The week of prayer for Christian unity has changed its character over the years. It used to be the ecclesiastical version of birdmen leaping off a beach pier contest; summed up as “see how far you can’t actually fly in a batman or birdman suit before crashing into the sea below after your hubristic impractical leap into the unforgiving air”.
But of late, perhaps more prosaically, it has become more the triumph of cosmetic presentation over reality – to be more topical, a sort of ecclesiastical drag show.
Who was it who sat down in a committee room six months ago to plan the Anglican and Catholic ecumenical road show for this January? One can imagine their thought processes.
“I know, let’s ask the Pope to commission pairs of bishops to go out together to do something uncontroversial and above all unaccountable. Something that sidesteps criticism. It would of course present a totally different optic to the real relationship between the churches as defined by Pope Leo XIII, but Pope Francis likes making a mess. He might be up for it?”
The mess was made and in a step that defied courtesy, theology, sensitivity, historicity and decorum, the Anglicans made sure one of their “bishops” was a woman. After all, in the week of prayer for ecumenical unity, if you see a theological wound, why not rub salt in it?
The full programme at the Anglican Centre in Rome covered the usual spectrum of cosmetic and well-meaning generous interaction, while an Anglican choir gave a concert in St Peter’s Basilica.
In case that was not enough to move the dial on the ecumenical scale, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission arranged for the bishops to attend a “Growing Together” event, a week-long summit of ecumenical discussion and pilgrimage. Each Catholic bishop was paired with a non-Catholic for “an important and symbolic occasion for Anglican-Catholic ties and the advancement of ecumenical dialogue”.
The difficulty is that dialogue was halted some time ago by two particular events.
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