John Hunwicke asks us to take seriously Pope Benedict’s call for unity

Many of us are by no means ashamed to be called ‘Papalist Anglicans’ because we regard unity with Rome as the ecumenical priority. Too few people realize that the movement of Prayer for Christian Unity was started by us, in 1908, when an American Episcopalian Franciscan called Fr Paul Wattson – subsequently suspended from preaching because of his concern for unity with Rome – founded what was called the Chair of Unity Octave, January 18-25. But Pope Benedict XVI is not so ignorant.

The address on Christian Unity which Pope Benedict gave in America after Easter this year did not simply deal with American concerns. Few readers will fail to see the relevance of the following paragraph to our current concerns.

Too often those who are not Christians, as they observe the splintering of Christian communities, are understandably confused about the Gospel message itself. Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called ‘prophetic actions’ that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of’local options’. Somewhere in this process the need for diachronic koinonia – communion with the Church in every age – is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel.

Benedict’s context here is what Anglican apparatchiks love to call Mission, although the Pope is too sensible to use that slippery term. He has been speaking about inter-dependency in a world characterized also by individualism and isolation. ‘For these reasons, a faithful witness to the Gospel is as urgent as ever.’ In such a world the need for Christians to give a clear account of the hope they hold is compromised by the lack of common witness.

We should listen closely to Benedict’s analysis. He astutely reminds us of the secular ideological dogma that ‘science alone is ‘objective’, so that we must ‘relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling where [it is] restricted to the shifting realm of personal experience.’

Let us take to heart the Pope’s criticism of ‘local options’. This suggests two points to me. Firstly, we must emphasize, in the months ahead, that it is not we who are changing fundamental Christian beliefs and practices by choosing local options, but those who wish to introduce women bishops or gay marriage. It is our opponents who are changing practices and choosing local options, and splintering Christian communities.

Second, the imperative of Unity does not mean that we can, obedient to the word and will of Christ, remain indefinitely as a controlled and tethered minority within the Church of England if it is, by its actions, renouncing the way of wider Christian unity. When considering such structures as maybe conceded to us, one of our overriding considerations must surely be: would such-and-such a proposed structure give us scope to follow a dialogue and a process which will lead to realignment and unity; or is it just what lepidopterists call a killing bottle?