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Wednesday, March 29, 2017
A life for dialogue and unity - Bishop Charles Henderson
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¬†Bishop Charles was born in Waterford, Ireland, on April 14th 1924. He was ordained priest in 1948 for the Archdiocese of Southwark and came to serve the Church there until his death 56 years later. However, he never lost touch with his roots and went to Ireland at least twice a year, remaining very close to his four sisters, his numerous nephews and nieces and many friends. His ministry as a priest spanned one of the most important periods in the recent history of the Roman Catholic Church, which was significantly changed by the Second Vatican Council held in the early 1960s. Among the many elements of renewal in Church life that the Holy Spirit achieved in that Council was the completely new opening to dialogue with other Christians and with the Faithful of other Religions, although equally significant are the efforts to intensify dialogue within the Church and with all people of good will for the sake of harmony and peace in society. Bishop Charles is truly a remarkable example of someone who travelled the road of complete change in outlook and behaviour in the light of the Council. What it meant in one word was openness, openness to encounter others in a spirit of love, faith and friendship. His official involvement in work for Christian Unity started with his appointment to Ecumenical Commission for England and Wales in 1976. He was a member of the English Anglican Roman Catholic Committee and a member of the RC Methodist Committee from 1982 to 1992. Between 1983 and 1986 he served as a Catholic consultor and observer at the British Council of Churches. He founded and guided the Diocesan Unity Commission until only last year. On one occasion he remarked "We have achieved in my lifetime as a Bishop the undoing of the damage of the Reformation". In 1983 a new phase began: he was asked to form the Bishops' Conference Committee for Other Faiths, which held its first meeting in March 1984. Later he was also entrusted with the Committee for RC Jewish Relations, which led to close involvement with the national Council of Christians and Jews and other organisations. For many years he was a member of the Churches Commission for Inter Faith Relations and in 1990 the Pope appointed him as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. His collaboration and friendship with Brian Pearce and Harriet Crabtree at the Inter Faith Network for the UK guaranteed Catholic connectivity with one of the most significant instruments of dialogue in the country. He was also a faithful friend and participant in the activities of Westminster Interfaith, taking part in the first Westminster Interfaith Pilgrimage in May 1986. Friendship is a word I would like to emphasise here. Recently he spoke of the paramount importance of friendship as the basis for all engagement in dialogue. Without it nothing else happens, he said and he posed the question: in the younger generation of people engaged in "dialogue" is there the same quality of relationships that the pioneers had? Bishop Henderson was patron of the Pattaya Orphanage, a charity which has cared for hundreds of street children. abandoned babies and people with disabilities in Thailand. He visited the project several times and took a keen interest in its work. All his practical responsibilities were thus carried out with vision and with integrity. As a Sikh friend said to me: "What he did he did with the wholeness of his mind, body and spirit. His life was very inspirational to all of us He was so close to humanity at large." One of the doctors treating him during his final illness wrote "His faith was so strong and a joy to listen to. It is not easy to forget someone such as him ≠ a delightful magnetic man." A very important aspect of his "openness" was to the new Movements growing within the Catholic Church. He met the Focolare when the first house was opened in Balham in 1970. He had a great love for Chiara Lubich and participated in some meetings for Bishops' friends of the Movement, notably a meeting in Istanbul in 1984 when Chiara spoke about Jesus Forsaken as the key to unity. Together with Bishop John Dennis and later Bishop Robin Smith, Anglican Episcopal Guardians of the Focolare, he followed the development of the Focolare's Ecumenical Study group, attending most of its meetings as Chiara had asked. He was keen for the movements to be well grafted into the local Church and supported the work of the Neocatechumenal Way and attended international meetings of the St Egidio community promoting interreligious dialogue. Bishop Charles was a person of deep faith and he was faithful to God's will as manifested in his remaining an Auxiliary Bishop in Southwark and not being given a diocese of his own as he might have expected. Christian Scriptures speak of God the Father as the "vinedresser" who prunes the vine so that it may bear more fruit. What was the result of this pruning? Growth. Many people perceived in Bishop Charles a steady growth in stature as a Christia disciple open to every neighbour of whatever role or status; and recognised in him an increasing capacity to take on board the sufferings and needs of others, be they individuals, parish groups, priests in difficulty, or the effort required to move on in the ecumenical or interfaith world. He joyfully remained an Auxiliary Bishop. He knew he needed the help of God to remain faithful and a prayer written in hospital less than a month before his death on April 10th reflects this: "Jesus cleanse me and clothe me in your love, may I love you in return."
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