saw an astonishing development of the coming together of churches, with Roman Catholicism blowing now hot, now cold. First Anglicans and Nonconformists saw the sense in collaborating on the mission field; Then in 1921 the RC/Anglican  Malines Conversations were set up in Belgium by Cardinal Mercier and Lord Halifax, an Anglo-Catholic layman. But the British hierarchy repudiated this initiative, and pope Pius XI roundly condemned it in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos; for him the only possible ecumenism  was that of return, with all denominations coming back into the Roman fold. Then the suffering of people in World War II seemed to put into proportion the difference between churches; Bernard Haring describes how he grew into his ecumenical vocation on the Russian Front by offering absolution and communion to Catholics and Protestants  alike and baptising Orthodox babies. Roman Catholicism could not consider joining the World Council of Churches in 1948, but at the 1987  Swanwick conference  Cardinal Hume electrified the audience by declaring that working for unity was an essential and not an optional extra, taking up the principle that we must do together everything that can be done in collaboration with other churches. Roman Catholicism is now a full member of the ecumenical instruments of British churches. ARCIC has produced a measure of agreement in its document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.  The 1993 RC directive on ecumenism prescribes that the formation of clergy should incorporate an ecumenical dimension and that they should pray with other Christians and collaborate with them to work for the common good. However, despite so many fraternal gestures on the part of recent popes, and the ecumenical documents  Unitatis Redintegratio (1964) and Ut Unum Sint (1995), Dominus Iesus (2000) insists that other denominations, because of their ‘defects’, (has Roman Catholicism none?) cannot   be called churches but are only ‘ecclesial communities’.
But there are ecumenical associations which claim not so much to be disobeying Roman regulations as to be anticipating a future enlightenment. The community at Taize makes no distinction between the thousands of young people who flock there throughout the year, and   at the International Ecumenical Fellowship annual conferences, which are held in different European countries, the Eucharist is celebrated every day in a different rite and all receive communion. Local churches take part in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, study together in Lent and join together for Good Friday walks and Pentecost services. In a few forward-looking places all Christians share the same church. Although much of the initial enthusiasm and high hopes grow faint as official endeavours have apparently stalled, yet a gentler ecumenical spirit continues to grow at the grassroots. Three things are necessary; a change of heart, including repentance for past misdeeds, the will to listen to and learn from each other and the acknowledgement that all denominations are full members of Christ’s universal Church.

Josephine Way

1. For the Conversion of the Churches; Groupe des Dombes
2. Des Eglises Provisoires; Christian Duquoc.
3. Europe Without Priests?; Jan Kerkhofs SJ

4, The Tablet. 21/01/06


November 18, 2010 - Posted by | Thoughts


  1. We spend so much time fighting for our truth rather than embracing THE truth. I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever learn.

    Comment by Steve Chapman | November 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks Steve…. I too wonder if we’ll ever learn?

    Comment by Br. Michael Daly. C.J. | November 23, 2010 | Reply

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