Paul Couturier


A Fresh Look at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 
and the Legacy of Paul Couturier in the light of Isaiah 35

The movement towards Christian unity has become something of a wilderness and a dry land in recent years, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25) is one of the casualties. In many places it has either died altogether or mutated to such an extent as to become an irrelevance which may suggest it is time for a re-think to see if we are on the right lines.

The suggestion a few years ago that it all began with Paul Wattson in 1908 is slightly misleading. What Wattson (an American Episcopalian) and Spencer Jones (an English Anglican) proposed in 1908 was the Octave of Prayer, with the sole purpose of re-uniting the Anglican Church to Rome. Catholics loved it. Others were less impressed, and it never really took off.

More recently it came to life as a celebration of the work of Paul Couturier, to whom the unity movement has paid scant attention, beefed up by the Nottingham Conference on Faith and Order and the Vatican Council in the early 60s, whose sights were set more on Church Unity and who probably placed far more emphasis on John 17:11 ('that they may all be one’) than it was ever entitled to. It may be time to go back to Couturier and to a different part of the Scriptures.

Couturier was a Roman Catholic priest, born in 1881, who spent most of his life teaching Maths, Chemistry and Physics in a Catholic School in Lyons, but if you had gone to Lyons in 1930 you would never have heard of him and if you had enquired about him hardly anyone would have known him. He had no contacts at all in England, yet by 1950 he had a world-wide reputation and a volume of international correspondence to match. He had put his stamp on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity everywhere for the rest of the century. 

So what did he do? First, two negatives. On the one hand, there was no future for the unity movement in terms of a return to Rome. Our prayer must not be that others will be converted to us, but that all of us will be drawn nearer to Christ. On the other, there was no hope of resolving the issues by dialogue. Everybody was far too deeply entrenched. And we could all say Amen to that. But then, two positives. On the one hand, a charitable search for truth we have to meet. In order to be united it is necessary to love one another. In order to love one another it is necessary to know one another. In order to know one another it is necessary to meet one another. (Testament of Cardinal Mercier). On the other, an emphasis that the universe is not a gift from God out of heaven but something that humanity (not just the churches) have to work to achieve.

More interesting than what he said, however, is what led him to say it, because it is there we may find clues for change. Three great influences which made him the new man he was.

First, he became involved in caring for the outcast. In Lyons at the time there were about 10,000 Russian émigrés. It was a local, social, human problem. Through them he learned to listen. He came to see how easily sensitive souls could be harmed by the way we try to help, and as he penetrated the hidden places of the Slavonic minds he came to appreciate the mystery of the Orthodox Churches of which he knew nothing.

Second, he went to a Benedictine Priory in Belgium committed to the reconciliation of East and West. They had two chapels, one Latin, the other Byzantine. Through them he learned the value of meeting and sharing.

Third, in 1944, perhaps because of his international connections, he was arrested by the Gestapo and found himself sharing a cell with a young, enthusiastic, twenty-two-year-old Marxist, and this was what led him to widen his understanding of the word ‘ecumenical’ to include not only Christians but the whole of God’s creation. When the young Marxist was shot by the Germans Couturier wrote to the boy’s mother,

‘I loved his frank, generous character, his sensitive heart, his enthusiastic nature . . . basically our souls were together . . . they met in an ardent love for . . . what we would both call justice, freedom and goodness . . .’

He concluded by saying that every day when he said Mass he would pray for that man and his parents, and so on the altar every morning that young Fighter of the Resistance joined in the company of the great.

Supposing, just supposing, we were able to capture even a whiff of Couturier’s saintliness and commitment. What might it not do for the unity movement? Here is the man to lift to us above the tawdry ecclesiastical issues of faith and belief, creed and dogma, till

‘in the oceans of his love 
we lose ourselves in heaven above’,

as we find a new role in that wider world of human caring, justice, peace and reconciliation (to coin a phrase), meeting and sharing not only with fellow-Christians but with that wider humanity.

John Hind, Bishop of Chichester, in a paper to the Worthing Theological Society, made a point that would have been music to Couturier’s ears, and it is something that all good Greek scholars and ecumaniacs know full well, but which in general we choose to ignore. He said

‘Oikumene is not the churches. It is the whole household of God, and the ecumenical movement is not a movement for the unity of the churches but for the unity of humanity’.

Grasp that, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could begin all over again with a considerably enlarged agenda. The outcast, certainly: aliens, travellers and refugees. Debt relief, of course, but also the wider issues of arms, aid and development and the way we treat those in greatest need. Business and commerce: the economy, globalisation and world-wide conservation. Life: pro-, anti-, cloning and euthanasia. And, not least, education: single faith, multi-faith and secular. Think what an education Couturier and that Marxist had in that cell. 

Of course, many churches are involved in these issues, and in some cases working on them ecumenically, though often when you press them it is not so much ‘the church’ as a group of like-minded Christians in ‘a church’ committed to a particular agenda. 

Of course Synods and parallel bodies in other churches, local, regional and national, pass resolutions on these issues from time to time, but to what extent do people in the churches consult and confer with people outside the churches and of other faiths to frame the declarations and the programmes? As with politicians, never mind what they say — watch what they do. What Couturier does is to focus our attention on situations where Christians are uniting with people of all faiths and no faith at all in a charitable search for truth. That is the first step on the road to the unity of the oikumene.

With limitations of space, reflect on one hot contemporary issue: ecology, climate change and the conservation of the earth. Isaiah 35 against a background of Couturier makes interestng reading: ‘The wilderness . . .  shall be glad . . . and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom’.(v 5).

Wilderness does not have to be barren. On the contrary, it could be lush, green growth as in Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon. It is wilderness because it lacks water, and water is not something we need but something we have to organise and distribute.

But then, even with water, wilderness which becomes verdant doesn’t always become verdant in the way we would like it to. It is still wilderness, not Kew Gardens. The desert may rejoice and blossom ‘as a rose’; that is, it will blossom as the rose blossoms, but it won’t necessarily look like a rose and it certainly won’t be roses all over. All nature will blossom as what it is, a desert, and our contribution is to help it to do just that, not necessarily full of what we regard as lovely and beautiful, but rather as  it enables the wild places to be what they are and to learn to recognise and appreciate the beauty God intended for them. Only then do we begin to see as God sees and to discover our unity, as Christ wills.

The next few verses then make it clear that we are talking not only about nature but also about people. They portray a people living in fear: hands are trembling, knees knocking, hearts pounding and a mouth no doubt dry. Who are they? Are they those aliens and refugees? Possibly. Some are white, some are not, some are women, some are men, some are gay, some are straight, and so on. They are the people who feel themselves to be part of the wilderness, either written off because of their circumstances or regarded as candidates for reform. Many are consigned to live in relative safety outside the wilderness and are terrified of going anywhere near it for fear of danger and contamination. Seen like that those words of Cardinal Mercier echo loud and clear:

'In order to be united it is necessary to love one another; in order to love . . . it is necessary to know one another; in order to know . . . it is necessary to meet.'

Isaiah goes on next to suggest that the blind will see and the deaf will hear, but again not necessarily as we do. Maribeth Howell, a Catholic teacher in Ohio,  used to teach children with impaired hearing in Detroit. One day they installed a new cordless hearing system in the school. Children carried walkman-like units and could be communicated with from the school up to a distance of two football pitches. On the first day one boy excused himself from class and failed to return. Thinking he had probably forgotten to switch the thing from ‘classroom mode’ to ‘other mode’, the teacher picked up her microphone and said, ‘Jack Holland, get back here!’ Moments later an astounded nine-year-old bolted into the classroom and yelled, ‘Teacher, I hear.’ It was a cry of joy in the wilderness, and the whole wilderness cried with him, but he still didn’t hear like everybody else. (Boadt & Smith, Imagery and Imagination in Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2001, p 78 n8).

Christian unity is not about getting closer to one another inside the churches, any more than it was two Anglicans in 1908 trying to put back the clock. It is about going into the wilderness of life, neither to rescue people nor to bring them in, not even to minister to them as if they had all the needs and we had all the answers, but rather to find people who share just one or two of our common concerns and interests and work alongside them for a better world. This is how Couturier would have us assist God in the continual creation of the universe.

The choice is clear. Either to carry on as before, in which case it is easy to predict where we will be in five years time, or to begin to relate to others, to pray as Christ wills, and allow him to lead us all out with Isaiah to a new highway.

© Alec Gilmore 2014