Do you love me?
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908 as the Octave of Christian Unity. The dates of the week were proposed by an American Anglican priest, Father Paul Wattson, cofounder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. He conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter, the 18th of January, and concluding with the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul on the 25th January. This proposal was viewed with considerable suspicion and Father Watson was regarded as traitor to Anglicanism and the Protestant Episcopal Church. But he was acting upon a very ancient Christian intuition and custom.
The earliest image of the two apostles in Christian art, an image maintained in Eastern Orthodox iconology, shows them embracing each other. There is besides an old liturgical rule that on the feast of St. Peter, St. Paul must also be commemorated and vice versa. In fact in the old calendar of the Church the day after this feast of SS. Peter and Paul called for a Commemoration of St. Paul just in case St. Peter had gotten rather too much attention the day before. As Fr. Knox put it: “the Church behaves like an anxious mother arranging birthday parties for a couple of morbidly jealous twins.” But the meaning is clear: these two apostles are a sign of the unity of the Church, perhaps the most ancient sign of that unity.
Of course you do not need to talk about unity unless there is disunity. So there was disunity at one point between Peter and Paul and it was over the biggest issue in the early Church: the question whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary laws. When Peter left Jerusalem, he went to Antioch and found there a Church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Which group was he to eat with? Kosher or Non-kosher? Safer, he thought, to eat only with the Kosher crowd. Paul objected that Peter knew better and so he did: in his sermon in the Acts of the Apostles Peter says: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”. Paul after all was the Apostle to the Gentiles and he knew well the perils of Christian disunity. With more than a little sarcasm he mocks the Corinthians who say “ “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” So Peter submitted. The Church remain united.
How different would the subsequent history of the Church been, if this had not happened. You have to wonder if there would even have been a subsequent history if the Church. Certainly Peter had received the promise “the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church”. Yet that very promise tells us where disunity comes from, namely hell and where unity comes from, namely God. Our good friend, Bishop Ray Sutton, a solid evangelical to be sure, has said: “the reason that the Western Church is not taken seriously is because of our disunity.” How different the history of the modern Church would have been, if the Church had spoken and acted with one heart and one mind. The truth is that most of Christian disunity in our own day comes from the determination of Western denominational churches to seek not the unity of the Gospel but the approval of the world. We should know better.
There is, however, more to the unity of SS. Peter and Paul and that is the unity of suffering. They were martyrs: the bearer of the Keys of Heaven crucified upside down; the bearer of the Sword of the Word beheaded. It is the unity of suffering, the unity of being united with Christ crucified. Fr. Paul Courtier, a Roman Catholic priest in the early 20th Century, conceived the idea of spiritual ecumenism, that to long for and pray for the unity of the Church was above all else to suffer with Christ: “O Christ, make us suffer so intensely by reason of our separation that your prayer within us may penetrate us, may take possession of us, have free course in us, and ascend to your Father”. The decline and fall of Western Christianity is largely the result of not wanting to suffer, to fit in with world and it’s passing fancies and follies.
What is the plan? We want know. How will it happen? When the Cistercian Nun Blessed Maria Gabriella who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 offered her life for the cause of Christian unity, she did not have a plan, she left that to the Father. To care about Christian unity, to make it your passion is to suffer, maybe not unto death but at least at least to suffer fools. Like the current Archbishop of Canterbury who thought it would be just a real good idea to show up at a visit to Pope Francis with a bevy of women priests in tow. The Pope, however, spoke with apostolic authority, the authority of St. Peter and St. Paul: "We cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the world. . . The goal of full unity may seem distant indeed. . . it remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way."
“The aim which should direct our every step along the way”. That is a big claim and not one that holds much attraction these days. Of course some will say Jesus told us to love everybody and we must love folks in other churches. Well, Jesus said no such thing. He said “love your neighbor”. And to Peter he says “if you love me, love the Church.”
The reversal of Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ is the only thing that will reverse the Western denominations ’ denial of Christ. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter and he asks us as well. Three times: “do you love me?” Three times: “Fed my lambs. . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep.”
This is part of our Anglican Patrimony, something that a Pope taught us to recognize and cherish, when we seemed to have forgotten all about it. I have already mentioned Fr. Wattson but he belongs to “a great cloud of witnesses”. Keble, Newman and Pusey, the Oxford Movement Fathers, uncovered in the Church of England, a theological affinity and identity with Rome and Constantinople. Lord Halifax initiated the first modern ecumenical dialogue of any sort, when he and others – with much disapproval from the C of E establishment – met with Cardinal Mercier to discuss the possibility of corporate reunion of Canterbury and Rome. The Society of the Holy Cross has always had as one of its stated purposes to pray and work for the reunion of the Church. It is forefront in the apostolate of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. All pressing us with the question of Jesus:
Do you love me?