Thinking allowed

Unity, Rome and all that

Today the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity begins. In some Anglic­an cal­en­dars (though not in Eng­land) this date, 18 Janu­ary, would nor­mally be the feast of the Con­fes­sion of St Peter. The Week of Pray­er ends next Sunday, 25 Janu­ary, a date kept as the feast of the Con­ver­sion of St Paul.

The Con­fes­sion of Peter is kept on a date observed in the cal­en­dar of the Roman Cath­ol­ic Church as ‘the Chair of Peter’, which com­mem­or­ates the arrival of Peter in Rome, the date from which Roman Cath­ol­ics account him as the first Bish­op of Rome, the first Pope (the ‘Chair’ is the cathedra, or chair from which a bish­op teaches in their cathed­ral church — the tra­di­tion­al Chair of St Peter is enshrined in a mag­ni­fi­cent baroque monu­ment by Bern­ini at the west end of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vat­ic­an). This feast has been com­mem­or­ated in Rome from the earli­est times, and the gos­pel read­ing for the day is tra­di­tion­ally the acclam­a­tion by Peter of Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Son of the liv­ing God (Mat­thew 16.16). It is this con­fes­sion of faith which gives its name to the feast as com­mem­or­ated by some Anglicans.

The Con­ver­sion of Paul, of course, com­mem­or­ates the event described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9.1–9), where Paul, jour­ney­ing to Dam­as­cus to per­se­cute the early Chris­ti­ans, is way­laid by a blind­ing light, and called to serve Christ, whom he has been persecuting.

These two days, the Con­fes­sion of Peter and the Con­ver­sion of Paul, brack­et the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity. As Paul’s con­ver­sion reminds us that we are united in a call to pro­claim Jesus among the nations, so Peter’s con­fes­sion reminds us that we are united in pro­claim­ing the inspired know­ledge of Jesus Christ ‘the Son of the liv­ing God’.

Dur­ing the Week of Pray­er I shall be spend­ing some time in Rome. I hope to be able to pray at the tomb of St Peter, and to vis­it also the basilica of St Paul. Here are some of the ancient memori­als of the Chris­ti­an faith. I hope also to be present at an audi­ence with the Pope, the Bish­op of Rome. Even though Anglic­ans are not in com­mu­nion with the See of Rome, it is that unity — along with unity with our oth­er sep­ar­ated broth­ers and sis­ters — for which we pray most espe­cially next week.

As Anglic­ans, we have long con­sidered ourselves to rep­res­ent the Via Media. His­tor­ic­ally this has meant the ‘middle way’ between the ‘extremes’ of Geneva and Rome, between extreme Prot­est­ant­ism and extreme pap­al­ism. Over the last hun­dred years or so it has per­haps been expressed in the Lam­beth Quad­ri­lat­er­al, emphas­ising our gath­er­ing around the fourfold points of the bible (as con­tain­ing all things neces­sary to sal­va­tion), the sac­ra­ments of bap­tism and the euchar­ist, the liturgy of the Book of Com­mon Pray­er, and gov­ern­ment by bish­ops, suit­ably adap­ted to dif­fer­ent places. We have, per­haps, seen ourselves as a pos­sible mod­el of unity without uni­form­ity, a com­mu­nion of self-gov­ern­ing Churches, not behold­en to one anoth­er, nor gov­erned by one anoth­er, each express­ing the essen­tials of the Chris­ti­an faith in its own area. Each Church too has provided ways in which the bish­op of a dio­cese can take coun­sel with rep­res­ent­at­ives of all their people, laity and clergy alike. This was an import­ant part of the Eng­lish Reform­a­tion, led by the bish­ops and enacted by the people in Par­lia­ment, and it was a prin­ciple fur­ther developed by the Amer­ic­an Church, and then in syn­od­ic­al gov­ern­ment in New Zea­l­and and else­where. All these have been import­ant con­tri­bu­tions by Anglic­ans to our under­stand­ing of the Church — both of our own Church and as a vis­ion of a wider, united Church. Unity not uniformity.

In our time we seem to be strain­ing at the bonds of unity which tie us to each oth­er, to our bish­ops and to the Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury. In this Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity let us not for­get to pray for all our fel­low Anglic­ans — that our com­mu­nion may not be frag­men­ted — as well as for reunion with those with whom we are not cur­rently in communion.

May we all be one, that the world may believe.