Howard Levett on how ecumenism is alive and well and living in Venice

Not so strange a claim, since from the time of this city’s foundation (some claim as far back as the fifth century AD, and built in the middle of the sea), a certain independence from the dominant political and religious hierarchical cultures surrounding Venice has been one of its most attractive features, alongside the heritage of the artistic, architectural and musical features with which the city has been blessed.

The Anglican chaplaincy in Venice from whence this piece is penned was founded as long ago as 1605 when the diplomatic representative of James I of England (and VI of Scotland), Sir Henry Wotton, negotiated with La Serenissima’s authorities to be allowed to bring with him his own (CofE) chaplain who would be permitted to conduct services which all Venetians who so wished could attend. Thus in the fraughtest of times, when the Chistians of Europe of both Catholic and Protestant stripes were literally at one another’s throats, this remarkable arrangement was possible in Venice.

History of tolerance

There is no denying that Wotton had a ‘subtext’ or hidden agenda behind his request – he genuinely believed that Venice was ripe for ‘conversion’ from its Roman Catholic heritage to joining up with one of the ‘Protestant’ denominations that were being established in most of northern Europe and in very particular joining up with the Church of England, toward which end he arranged for the BCP to be translated in to Italian! Suffice to say that despite a succession of chaplains throughout the centuries since, Sir Henry’s goal was never achieved.

There is no record of any ill feeling towards the presence of an Anglican chaplaincy in Venice by Venetians nor by their religious and political authorities. Quite the reverse appears to be true, but then Venice also tolerated the presence of Lutherans and other Protestants and most famously of course, the presence of both Turks and Jews.

Ecumenical Council

The advent of the ecumenical movement from the early twentieth century onwards was welcomed in this city of ancient toleration and following Vatican II a huge flowering of that movement grew from soil already well prepared for it.

For decades there has been a monthly meeting of the Venice Ecumenical Council of churches, the major player in it being the Patriarchate of Venice. Catholic, Orthodox (`Eastern and ‘Oriental), Anglican, Lutheran, Waldensian-Methodist, Adventist churches are all represented on this council and events of real significance are celebrated throughout the year from a complete ten days’ worth of services held every day around and in Christian Unity week in January to non-stop ecumenical Bible reading held in one church or another during April.

During 2013, when the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II was celebrated, each of the non-Roman Catholic churches was invited to produce a paper on their particular denomination’s views and reactions to the documents produced by the Council 50 years on, at a whole-day conference held in the Patriarchal seminary next to the magnificent Salute church. The day began with prayers involving all the participants in St George’s Anglican Church nearby. The papers produced have since been published in an attractive booklet at the expense of the Patriarchate.

The day itself ended with a beautifully devised liturgy in which the clergy of all the participating denominations anointed each other, along with the lay members of their various flocks who were also present, with oils that had been specially consecrated for the occasion in the Seminary’s newly restored chapel.

Close relationship

Of fundamental importance for true ecumenical flourishing on an ongoing basis is the close relationship built over many years and with the close involvement of successive chaplains at St George’s and successive parish priests of the two local parishes of Santa Maria del Rosario (the `Gesuati’) and of San Trovaso. The closeness grows deeper as we do more and more in common, including, if not quite yet full `concelebrations’ of the Eucharist, a sharing that is all but.

On Palm Sunday this year a joint blessing of Palms is planned in the Campo outside St George’s Church before each congregation then proceeds into its own churches for the Mass, a stage surely on the journey towards that full communion Our Lord desires so much. Worth mentioning too is that a Philippino congregation uses St George’s on a weekly basis and at Christ Church Trieste, a linked chaplaincy, a large Romanian Orthodox Congregation uses the building on a weekly basis.

It would be a wrong and imbalanced to conclude without reference to other remarkable features of the ecumenical scene in Venice. Last year saw the celebration by the Lutheran Church in Venice of its own 200-year-old presence in he city. In fact the ceiling of the Lutheran church caved in not long before the celebrations of the anniversary were to take place – to the rescue came the Catholic Church of the Apostles opposite the Lutheran building – and the major services were held there instead. The Catholic church has also provided accommodation for the Lutheran Pastor in Venice.

Thus we have come a long way from days when Christians were at one another’s throats. Now it seems, at least in this great city, with its already long-standing noble history of tolerant embrace, they are already well on the way to turning to live in each other’s hearts! Laus Deo. M