Monday, 25 January 2016

Sunday 24th January, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St Stephen's Anglican Church, Lewisham

When Pope Benedict came to Westminster Abbey in 2010, he called for unity between Christians in their life and faith in the Risen Christ, so that we could give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us. (I Peter 3.15)
In other words, everyone expects there to be rival supermarkets, rival football teams; and no one would stake their life on any claim their fans and advertisers make. But religion is different. Everyone expects the Church to be one. Religion means “tied up with God”, so people of religion are supposed to be people of peace and goodness, people of love and unconditional forgiveness, people of brave hope. Most of all they expect our prayers should get through to God, because God has got through to us, and made us different as human beings. Not better, but capable of seeming to look like the one Lord we worship, the Christ we recommend as the truth and the hope of the world. They are telling us, ‘You pray every day “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. But on earth, you live in separate heavens. You have your Anglo-Catholic heaven, your Roman Catholic heaven, your Pentecostal heaven, your Evangelical heaven, your Orthodox heaven and many more. Which is the true one? Where is this Kingdom come on earth? How do we find our way to it?”

Pope Francis has been very blunt about this. He has noticed that when the criminal gangs currently posing as Muslims come to murder our Christian brothers and sisters in the ancient Churches the Middle East, as well as in parts of Africa and Asia, they never ask, “Are you Anglican?” , or “Are you Coptic?”; “Are you Orthodox?”; “Are you Protestant, or Catholic?” They just ask, “Are you a Muslim, or a Nazarene?” Pope Saint John Paul, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have each said that what unites us all is the martyrs for Christ’s Name. Following Christ to the end and what He called “No greater love than to lay down your life for your friends” (John 15.13) achieve complete communion in His own sacrifice, for the martyrs first and the fruit is for us. Pope Francis calls it the “ecumenism of blood”. It is true that it brings us very close in concern for each other, even thousands of miles apart; it makes us realise that what counts before the world is the common account we give, not of our rival institutions, but of one Church, our One Lord, the One Faith, One Baptism and the One God and Father. (Ephesians 4.5)
In today’s Epistle (I Corinthians 12. 12-30), Saint Paul imagines an argument between the parts of the body in which the eye tells the hand, “I have no need for you”, and the head says to the feet, “You are no use to me.” He says, “Instead, God put all the separate parts into the body for a reason”. But we Christians behave as if St Paul really said the opposite, “God put the body into separate parts for a reason.” Yet, the night before Jesus died the Lord prayed, “Father, may they all be one, as you and I, Father and Son are one, so that the world may believe it was You that sent me.” (John 17. 21) He did not say, “May some of them be one”, but all. He did not say, “Anglicans have no need of Catholics,” or tell anyone to believe that their institution was the “one, true Church” to the exclusion of others. He told Saint Peter, out of love for Him, to feed His sheep. (John 21.15).  And He told the sheep, “Listen for My voice and follow Me” (John 10.27) and thus “become one flock with one shepherd, for I lay down My life, which is why the Father loves Me.” (John 10.17)

It is clear then that, to Jesus, the unity of His disciples - the complete and obvious wholeness of His Church - is not just a matter of obeying His words, however much it costs us. It is about the laying down of His own life as the price He paid to gather us into His Kingdom, and give all humanity a vision of its blessed living that lies not in an after-life, but from here and now. The Catholic Church has therefore set itself the task of putting back together again the visible and organic unity of the Church as Christ intended, so that it could really be a genuine picture of God’s own unity, Father, Son and Spirit; so that the world might believe us when we talk about a new life this side of death, real and physical, but also spiritual and already risen from the dead with Christ. Yet even the Catholic Church feels deeply that divisions among Christians make it difficult for her to attain in actual life what it is to be completely Catholic in every way. (Unitatis Redintegratio 4, Vatican II, 1964). So what is to be done?
It all reminds me of a book called Lilith, by George Macdonald, the writer who inspired C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, where a horse and carriage full of people, find themselves dead. A rich man and his wife behave with cruelty to the coachman they employed; the coachman kicks the horse; the horse refuses to move; the others argue, blaming each other in their terrible predicament. As time drags by, they realise that every time they hit out at each other, every time they do something nasty and selfish, a bit of their bodies falls off. Finally, the coachman kicks the horse again and, both reduced to bones, they collapse in a heap. But meanwhile, one of the party has noticed that when there is a word of kindness, a shared difficulty, help and compassion, somehow their sinews seem to grow stronger, the bones knit up, the flesh becomes firm and faces regain their brightness. The selfish man and wife quickly go back to their old ways and start to fall to pieces once more. But one re-learns the lesson and, slowly, comes together again. The other, as the rest resume their journey, is left behind, cursing from his heap on the ground. But what’s this? As the coach moves off again, it too starts to fall to pieces and the party realises that it cannot leave anyone behind. So they return and help the one who is not ready, to find his new life and be put together again. Then, in their resurrected new bodies, they move on from death into the Kingdom, no longer dead but alive.

So it is that the Church, feeling incapacitated in many ways by Christian disunity, urges each body of Christians to be very close to one another, whatever our disagreements, our past history together, our estrangement and such different styles of living in Christ’s Church. Seeing the riches in each tradition, it desires for them to be shared so that all may benefit, not locked up where the others cannot reach them. It presses us to be indivisible in service of humanity in the relief of poverty and the construction of peace and justice in a society that is a manifestation of the Kingdom of heaven.

But, when you look round the world and the Churches, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are getting further apart, with our distinctions getting sharper, with our unity, that once seemed so close we could touch it, now slipping further away as we react to conditions in a fast changing world. But we should not allow this. For there are signs that unity makes progress still. Look at the concerted effort of the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church to confront human trafficking and slave labour, especially of vulnerable women. Think of the many ways in all our parishes and dioceses, Catholics, Anglicans and Free Church people work together to be of service to the poor. A job of mine during each week is to work with those who help prisoners to overcome their past. One of the best things I know is a wonderful house in Streatham called Nehemiah, run by an Evangelical group helping ex-prisoners to leave drugs and drink behind and make a safe return to society free from the causes of their crime, so they never reoffend. It is very successful at this. Most interestingly, it also relies on a friendship and partnership with the Catholic community, who are seeking to set up more of these wonderful, hopeful houses in other parts. Another example is the Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage which takes place every two years going to Walsingham for a few days, and in the other years making  a day pilgrimage to some other place of pilgrimage. This year in May we will go to Marian Oxford, visiting Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Methodist sites. Your own Father Philip Corbett and I, a Roman Catholic priest, are fellow trustees of this pilgrimage; and it is amazing how, despite everyone’s different Churches and beliefs, how close a spiritual bond is formed, as we go deep together into the mystery of our One Lord’s Incarnation.
At the present time, some of the Churches seem to be determined to set themselves goals that surely cannot be reconciled with unity of faith and life together in the one Universal Church. Your own Church has a famous history of dedication to the Catholic faith, and of love for the good and future of the Church of England, as you witness to the larger Church, the Universal dimension of Christ’s Body, and as you seek to persuade your fellow Anglicans of the vital importance of the communion of the whole Church with the successor of Peter, the Pope. I know that differences within Anglicanism are potent forces seeking to persuade people that is best to live apart from one another, let alone from other Christian Churches. For the Catholic Church people, too, we wonder how union between our Church and the Anglican Communion can ever be achieved. You feel this too, and the same situation applies to the unity hopes of other Churches as well. But it is at precisely such points, where all appears futile and impossible, that we need to be closest to one another. Families disagree and relatives do the opposite of each other all the time. But they are still related; they still love each other; they still keep together. “Blood’s thicker than water”; and another dimension of that ‘ecumenism of blood’ about which Pope Francis speaks means that we are meant to cleave to each other the more we veer apart and seek only our own company. For what Jesus prayed, he commanded: we are not allowed to be separate. The world cannot see us making other plans. It cannot see us like that. It needs to be convinced when we speak of one Christ and one heaven, one Kingdom.

It is for God to bring about His miracle of unity, for that is what it will take. But it is for us to remove all obstacles, and to be as close as we can in love, service, faith and honest hope. In this Anglican parish, part of the great historic Anglican Catholic movement, you believe in the fullness of life in Christ given in the Catholic faith, and, even though we cannot yet share the Eucharist of the Lord together, it is a vital bond that unites us on the way. Fullness of communion is for God to bring about;  but in the meantime, as St Paul reminds us, we cannot say we have no use for each other. We persevere in our faith and witness, but never in a spirit of isolation. Even if it is a lonely path at time, on our journey through this world towards the Kingdom, as the coach and horses people realised, it is heartening that we are going nowhere on our own.

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