This week the Catholic Church, together with other Christian communities, celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For those from the Anglican tradition, the origins of this week are significant, because it was the effort of Anglican ecumenists that founded what was originally known as the Church Unity Octave, and which had the express intention of the reunion of Anglicans with the Apostolic See. The involvement, in 1933, of the French priest Fr Paul Couturier saw this develop into the Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians, again, with unity with Rome at the very heart.
Fr Paul Wattson, one of the original Anglican clergy who founded the Church Unity Octave, was also the founder of the Anglican Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in 1898. In 1909, one year after the foundation of the Church Unity Octave itself, Wattson and his community were received in a corporate manner into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Fr Wattson was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1910. Prior to founding the community, Wattson was a curate at St Barnabas, Omaha – a former Anglican parish that was recently received into the Church in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter.
This shared Anglican-Catholic ecumenical heritage is significant, not least as a reminder of the origins and intended ends of the ecumenical movement. At the heart of authentic prayer for the unity of Christians must be the desire to see that unity guided and shepherded under the successor of Saint Peter, the Bishop of Rome. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us so beautifully in his address to the ecumenical gathering at Westminster Abbey during his 2010 visit to the United Kingdom, “The Church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ during the rite of Baptism. It is this faith which unites us to the Lord, makes us sharers in his Holy Spirit, and thus, even now, sharers in the life of the Blessed Trinity, the model of the Church’s koinonia here below”. And, as he has said elsewhere a year earlier, “Indeed, the successor of Peter, mandated by the Lord Jesus to guarantee the unity of the episcopate and to preside over and safeguard the universal communion of all the Churches, could not fail to make available the means necessary to bring this holy desire to realization”.
With this in mind, we can revisit one of the messages of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Unitatis Redintegratio. This document, which amongst other things highlights the significance of common liturgical traditions as a particular source of unity, also seeks to understand more fully ‘the outlook of our separated brethren’ (UR 9). Paragraph 9 states that “Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background”. Further, “From such dialogue will emerge still more clearly what the situation of the Catholic Church really is. In this way too the outlook of our separated brethren will be better understood, and our own belief more aptly explained”.
I want to argue that now, with the advent of the personal ordinariates, there is a unique opportunity for this dialogue and understanding of Anglicanism to deepen amongst Catholics. Those of us who have made the journey into the full communion of the Catholic Church from within the Anglican tradition, have done so because – from the other side of the Tiber – we have found the fullness of the Catholic religion, and assented to it. This means that, in some significant way, we have come to an understanding of Christianity from the context of our Anglican liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral patrimony, in a way that is consonant with Catholic teaching. When it comes to seeing ‘both sides’, the intellectual and spiritual narratives of the ordinariates are not only a rich fruit of the ecumenical endeavours of the past 100 or so years, but a consequence of the hopes expressed by this conciliar decree. Even more so, we have brought into the full communion of the Church many of the traditions of our Anglican heritage which are consonant with the faith and practice of the Apostolic tradition, and which are now tools at Holy Mother Church’s disposal, in order to help others from our tradition to see that anything that is truly and authentically Anglican can find a place within the life of the Catholic Church.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on the old feast of the Chair of Peter at Rome (18 January) and concludes on the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul (25 January). By the intercession of these great apostles, may all Christians come to a renewed understanding of the central importance of the Petrine ministry at the service of the universal Church, and may the experience of those who have come to recognize that importance from other Christian traditions be a catalyst to genuine ecumenical endeavour: that all may be one!