Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
This month sees the week of prayer for Christian unity. This is marked by both local and national gatherings for prayer and shared liturgical worship. This corporate expression of prayer for unity is not a substitute for personal commitment. Of all the possible concerns for personal intercession and private study, Christian unity must be a priority for every individual Christian.
One of the recurring problems in spiritual direction is the directee’s focus on self. This is all well and good and it is a natural consequence of the pursuit of a living and growing personal relationship with God. But it is not an alternative or substitute for involvement in the corporate life of the Church. Our spiritual identity as a child of God, given to us in baptism, also grafts us into the body of Christ as a living member. There is no spiritual life without Church life.
Through my work as a retreat house warden, I realize that there is a small minority who just do not find a place to ‘fit in’. There are, of course, those called to solitary life – but that is always a vocation recognized by the wider Church in one way or another. These exceptions allowed, all Christian living is community living. We do not say ‘My Father’, we say ‘Our Father’; and despite the seventy-three hymns in Mission Praise that begin with T, our worship is marked by the pronoun ‘we’.
To press the point a little further, it could be demonstrated that even the most personal experiences of contemplative prayer, of being in the presence of the uncreated light, are corporate. These are experiences of being one with the communion of saints in light. It is not a coincidence that great mystics have also been energetic in apostolic ministry, church politics and administration. Think of St Theresa of Avila, St Francis, St Catherine of Siena and St Bernard of Clairvaux, to name but four.
This brings me back to Church unity.
Every individual member of Christ’s Body is diminished and harmed by the wound of disunity. Our soul’s health and the salvation of souls depend upon the recovery of real and visible unity. ‘A hopeless task, I hear you say; for men definitely, but not for God. That is why Christian unity will be achieved as much by personal prayer as by corporate action. The one must give life to the other. If prayer for unity is placed at the centre of our spiritual life, we will be changed and challenged by it. We will experience a vocation to live ecumenically – that is, to live sharing as much as possible with other Christians of all traditions and resisting creating more division by our own actions.
For many readers of this magazine, that will mean re-examining our attitude to members of our own church community and those in the parish next door. It is little short of blasphemous to pray for unity in Christ and then not to seek peace and pursue it with the person next door. Why not join in the prayer movement for an agreed date for the celebration of Easter by all the Historic Churches? That is simple, practical and, in God, possible – what a difference that could make to every one of us!