When I was 17 I briefly had a boyfriend who was a practising Roman Catholic. I was nominally a member of the Church of England, but didn’t really know much about my own faith, never mind anyone else’s. I remember a conversation about the differences in our faiths and at the time the only thing the pair of us could figure out was that the Lord’s Prayer was different – everything else seemed the same, and it confused us as to the apparent conflict between Protestants on the one hand and Catholics on the other, especially if the faiths were so very similar.
Two-and-a-bit decades later I am not only older, greyer and more worldly wise, but also somewhat more knowledgeable and I understand that the differences of history, of politics and of governance between the two churches are huge and can often at times seem insurmountable. We often pray for unity but there are so many barriers between Protestants and Catholics (not to mention between both of the aforementioned groups of Christians and the Orthodox churches) that true unity of worship, of governance and of politics within the disparate worldwide churches seems impossible.
However, my partner, although happily worshipping with me at a nearby United Reformed Church, was raised Roman Catholic and his parents still attend an RC church for mass every Sunday. And yesterday we had an opportunity to attend mass along with his parents, which not only seemed fair but also right and proper – they had worshipped alongside us in the style we enjoy, so we happily returned the favour. And as I followed the mass from the printed card, spoke the words along with everyone else, I realised that the words of the service were almost indistinguishable from the High Anglican Communion services I recall so vividly from my time in the Church of England just a few years ago.
So in that respect, my discussion with my teenage boyfriend was uncannily accurate – as far as the style of worship and liturgy is concerned, apart from the odd word, variances in genuflection and differing degrees of devotion to Mary, there are no differences. My partner’s parents could easily go into a high Anglican church and would not even realise, as long as, of course, it was a male celebrant at the altar.
But the similarities in worship, in liturgy, in belief and in prayer are not, for many, sufficient to enable believers from different denominations to overcome those differences and come together. There are, as we are all aware, far too many divisions of politics, of history, of governance and even of culture to overcome first. There are too many prejudices, too much heartache over what might have been, over what was done many years ago to and by people whose names and deeds (or misdeeds) litter the history books.
I often wonder what it means to be Catholic. The Anglican church describes itself as both Catholic and Reformed. I would call myself an Anglo-Catholic, being far more familiar with High Anglican Mass than with overtly protestant worship, at least until becoming a member of the United Reformed Church over a year ago. The word ‘catholic’ apparently means wide-ranging, universal or whole – so in that respect I guess I am catholic, in that I am believer, a Christian alongside all the millions of Christians in the world today.
It just seems a great shame that many people don’t always use what is, after all, a word with a very generous and beautiful meaning, in the proper context.