Jesus’ Great Wish
Is it a coincidence that it was at the Last Supper, according to John 17:21, that our Lord prayed, “That they may all be one”? On the very brink of his passion and death, Jesus feared disunity among his followers. And we have more than lived down to his pessimistic expectation!
Already in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters, we read about break-ups and rivalries between followers of Christ, and these have continued through two millennia. And that is to say nothing of the major schisms: between East and West; between popes and anti-popes; and between those who protested for reform and those who did not. Whenever men — and it is usually men — gain power, it leads to competition and division, in the Body of Christ no less so than in the body politic.
So in the Easter season, as Jesus’ prayer is ringing in our ears, we need to reflect on this shared failing. And it is a shared failing. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s recognised this when it strikingly acknowledged: “Quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church — for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). After centuries of blaming the schismatics, heretics and protesters for the breakdown in unity, it was revolutionary that the Church accepted clearly that there were failings on the Catholic side as well: we all have to reform if there is to be unity between the “separated brethren”.
Much progress has been made in the last century, with the ecumenical movement dating its modern origins to a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. It is said that it was the experience of Christians living and dying side by side in the trenches of World War I soon afterwards that helped members of different denominations see how much they had in common. The World Council of Churches has been operating since 1948. Though the Catholic Church is still an “observer” and not a full member, it is a very active observer. And there is Catholic participation in national and local ecumenical bodies.
The presence of leaders of other Christian traditions at Vatican II meant, some argue, that it was the first truly universal council since the 10th century. And the embraces of consecutive popes — from John XXIII onwards — with Orthodox patriarchs, Anglican archbishops of Canterbury, and Lutheran presidents have been the stuff of legend.
Perhaps Jesus’ prayer for unity came just before his death because he wanted the apostles to realise that their ongoing mission — to “bring the good news to the world”, to build God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” — would always be better achieved if people worked together rather than against each other. In South Africa, that was clearly characterised by the partnership between the Catholic Archbishop Denis Hurley, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dutch Reformed Dominee Beyers Naudé, and many others in challenging apartheid. Could they have achieved what they did working on their own?
Institutionally, it was seen in the national role of the South African Council of Churches. In KwaZulu-Natal it was operationalised at the local level by Diakonia in Durban and PACSA in Pietermaritzburg (though tragically, both organisations have now virtually collapsed due to poor management and lack of governance).
Fighting for justice and serving the poor have both proven to be great opportunities for ecumenical collaboration. At the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, our experience of Christians of all traditions (and, indeed, people of all faiths) coming together to serve the homeless has been just one particularly visible example. And that has been replicated. We have networks of churches in local areas (for example, in Musgrave and in Durban North) who work together each week to prepare sandwiches and deliver them to the Denis Hurley Centre, since they are not currently running feeding schemes.
“That they may be one” is certainly a desire that we should act together and if, in your church, you are running an outreach scheme for your area which is not in collaboration with neighbouring churches, you are missing a great opportunity to fulfil Christ’s wishes. But it is also a desire that we should pray together. Vatican II recognised that this is harder, but no less desirable. After all, as Christians we know “nothing is impossible to God”.
Palms at supermarket
Do Holy Week and Easter offer opportunities for this? When I was living in a Jesuit parish we had a lovely tradition. The local ministers realised that, even if the second part of the Palm Sunday service had to be separate, the blessings of palms was something that could easily be conducted ecumenically. So on Palm Sunday morning, communities from seven or eight different churches met at a central point — in front of a big local supermarket! The ministers collectively read the Scripture, blessed the palms and led the hymns. And then we each processed back to our respective churches promising — at least figuratively — to reunite again in the joy of the resurrection seven days later.
The best-known example of this in South Africa is the Good Friday Walk of Witness in Durban. This was conceived in 1985 by Archbishop Hurley and Paddy Kearney as a political act (to show solidarity with political detainees) but also as an ecumenical act: a chance for Christians to come together in a joint and public witness on this most holy of days. The Durban Walk of Witness continued for 34 years, until Covid got in the way. This year the Denis Hurley Centre is developing new ways of giving ecumenical witness that are appropriate for these times: the theme of walking with Christ and walking with the poor never changes, but the way in which we witness to that can and should develop with each age.
It is sad that this idea was not taken up widely across South Africa, whereas most towns in Britain have an ecumenical walk of witness on Good Friday. The hardest part with such initiatives always is getting started. When I worked in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2003, I was astonished that they did not have such an event “because no one had organised one”. Being a pesky Jesuit novice with time on my hands, I said I would organise one. All but one of the churches in Glasgow participated in that first walk and continued to do so for years thereafter.
This was especially important in a city with a history of sectarian violence. Apparently, police officers volunteered to accompany the walk specifically because they wanted to see with their own eyes “Left Footers” and “Prods” (the derogatory terms for Catholics and Protestants) walking side by side rather than fighting each other!
This year, Covid is making processions and marches and walks nearly impossible, but that means we have to find other ways of showing ecumenical solidarity. If you have access to the Internet and use it to attend services in your own church, why not take time to “visit” an online service from another Christian tradition and pray alongside them.
As we gaze at Christ dying on the cross, and remember his prayer “that they may be one”, let us all commit to one act during this holy season to do something to bring about Christ’s deepest desire for us.