A former member of the Lambeth Palace-based Community of St Anselm, Hannah Barr, currently an ordinand in training, reflects on lessons about Christian unity.
Christian unity had never really bothered me, if I’m honest. I grew up in joint Anglican-Baptist church, which didn’t really mean much aside from periodic flare-ups around infant versus adult baptism. When it came to communion, we simply alternated: one month we’d make our way to the front and receive wine from a chalice, the next month we’d remain in our seats and drink grape juice from a shot glass. The tension was always there, the boundary markers of denominational identity were sometimes tightly clutched, but we managed, however unintentionally and however imperfectly, to take a stab at Christian unity.
As an undergraduate, I found no such commitment to unity. Rather, I found churches and Christian sub-groups who revelled in difference. Disunity makes it far easier to say “I’m right, you’re wrong”. That, in turn, allows for the erasure of the image of God in the people you encounter, who you’ve othered into oblivion. Such an attitude turns disunity into a virtue, where you define who you are by who you denounce.
When I was accepted as a non-resident member of Archbishop Justin Welby’s Community of St Anselm, Christian unity suddenly became central. Not only was it an intrinsic part of our rule of life, but our difference was an everyday issue for us, as was our oneness. Christian unity increasingly became a priority in my life, but this was not without cost. I will always remember one of the first communion services we had together as a community, how we said in unison “though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread”. And then, we didn’t. We didn’t all share in one bread.
As an ecumenical community there is no one service of communion we can all partake in. Seeing someone you love be passed over by the body and blood of Jesus Christ is sheer agony. In that moment, in that pain, no difference, doctrinal, ecclesial, or historical, seems worth it. Communion has been painful ever since.
When we celebrated Roman Catholic mass together, usually in a former Carmelite monastery on the Cornish coast, I was always struck by the inclusion of praying for other churches during the service, something notably absent from our Anglican communion services. I recently went to Rome for the first time and went to Catholic mass where the priest again prayed for all the different churches and spoke warmly in his homily of the Anglican church. When I introduced myself, he knew all about St Anselm and praised the initiative and could not have been more welcoming. (There was another British visitor to the service that morning, a certain Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony, Deputy Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome!)
Following the service, I went back to the monastery where I was staying and was hosted for lunch by members of the Chemin Neuf community, who help run St Anselm, who now run the former Carmelite monastery on the Cornish coast, whose prayer for unity we prayed regularly as the Community of St Anselm, and whose vocation is, in part, Christian unity. Their hospitality was a poignant and timely reminder of the importance of Christian unity and how God has placed it on my heart as a priority.
As a new ordinand, training at a college where there will be a multiplicity of views and traditions, my experience as part of St Anselm, solidified by my time in Rome, has made me passionate about Christian unity, to pray for it and pursue it, to champion it and to live it. I hope communion never becomes any less painful, so that I am continually reminded of Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one. And maybe, one day, though we are many, we will be one body and we will all share in one bread.