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Christian Unity

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

During the past fortnight, Christians have come together for the week of prayer for Christian Unity (18-25th January 2022). In the Cathedral we were blessed with a visit by Fr. Benedict Ramsden, from the (Russian) Orthodox community of St Antony and St Elias.

I particularly value this week each year, because I have been greatly privileged to have been able to work with Christians from many traditions in my academic life. In the various universities in which I have worked, I have enjoyed the fellowship of, amongst others, Congregationalists, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Quakers and members of free churches. I have also been part of some ecumenical conversations on behalf of the Church of England. In the past, I have worked with the Church of Scotland and currently I sit on the Meissen Commission, which is the link body between the Church of England and the German Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland. It is very true that some ecumenical conversations can become dry! But over the past three years on the Meissen Commission I have greatly enjoyed meeting, worshipping and talking with fellow Christians from Lutheran and Reformed traditions. On one particularly memorable visit, we stayed in the monastery where Martin Luther began his spiritual life. I have vivid memories of evening prayer in a beautiful chapel, listening to my Lutheran colleagues singing one of Luther’s evening hymns: only in that way, I felt, could I appreciate what this poetry and music means to them. In September, we will be welcoming the Meissen Commission to Exeter, so I hope they will gain equal enjoyment and enrichment from our worship in the Cathedral.

As a historian I look back in time and see my relationship with Christians of the past in a similar way: I see people with whom I have much in common, but whose ways of believing, or worshipping and just of being Christian are different from my own. When I wrote my book on The Early Church I wanted to capture the diversity of traditions within early Christianity – reflecting the different cultures, languages and geographical contexts from which Christians came. Yet despite this diversity, there were essentials which brought them together as disciples of Jesus. I also wanted in my book to capture the paradoxical sense of strangeness and familiarity when Christians look back on their past: sometimes it felt like walking in a hall of mirrors when everything seems… rather strange. But then there are moments when one seems to be looking straight through a clear window into a much more familiar past.

Studying the early Christian past, I sometimes think, is like celebrating Christmas with another family for the first time: some things are the same, but the deep habits of one’s own way of doing Christmas mean that a lot of things seem so very different! But I value the way in which that strangeness and familiarity makes me reflect on my own way of being Christian. Why do I think about that gospel story in that particular way? Why do I do that, when I worship? How might I think of that tradition differently? Just as when I worship with my Lutheran friends I reflect on my own tradition, so when I sit down to read the fathers and mothers of our faith, I try not just to justify my own ways of dog things by finding them there—I try also to see where things are different and what I can learn from that.