This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. Central to the work of the Council, this was the decree that changed the relationship of other churches with the Roman Catholic Church, both in this country and around the world.
Members, leaders and representatives of all the churches in the North East joined with our catholic sisters and brothers in a moving service held at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle on November 15th, led by Bishop Seamus Cunningham. The preacher, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, shared a series of personal anecdotes reflecting on his own ecumenical experiences and encounters, which included a warm tribute to his friendship in Rome with Normal Goodall – a name remembered fondly by some of us from an older generation and Congregational background.
At an earlier point in the service, in a time of penitence, Margaret Harvey shared her memories on how things were for catholics prior to Vatican II, and I was invited to bring my reflections on the changes we have known since. Colleagues who were at the service have since urged me to post my refections here: you will find them below.
The service concluded with an act of commitment which led into words that are familiar to Christians who have been caught up in the movement towards greater unity: “For we are strangers no longer, but pilgrims on the way to your kingdom.”
Changes after the Decree on Ecumenism
Over the past 50 years the world has seen walls built and walls demolished. The joy expressed when barriers fall, as in Berlin just 25 years ago, and the agony when they are strengthened and enlarged, as continues today in the Holy Land, make the significance of this ecumenical venture in which we are all engaged clear enough.
And let us be clear, too, that the barriers that were there between us just fifty years ago were not erected all from one side. As a child I recall a powerful sermon being preached by our Congregational minister upon the iniquities of the mass being celebrated in the catholic church just 100 yards down the street, though I’m happy to recall that my father, a gentle and mild-mannered man, came home that day visibly angered. As a 6th former I helped organise the school’s SCM group, which invited all manner of clergy to come and address us. But am I right in thinking no catholic priest was ever invited? – I think I am. The wall will have been there – and whatever our natural inclinations, it seemed impenetrable.
And then things moved so swiftly. I was training for the ministry by now, and the cleaners at our theological college were all catholic women from Kilburn, and as they shared with us their bemusement about what was happening Sunday by Sunday we wondered ourselves, and noted that even Karl Barth had journeyed to Rome to see for himself what was happening. And my strongly Calvinistic Dutch father-in-law to be recounted how in their typically segregated village barriers were now being crossed, as people from the two communities were meeting and talking and studying the scriptures together.
Coming out of those years of theological studies and formation I found a very different church scene from the one I had known in my childhood. The catholic priest was a key figure in the local fraternal (they were still called that then). A little group of nuns were the liveliest figures in the council of churches. Come the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, you were as likely to find yourself worshipping in the catholic church as any other. It was clearly wrong that catholics were not able to be part of the British Council of Churches – but new structures eventually took care of that.
When we hear claims nowadays that we are in an ecumenical winter again, we need to recognise how far we have come. It was so much colder back then. But if we are to press forward and move beyond this or that impasse which careless actions and ill-judged pronouncements seem to erect from time to time, we need to take to heart the insight of the Decree which reminds us “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without inner conversion”. We share this time of penitence, recognising that so much depends on us.