Posted January 03, 2011 in MH Robin Hood's Bay, England:
Living Ecumenism in England

by Shatzi Louisa Duffy.

The hesitancy on her face was unmistakeable. "We are all ready for Mass," I smiled. "Are you?"

The woman nodded and took a deep breath. One determined step and our beloved Methodist friend crossed 480 years of division to attend her first Catholic Mass.

This was just one of the many experiences we have had of "living ecumenism."

There has always been an ecumenical dimension to our apostolate here in England, but the call has become more urgent in recent years, for many Protestants and Catholics now feel like a remnant in our neo-pagan culture.

In our ecumenical engagements, we of Madonna House have entered into a very complex reality—one that comes from the Reformation.

The relationship between Roman Catholics and Anglicans has a long history, beginning in 1531 when King Henry VIII declared himself "pope" of the Church in England. After that, with the help of Thomas Cranmer, Henry destroyed monasteries and confiscated their land selling it to friends and wealthy landowners.

Nevertheless, at the time of Henry’s death, England was still Catholic in belief.

The ensuing struggle, which played out over many years, included bloody persecution. Approximately 300 Protestants and as many Catholics were martyred as successive monarchs alternated between the "old faith" of Roman Catholicism, the new Anglican faith, and Lutheran influences coming from the continent.

Although most English Christians today would agree that the role played by Henry VIII was dishonorable, there are still divergent views of the English Reformation.

Some contend that it addressed the errors and abuses of the medieval Catholic faith and that Anglicanism returned the faith to its Anglo-Saxon, Celtic roots.

Some see Anglicanism as an "English branch of the Catholic Church." Catholics, however, do not accept this claim, asking how a Church which rejects the authority and jurisdiction of the See of Peter, can claim to be united with the universal Church founded by Christ himself. Henry’s declaration, they say, was an Act of State that ruptured the Body of Christ.

One can argue that the Reformation was imposed on the English people, and recent scholarship indicates that most of the population tried to "muddle through" the crisis, hoping the controversy would die out and leave people in peace.

Until the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth’s commissioners continued to go "on visitation" to local parishes, forcing them to destroy or sell altar vessels, crucifixes, images of saints or anything else that smacked of "popery." And executions for the faith continued into the 1680s.

Eventually the new state religion was accepted by the majority of people, though conformity was reluctant and partial. Those who continued to be Roman Catholic were a small minority, and discrimination against them continued in various ways.

It wasn’t until 1829 that England passed the Catholic Emancipation Act—a law which allowed Catholics to purchase and inherit property and to practise their faith without incurring civil penalties. Then in 1850, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was re-established.

Shortly after that, the Oxford Movement revived the "catholic wing" of the Anglican Church, sparking lively public debate.

(Its most famous orator, John Henry Newman, a convert to Catholicism, was beatified by Pope Benedict in September 2010 during his historic state visit.)

But it was only after Vatican II (1961-1965) that the wind of the Holy Spirit began thawing the glacial sectarianism.

Theological dialogue, ecumenical conferences, and prayer meetings paved the way for new friendships.

But though Catholics and non-Catholics stopped crossing the street to avoid one another, they still would not enter each others’ churches, not even for weddings or funerals.

Dramatic changes following the Council gave rise to the hope that institutional reunion would occur soon.

Some weighty matters, however, remain, including the exercise of authority, especially that of the pope, and the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. Some are asking whether intellectual and theological dialogue has gone as far as it can go.

But though it now seems unlikely that this unity will be achieved any time soon, God’s energies are never depleted, and progress continues to be made.

At a 2006 ecumenical conference in Durham, the Holy Spirit unfolded another surprise. Theologians from the Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions were presented with a new approach to dialogue called "receptive ecumenism."

This means that instead of arguing for one’s own position, one tries to affirm all the good in the other’s tradition. The idea caught on and has appeared widely in journals and magazines.

Fr. Don Bolen (a Madonna House associate who has since become bishop of the Saskatoon diocese in Canada) represented the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at this meeting.

During a luncheon conversation with Charlie Cavanaugh (then director of MH England) and myself, Fr. Bolen emphasized the need for a pastoral program fostering unity at the grass roots level. For theological agreement alone does not heal the wounds caused by centuries of anger and strife.

Impressed by the idea of grassroots ecumenism, Charlie and I headed home to pray about implementing it.

Eventually, our Madonna House in England initiated a monthly ecumenical prayer meeting for local clergy and laity.

At the same time, "Churches Together," our local ecumenical group, took on new life.

Under the leadership of Anglican vicar Steve Foster, the group invited speakers who could hopefully deepen our mutual understanding. The lectures covered a wide range of topics, including the "Jewish Jesus," prison witness, Bikers for Jesus, Receptive Ecumenism, and radio evangelisation.

There were also some surprises. A Methodist lay preacher, for example, led us through an exercise in lectio divina, a Catholic way of praying with Scripture. Such experiences of unity energized us.

We began looking for more areas of collaboration in ordinary life. MH staff worker Daniel Rabideau and I helped lead discussion groups at an ecumenical Alpha course at the Methodist Church.

And our MH family attends Fair Trade fairs, coffee mornings, Lenten soup lunches and harvest festivals, which are still important events in English rural life.

At these affairs, we serve tea or help count the money for Christian Aid, the Anglican Bishop’s charity. Our friends reciprocate in generous ways, doing everything from digging in our garden to teaching us to skin a rabbit.

We have learned about the Scandinavian Kristingle Advent service for children, and we shared with our friends our Madonna House customs for Christmas and Eastertime.

In past years, we also participated in an interdenominational Good Friday walk in which a large wooden cross is carried through the streets of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Not surprisingly, we have experienced some uncomfortable moments, like the Bible study day that turned into a pitch for "Christian Zionism," the belief that the modern State of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s promises to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, every experience has taught us something of value.

Our presence in prayer at important events continues to deepen and affirm our experience as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are coming to know that, though we are divided, Christ is not.

This year, we were invited to attend the installation service for the new Anglican Bishop of Whitby as well as the annual Covenant Service at the Methodist Church, and we did so.

More recently, we decided to take a bolder step: attending selected services in other churches. In doing this, we Catholics needed to be clear about own identity and the teachings of our Church, for though others could receive communion in different denominations, we could not.

It was in this issue that we really faced the pain of division between us.

Non-Roman Catholic Christians usually see receiving communion as a means to unity. The Catholic Church teaches that it is a sign of unity already achieved.

For Catholics, the act of receiving Holy Communion is an affirmation of our belief in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in all Catholic teaching, including the authority of the Pope in Rome.

Because many non-Catholic Christians do not know that their understanding of the Eucharist is different from ours, they do not always understand why we cannot receive communion in their churches.

And to make the situation even more confusing, some Roman Catholics do receive communion in other churches out of embarrassment or a false sense of charity. But the reality is that love only flourishes when it is rooted in truth.

So, when the Madonna House staff go to pray with Christians in other churches, we do not receive communion, though we do receive people’s love and affection. This mutual exchange in love has led us into the "recovery of fraternity" rooted in our common baptism. It has also opened the door to deeper dialogue and reflection.

A minister shared with us that he would like to believe in the true presence, but finds that he cannot. And one Methodist friend said, "I’d like to know more about what Catholics really think."

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently listed several points for the next step in living ecumenism.

The first is prayer. The unity of the Church is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We cannot make it happen.

Secondly, we need to form groups to overcome "religious illiteracy," groups where we can learn from each other and enrich ourselves.

Finally, he said that unity will not be possible without deep, inner conversion. Unless our hearts are like Christ’s, we cannot be one in him.

Receptive ecumenism requires that we respect one another’s traditions and stand in the pain of our differences until such time as the Holy Spirit overcomes institutional division. Though we may not see structural unity any time soon, no one can limit the love and unity in our hearts.

In many ways, these experiences of living ecumenism are only an extension of what Madonna House has been doing in Robin Hood’s Bay ever since its beginning. Because of love, we have always offered hospitality of heart and home to whoever comes.

And when someone asks us why we bother to attend a non-Catholic service when we do not receive communion, our answer is always the same: "We are here," we say, "because we love you."

Shatzi was stationed in MH England twice for a total of nine years, the last four of which were as local director. She has been back in MH Combermere since November 2010.


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