In July 1949, Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, died. Political leaders and ordinary Catholics wanted to attend his funeral. But there was a problem – he was a member of the Church of Ireland and his funeral service was taking place inside a Protestant church. Catholics were forbidden from attending Protestant services. And so the Catholics had to wait outside the cathedral until the service was over.
Fast forward to November 1974 and the funeral service of Erskine Childers, the fourth president of Ireland. This also took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, for Erskine Childers was also a member of the Church of Ireland. But now times had changed, and Catholics did not have to wait outside. They were able to attend the service and pay their respects to a great man on his sudden passing.
What made things different, of course, was Vatican II and the opening out of the Catholic Church to the world, and the thawing of its relations with the other Christian churches. Steady progress towards greater Christian unity has been made in the decades since the Council. Agreements have been reached with other churches on the fundamental nature of baptism and eucharist and on the question of justification by faith.
Here in Ireland, with our difficult history, great strides have been made in recent decades also, and great gratitude is due to church leaders and others who, often at considerable cost to themselves, extended the hand of friendship across the religious and political divide.
But major challenges remain. Some people are uneasy about the ecumenical movement and want nothing to do with it. For some Catholics, to dialogue seriously with the reformed churches is to risk compromising on the truth, which they believe the Catholic Church alone has in all its fullness. For some Protestants, what the ecumenical movement is about is Protestants bending the knee to Rome. To engage in ecumenical dialogue is to lose through compromise what the Reformers lived and died for.
For ecumenists, on the other hand, there is a fear that the move towards greater unity has lost urgency. They are disappointed over failure to move where movement is obviously demanded – on inter-communion, on marriage, on so much else. They are frustrated over doctrines and laws and attitudes which seem to hold the churches back rather than draw them together. Indeed, it seems that even after the great progress of the last five decades, the Catholic Church is still no closer to full communion with anyone in the West. Women’s ordination, human sexuality, the role of the pope and church authority all remain seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But while these obstacles seem capable of keeping the churches divided for now, it is important to acknowledge all that we do hold in common. We have broad agreement on what is known as “the deposit of faith”: the creeds and the canon of scripture. We believe in the same God and are in the same business of building God’s Kingdom.
There is so much we can learn from each other. As we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we thank God for all that unites us, and pray for ever greater unity in the years to come.