By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Seventh Week of Easter Sunday 2nd June 2019
The Ascension of Jesus is difficult to describe and images don’t always help. The 1859 children’s hymn declared that Jesus was their friend and lived above the bright blue sky. This caused the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to admit in 1961 that he could not find God in outer space so he didn’t exist.
St Luke’s description of the Ascension is that Jesus gathered his disciples, commissioned them to be his witnesses; told them to wait to be empowered by God’s Spirit and then he blessed them. Covered by the Cloud of God’s glory, Jesus was no longer visible when the cloud dissipated. Yet the disciples returned to Jerusalem full of joy, rather than heartbroken as they would have been if they believed Jesus had abandoned them.
So why were they joyful? Today’s first reading gives us a clue. As St Stephen was being martyred, he saw a vision of Jesus seated on the right hand of the Father, which is of course the place of honour and trust. The vision meant that Jesus is no longer restricted to being in one place at one particular time but is available and accessible to all who approach him. Jesus has not abandoned his Church he is with the Church because he is in unity with the Father and Spirit in the community of the Holy Trinity. Jesus left his disciples in order to be closer to them – another Christian paradox.
In his gospel, St John tells us that prayed for his future disciples as well as those present with him. He also emphasised that the Church would be more effective in its mission if the disciples were in unity with each other. Our second reading reminds us that Jesus will return again, but in the interim we must remain faithful to proclaim the gospel.
Sadly we know that as the Church is comprised of humans, division entered the Church from its early days. In the Western Church the split between England and Rome occurred in the Reformation in the 16th century. However, the hope of reunion between Anglicans and Rome has lingered on. The 1930 Lambeth Conference declared Anglicanism to be ‘transitional’ which would one day be merged in a larger fellowship in the Catholic Church.
In 1966 Archbishop Michael Ramsay visited Pope Paul VI and from that visit, a joint Anglican/Catholic Commission was erected which said that, “God desires the visible unity of all Christian people, and such unity is itself part of our witness.” Michael Ramsay’s vision was that of the corporate union of Anglicanism and Rome and that is why in his later years he described the conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845 as a “final tragedy.” In contrast, the present Archbishop of Canterbury says he doesn’t care if individual Anglicans are received into the Catholic Church because Rome is a source of great inspiration.
While the dream of Christian unity still exists, it has to be realised that one thing that seems to have united Protestants, including most Anglicans, over the centuries is that the worst thing that can happen to a person is that they become Catholic. So Protestants who still hope for unity, see unity, not as being united in faith and belief, but as not being hostile to other Christians and working together on non-sacramental issues like social justice and climate issues. In contrast, Rome still believes that unity flow from discovering the truth, not through negotiations, but through obedience to what God has revealed to the Church.
Archbishop Ramsay’s hope for corporate unity has not totally been eradicated because ten years ago Pope Benedict XVI invited those Anglicans who wished to come into unity with Rome, do so as groups with their own diocese and liturgy. Those who believed the invitation must be accepted in obedience to Our Lord’s prayer for the unity of his disciples, accepted it with gratitude and joined the Ordinariates. Those who considered the invitation to be negotiable, did not because the bogey of becoming Catholic is still alive and well five centuries after the Reformation split.
The Ordinariates are what true Christian unity looks like. The Catholic Church is like the Holy Trinity, a community of Christians in unity with each other because they share the same faith but with distinctive identities. We in the Ordinariates have a huge mission to our fellow non-Catholic Christians by showing them what treasures are to be discovered when they abandon their position of not being Catholic and bring their gifts to share with their fellow Christians. This is what the Ascended Jesus prayed for and has given us the responsibility to make visible.
Monsignor Entwistle was the first Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross. Educated at St Chad's Theological College, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England Diocese of Blackburn in 1964. After reception into the Roman Catholic Church, he was ordained to the priesthood in St Mary's Cathedral, Perth on 15 June 2012.