That all may be one
Given on Sunday 17th January 2010 at Castleton Church by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
In the year 1881, there was born to a respectable, moderately prosperous couple in Lyons, the third city of France, ason who was to become one of the great apostles of Christian unity. His name was Paul Couturier, and he lived the first fifty years of his life in complete obscurity. He was ordained priest in 1906, and spent the next quarter of a century as a schoolmaster in a church school, teaching maths, physics and chemistry. His friends in Lyons knew him for his worth – his transparent honesty of purpose, the directness and simplicity of his love of God – but there was nothing to suggest that one day hewould become known arid loved throughout the world.
What happened was that in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Paul Couturier began to learn something about the world of Russian Orthodox Christianity, from the many refugees from the Bolshevik revolution who had found their way to Lyons. He took on the task of ministering to their community, and came to realise that truly to love them and to serve them meant respecting and learning more about their religious traditions. And so in 1932 he went to stay with a Benedictine Community at Amay in Belgium which had been founded specifically to pray for the reconciliation of divided Christendom, and especially for an increase in the understanding between the Eastern Church and the Western. The Community in fact worshipped in two chapels, one using the Latin rite and the other the Byzantine, and here Abb é Couturier entered much more fully into the spirit and tradition of the Eastern Church, and into the prayer of reconciliation.
Back in Lyons, he was gripped by the necessity of praying for unity, and in 1933 he organised a Triduum, a period of three days of prayer, specifically for unity between Christians and between Christian Churches. It was held from January 20th to the 22nd. He chose those days deliberately. Back in 1908 two Anglican priests, Spencer Jones and Paul Wattson, had founded, an octave of prayer, the 18th to the 25th of January, for reunion between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. Wattson and the community he founded, the Society of the Atonement, had in fact become Roman Catholics, but they had continued to pray for unity, and to use the 18th to the 25th as a special week of prayer. Paul Couturier built on those foundations, and he lived to see that week of prayer adopted by churches all over the world.
From 1935 to 1939 he travelled widely, spreading the message of prayer for unity. Wherever he went people were deeply moved by his sympathy, his understanding and his love. In 1938 he visited Archbishop Lang of Canterbury, who wrote later ‘The Abb é Couturier was one of the very few absolutely disinterested people who ever came to visit me. He did not come because he was in favour of this or that plan, but simply on account of the will and prayer of our Lord. His union with him was such that he could not help loving all those who, in their own degree, however small, were trying to love him’.
By 1939 Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant Church throughout Europe were joining in the annual Week of Prayer. It probably difficult for us to imagine now what a breakthrough, what a revolution, that was. For the first time after centuries of separation, Christians were meeting together to pray, and in parts of Europe where the divisions of the Reformation had been most bitter, old wounds were at last beginning to heal.
Then came the Second World War. Paul Couturier could no longer travel Europe as an apostle for unity, but he continued a vast international correspondence. Perhaps that's why in 1944, and at the age of 63, he was arrested by the Gestapo. His period of imprisonment ruined his health, but after the war, though he could not travel very much, he continued to pray and to pray and to pray for the unity of Christendom in his little oratory where, above the altar, there hung not one cross but three: a Catholic crucifix, an Orthodox cross given to him by an Anglican, and a plain cross of wood, a gift from Protestant friends. He died in 1953, and I have no doubt that he carries on his great work of prayer still, in the joy of the fullness of the presence of God.
Now I've given you this little potted biography of Paul Couturier not as an historical introduction to this year's Week of Prayer for Christ Unity which begins tomorrow. Rather, I've talked about the Abbé Couturier because he teaches us in what spirit to pray for the unity of Christians. Nothing can more easily become sterile and barren than a regular fixture performed solely out of duty. I’ve grown accustomed, and I expect you have too, to the Week of Prayer as part of the wallpaper of church life, a gesture in the direction of ecumenism which absolves us from thinking about our fellow Christians for another year. But this was not Paul Couturier’s vision. ‘Why do we pray for unity?’ he asked, and his answer was ‘Because our Lord made it his prayer first - that all might be one’. This was why this obscure schoolmaster-priest dared to stand up and urge everyone – popes and patriarchs and bishops and moderators and priests and pastors and people – to pray, because whatever our differences (he would never have us gloss over them, or make light of the things which still separate us) we can all agree, we must all agree, to unite ourselves with this prayer, the prayer of Christ, that all may be one. And the deeper we go into this mystery the more we discover this truth, that it is Christ himself who in us, and in our separated brothers and sisters, is praying for our unity in his faith and his love. ‘That all may one’. It is not a matter of opinion, or of taste, or of temperament. It doesn't depend on what you think of Methodists, of Roman Catholics or URC's. It is the prayer of Christ himself before his arrest: 'Holy Father, protect by the power of thy name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one as we are one.’ And as our prayer deepens for that unity, so we shall find this, that God has made us ready to receive more than we yet desire, and more than we shall ever deserve. That's a truth about prayer which holds good for every part of our lives, but especially perhaps in those areas where we are tempted to be cautious or afraid. I’m thinking particularly of our commitment to giving – giving ourselves, in time and service; giving our money, in stewardship and generosity; giving our Church, in ecumenism and love. We hold back because we are afraid of the risk, afraid of dependence on God alone. But if we go forward in prayer God will give us more than we ever desired, he will give us more than we shall ever deserve. Ask great things of God, expect great things of God, attempt great things for God.
One day towards the end of his life, Paul Couturier visited the little village of Ars, to pray at the tomb of the famous Curé d’Ars: The churchyard was full of trippers, and then a violent thunderstorm drove them all into the church, chattering and gossiping. The Abb é was already in the church, kneeling before the altar in prayer. As the noisy crowd hurried in, he neither moved nor spoke. But fifteen minutes later, all in that church were on their knees behind the small, silent figure. The trippers had become part of what the Abb é called the ‘invisible monastery’. We too are called to be part of God's invisible monastery of prayer, and if we have the penitence, the humility and the faith to look to God and not to ourselves, who can doubt that God will show us great things in the bringing together of his flock which is scattered abroad – that we may all be one.