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Chhotebhai Chhotebhai
05 Feb 2024

A person's dying wish is sacred. Jesus' last desire, when "he raised his eyes to heaven" (Jn 17:1), was "that they may be one like us" (v11) and again "May they all be one" (v21). Jesus' call to oneness (unity) of his disciples was based on his deep relationship with the Father. That being so, can Christian unity be an optional extra for his disciples?

Ecumenism is rooted in the Greek oikoumene, which means "the whole inhabited world". It is not just about unity among Christians, even though that is what it is usually associated with. We have just concluded the Christian Unity Octave (CUO), which is celebrated every year between the 18th and 25th of January. This is a joint effort of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. Is it an annual ritual or something deeply spiritual, like the Father-Son relationship?

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) took ecumenism seriously with its decree "Unitatis Redintegratio". It affirms that "Promoting the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the chief concerns of the Second Vatican Council" (UR 1). "The Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers" (UR 9). "Worship in common is not merely possible but is recommended" (UR 15).

This is because the "Dogmatic Constitution of the Church" (Lumen Gentium) minces no words when it states, "The Church recognises that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptised, are honoured with the name of Christian … Likewise in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit … In Christ's disciples, the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united" (LG 15).

Perhaps the most beautiful expression of unity is found in the Psalms, "How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers all together. It is like fine oil on the head, running down Aaron's beard onto the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the heights of Zion, for there Yahweh bestows his blessings, everlasting life" (Ps 133:1-3)

The saddest day in church history is probably July 16, 1054, when two papal legates left a papal bull (notification) on the altar of the church of Patriarch Michael Cacrularius in Constantinople (Istanbul today), ex-communicating him and his followers. The bull was signed by Pope Leo IX, who ironically died on April 19, 1054, while his legates were still on their way to Constantinople. In a tit-for-tat move, the Patriarch ex-communicated the Pope and all the Western churches. This came to be known as the Great Schism of the East.

I have two questions. How could a papal bull be executed when there was a sede vacante (the chair was vacant)? The death of the Pope at such a time could also have meant that the Lord of love and unity was not pleased with this divisive act!

This mutual ex-communication (I have never been comfortable with the term) between the Catholic and Orthodox churches took 911 years to be revoked when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus embraced each other in 1965. That is one long wait. Can we allow any rift to drift for so long in today's fast-paced world of instant and breaking news?

If I understand correctly, the Catholic Church's earlier attitude was that of the Father looking out for his prodigal son(s) to return to the fold in organic unity. In India, this found fruition on September 20, 1930, when a part of the Malankara Church in Kerala, led by Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Ivanios, was received into full communion with the Catholic Church by the papal legate Bp Maria Benziger of Quilon. It is now known as the distinctive Syro-Malankara Rite within the Catholic Church. This re-unification apparently was the fruit of 300 years of strenuous efforts.

After Vatican II, I suspect the emphasis or goal changed from organic to sacramental unity, especially with the Anglican, Episcopalian and Lutheran Churches, which seemed doctrinally closest to the Catholic Church. Here in India, members of sister churches are permitted to receive communion in the Catholic Church under certain conditions, like belief in the Holy Eucharist, being free from grave sin, and the non-availability of their own pastor. These are positive signs of a thaw in earlier frosty relations couched in a superiority complex.

Christian ecumenism has moved a step further. It is no longer restricted to organic or sacramental unity. The emphasis now is on unity of purpose and action and solidarity in times of crisis, the need of the hour. If not now, then when?

Like the 13th-century saint St Francis of Assisi, his namesake Pope Francis is firmly committed to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. During this CUO, he invited the head of the Anglican Communion, Abp Justin Welby of Canterbury, to Rome. The latter celebrated the Eucharist in St Bartholomew's Church in Rome.

This got the hackles up of some supercilious Catholics. They termed this a heresy (another word that I detest), claiming that in 1896, Pope Leo XIII had declared that Anglican Orders were "absolutely null and utterly void", as reported by Robert Mickens in La Croix International this January 27. These supercilious beings used derogatory language against the Pope and the archbishop, sarcastically referring to the latter as "Mr Welby"!

This reminds me of the superciliousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were reprimanded by John the Baptist. "Brood of vipers … do not presume to tell yourselves – We have Abraham for our father – because I tell you God can raise children for Abraham from these stones" (Mat 3:7,9). This is a sinister warning to those who consider themselves doctrinally or chronologically superior.

I was again chosen as the coordinator for this year's CUO in my hometown, Kanpur. We had 5 services, 2 in Catholic and CNI churches each and one in a Methodist one. I share some interesting sound bytes.

We ensured that the newly consecrated Bishop of Allahabad, Louis Mascarenhas, was present for one of the services. He gave two beautiful examples of lived ecumenism. In Allahabad, now Prayagraj, there is a Bible Seminary with scholars from 32 different sister churches. In Etawah, also in UP, there is St Mary's Church that is used for services of both the Catholics and CNI. Even their pastors live together on the same campus.

This year, the organisers of the CUO chose "Unity is Strength" as their caller tune. Rev Nitin Cutting of All Souls' Church (CNI) said that unity did not mean uniformity; there could be unity in diversity. Rev Nitin Lal of the Methodist English Church gave an example of the NCC, whose motto was "Unity & Discipline". Unless we discipline ourselves, we will never be united.

Rev Antony K. K., Parish Priest of St Patrick's Church, fervently appealed for compassion and service to others to attain this goal. Dr Clarence Daniel, Principal of Christ Church Inter College, said that our ego is the biggest stumbling block to unity.

It reminded me of this little formula: EGO – E + D = GOD. Sometimes, just a minor course correction can work wonders. There is another course correction that I had proposed – to refrain from using the term "denominations", customarily used for currency notes. It was a term used by the colonial British to differentiate Christians. I always use the term "sister churches", which is more scriptural. "Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Rev 3:22). Notice that the word is used in the plural, not singular.

Kanpur has had a long ecumenical history. My experience dates back to 1971 when we organised a united Christmas carol programme. Thousands of Christians came out onto the streets in the 1970s against the draconian OP Tyagi Bill. In 1990, we took 13 buses to New Delhi for the rally at the Boat Club Lawns in support of Dalit Christians. During the floods on the banks of the Ganga, we organised a three-day medical relief camp. During the Kargil War in 1999, a large collection was made for the army welfare fund.

I am now reminded of the words of Rev Kenneth Sharp of the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ, an Anglican religious order. 'We may be divided on various issues – doctrinal, sacramental or ecclesiological. But we can always be united in service (diaconia). So be it (Amen).

* The writer is the coordinator of the Christian Unity Octave in Kanpur.

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