Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rome & Canterbury: The Elusive Search for Unity

My first reaction to the idea of unity between Roman Catholicism and my beloved Episcopal tradition was, why? We don’t want to give up our women clergy and be subjected to the Pope’s authority, to name two stumbling blocks, and they aren’t exactly seeing it our way. To me it just seemed better to let us each do it our own way. I grew up in the Roman tradition, but my identity now is strongly Episcopalian; I like being Catholic but not Roman, loving the same tradition and sacraments, but in a way I find much more open and inclusive.

Mary Reath, author of Rome & Canterbury: The Elusive Search for Unity, makes a strong case for the importance of unity, as well as its possibility. Reath has served on vestries at two New York Episcopal parishes, Trinity Church and St. Luke in the Fields, and is a governor of the Anglican Centre in Rome. While working on this book, she was a visiting scholar at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

Reath’s mother was Roman Catholic and she, herself, attended Catholic grammar school. Her interest in the idea of unity began during a course she took at the Anglican Centre in 1998. “I was fascinated and, more accurately, stunned to learn that the divisions in Christianity were seen not as a given, but just the opposite rather,” she writes. “The church’s redeeming message of love and hope for all is compromised, when it is itself divided. Furthermore, that there were and are determined high level talks working to rebuild relations and to bring the churches back together.”

She returned home “craving to understand more about what it was that really separated these two prominent and influential worldwide churches.” She found a great deal of scholarly material, but not much written for lay people, “and certainly nothing that covers this search for unity from the historical, doctrinal, and practical angles.”

She has written that book, and her work has led her to believe the efforts toward unity will bear fruit. She quotes Cardinal Walter Kasper who said that when Germans awoke on Nov. 9, 1989, after dreaming that their children might someday walk through the Brandenburg Gate, they had no way of knowing “that they themselves would do it that afternoon.”

My spiritual director, an Episcopal priest, used to pray everyday for the unity of the two traditions, even though she is a cradle Episcopalian. After reading this book I, who have lived in both worlds, also understand the value in finding unity. I’m just a bit more skeptical than Reath about it happening anytime soon. But then, as Cardinal Kasper pointed out, walls can come down when we least expect them to.

Reath says secular leaders are facing similar issues in considering bonds and boundaries between countries, and that this is part of the reason for the identity crisis between the two traditions. “We place enormous emphasis on personal choice and on private conscience; it’s hard for us to see the need for the universal, for the group. But when you get right down to it, individual freedom is meaningless in isolation. It only comes into play when we are in relationship and participate in the give and take of establishing the common good for all.”

With this book, she has made an important contribution toward this goal.

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