On the night before his Passion, Jesus prayed for his followers: “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” (John 17: 21-22)
After the Second Vatican Council, in two Ecumenical Directories in 1967 and 1993, bishops were urged to set up Commissions in their dioceses to further the work of Christian Unity.
The later Directory (paras. 43 and 44) sets out the duties of those Commissions. They can be summarised by saying that, under the Bishop, the Commission should promote ecumenical activity in the diocese.
This may be by organising workshops and seminars for the formation of both clergy and laity, and by encouraging a realisation of the ecumenical dimension to all aspects of life, for example in preaching, catechetics and other forms of teaching and pastoral activity (cf 44d), both at diocesan level and locally in parishes.
It should encourage friendliness with other Christians (44e) as well as promoting spiritual ecumenism (44.c), that is, for example, praying and studying the scriptures with other Christians.
When necessary, the commission may co-operate with other Christians to witness to the Christian faith in such areas as education, morality and social justice (44h).
The members of the commission are appointed by the Bishop and include both clergy and laity from all parts of the diocese. Most of its members have experience of working with, or membership of, various ecumenical bodies, not just at local level but at intermediate (eg county or large city) and at national level.
Some contribute to theological discussion, both official and unofficial, with other Christians. Sometimes, Christians from other traditions attend the commission’s meetings, either as observers or by giving a talk.
Reached a plateau?
At the present time, there is a view that ecumenism has reached a kind of plateau and this has caused some Christians who have their roots in the Reformation, to feel that the path to unity has reached its destination.
In other words, they are now working together, they often worship together and that denominational differences are no longer important.
That is not to say that his view is shared by all Protestants or Anglicans and talks, both official and unofficial, are still in taking place and making progress, with some success, between different traditions and indeed with the Catholic Church.
It must be said again, however that the goal of Catholic ecumenism, as it is with the historic Churches of the East is one Church, sharing the same faith and one Eucharist in which all share.
That, it must be emphasised, does not mean uniformity; the witness to this is in the many different rites that already exist.
It is to this end, which will come in God’s good time, that the work of the Commission for Christian Unity, and other similar bodies is directed.
Canon Stephen Coonan
(Photo of Catholic and Anglican leaders in Chester Cathedral for a service for the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by Simon Caldwell, St Gabriel News and Media)