Archbishop of Canterbury’s Sermon in Luxembourg’s Roman Catholic Cathedral

11 May 1998 • Persistent link:

Sunday 26 April 1998

It is a great pleasure to be here in this great Cathedral. It is also a pleasure to be surrounded by so many representatives of the Grand Duchy’s diverse life. I am grateful to Archbishop Fernand Franck for his invitation to make my first visit to Luxembourg. I want to greet all the different Churches that make up Luxembourg’s ecumenical community. Together, we pray Christ’s prayer that “all should be one”.

A visitor to Luxembourg is made aware by the nature of this city that he is in the very heart of Europe, although a Europe that is undergoing great change and development. Over the next few days, I look forward to learning how Luxembourg and the various institutions that are based here, are responding to the challenges of those changes. The vision of a vigorous Europe with its own sense of identity and values is one, of course, that I embrace in common with many here. I believe that the Christian community has an important, indeed pivotal, role in helping to forge a European identity. An identity which, though conscious of and grateful to its Christian inheritance, is at the same time welcoming of other faith communities.

For the Christian Church to be an effective agent, contributing to this development of a European identity and unity, it must address those issues that cause divisions and fractures within itself. Tonight I want to focus our minds on the nature of ecumenical vision itself which should be motivated by mission and service, anchored in a confident, open Christianity and mediated by bold yet humble dialogue.

The gospel read to us earlier gave us the overall context for the work of the Church. Founded on the resurrection, the Church exists to bring hope, meaning and wholeness to a broken world. The imperative for ecumenism, then, is to offer to the world the power of the good news that has been freely given to us in Jesus Christ. Ecumenism entered into for its own sake is subject to the risk of becoming self-absorbed if it is unrelated to mission and service. Jesus’ own hopes, recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John remind us that God’s longing for the Church’s unity is that ‘the world might believe’.

The ultimate reconciliation that should concern us all is for the world to be reconciled with its Maker. Thus, ecumenism is about liberating the Church to get on with the task of mission. It is about being a credible instrument, a prophetic sign and an eschatological foretaste of the healing of Christ. So yes, it does matter that Churches are in unreconciled diversity because how we live contradicts the message we proclaim. The full, visible unity of God’s Church is then an urgent missionary imperative not just something to fulfill Church politics.

But let me take the argument on a step further. Ecumenical vision must be anchored in a confident, open Christian faith.

One of the many discoveries we have made in the ecumenical journey over the last forty years has been the extent of the faith we have in common. People outside the Churches often assume that Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Protestants are hopelessly separated on matters of fundamental doctrine and that the search for doctrinal unity is a lost cause. This is simply not the case. Not only do we share in a common baptism, the scriptures and the foundational common creeds of the Church but much of our worship and ritual is in common too. Furthermore, the last thirty or so years of theological dialogue has led to rich agreement in doctrine – in our understanding of Holy Communion, in the Ordained Ministry, in how we define and exercise authority and so on. The fruits of our national and international theological dialogues have been a ripe harvest of doctrinal convergence.

We in the Anglican Churches of the British Isles are discovering the great treasures that are available to us in our relationship with the Lutheran Churches of the Nordic and Baltic region. This relationship, the Porvoo Agreement, it is not a closed and exclusive relationship – it is a sign and a foretaste of the sort of unity which, we believe, God requires of his Church. It is something that we long to share with all of our partners.

But such a convergence of faith and worship is not confined to the work of theologians. Perhaps like me, you have discovered this common faith as in its practical expression as Christians from different traditions have worked side by side in common service and prophetic protest against some common enemy. I think of the life of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston who died last week. An English Anglo-Catholic who laboured for many years in South Africa against the evils of Apartheid, he often commented on the rich fellowship he shared with friends and colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church, Methodist and, Reformed Churches and, indeed, with people from other faith traditions. What he achieved as a leader in that great prophetic protest was founded upon his vision of the unity of the Church and his vision of human community.

But it is not enough just to discover our unity in common cause against a common enemy. ‘There can be no question at all’ as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘that a united Church is a far more effective agent for justice and peace against oppression and injustice’.

So I believe that we should be drawing upon the faith we share and we should do so confidently and clearly. May we not find that as we affirm and take seriously the unity we have in our common baptism, we will begin to take mission more seriously as a task common to us all, a solid base for the visibility of this common faith? And this in turn may help us to discover the full riches we share through baptism. “The nearer we come to Christ” Jurgen Moltmann the Reformed theologian has often quoted, “the nearer we come together.” That remains for me the heartbeat of the ecumenical vision.

In spite of the fact that since the Second Vatican Council ecumenical dialogue has been encouraging, formidable problems remain. There are those who are very disillusioned that the early spring rains of ecumenical hope has, apparently, been followed by a long summer’s drought.

There have been times when I have shared that sense of disappointment. But then I remind myself of some words from the English Catholic theologian, Donald Nicholl. He reminds us that in all of our Christian life, there is no room for gloom and despondency at our failings and our wretchedness. ‘It is only believers’, says Nicholl, ‘who are actively engaged in the one thing necessary, the task of redemption, which can only happen if there is a change in the human heart….that lays an enormous responsibility on us. But with the responsibility comes energy. Once we assume responsibility we get tremendous energy. We get no energy through gloom and despondency.’

How then are we to channel and use that energy, that passion for the unity of God’s Church? What should be the character of our dialogue and the nature of our relationships? I believe that the dialogue between us needs to be bold yet humble; the kind of boldness which is secure both in trust and friendship. And humility, because humility springs from mature self-knowledge and honesty. I see both of these as central to Pope John Paul’s recent encyclical Ut Unum Sint, because his invitation for a worldwide ecumenical dialogue on the nature of the office of Bishop of Rome is at the same time a bold and a humble invitation. It is an invitation that the House of Bishops of the Church of England has responded to with enthusiasm. In reflecting on the distinctive role of the Bishop of Rome we have also had to reflect on our own Anglican tradition and, in doing so, have come to a greater degree of self-understanding.

Encouraged by that gesture I wonder if the Millennium, the Great Jubilee, may provide us with an opportunity to deepen the bonds of faith and fellowship that join us. My meeting with Pope John Paul II in December 1996 led us to make a Common Declaration in which we urged “our people to make full use of the possibilities open to them” to deepen our united witness to the Gospel. We were, in that statement, encouraging Roman Catholics and Anglicans to take responsibility for deepening relationships between our two Communions. We felt that more could be done with a generous and hospitable spirit. In my tradition we regularly invite those who are baptised and full members of other Christian Churches to receive Eucharistic hospitality on occasions as we receive it from them. We have found this to be a source of great fellowship and joy – a visible sign and foretaste of the unity to which we are called. It is also a reminder that the Eucharist does not belong to us, we do not own it, rather, it is a gracious gift from God.

I know that this extension of eucharistic hospitality is not normally the practice of the Roman Catholic Church and any extension of it would have to be on the basis of the firm agreements of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission on the Eucharist and Ministry. But such an extension would be especially valued in those situations, such as mixed-marriages, which seem to cry out for special and pastoral consideration.

We understand the pain and hurt when at deep moments of joy, celebration, sadness and despair, Christians, divided by the past are not able, on occasions, to share eucharistically with those they already perceive themselves to be One. Of course, there is pain that can be used creatively as a stimulus for greater efforts, but there is also pain that may, in the long run, be damaging. It hurts to be denied the Lord’s Supper by a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.

I have already indicated my awareness of the sensitive theological issues that surround this matter and none of us should be so disingenuous as to assume that the problem can be brushed easily aside. Neither am I arguing for pastoral expediency to prevail over against ecclesiological orthodoxy. Christian laypeople of all traditions are impatient for change; they are aware that we have so much in common and shared mission in a broken world only highlights the distressing situation of Eucharistic separation.

We need some positive signs of hope. Perhaps the Millenium, the Great Jubilee, is an opportunity for such signs; bold signs, hospitable signs, signs of promise. We are already seeing some substantial progress in attempting to solve the age-old problem of the date of Easter. If that were resolved, it would make a huge difference, especially in those countries where Christians, who are committed to working together in so many ways, are visibly divided when it comes to celebrating the Resurrection of Christ.

Nor should we undervalue the sign of confessing our faith together as the Holy Father has suggested.

We need to be wary of asking some Churches to make costly gestures which others, because of their own practice, are not required to make. Or, indeed, of using the Eucharist as an ecumenical tool rather than acknowledging it to be the sacrament of God’s love. But, at the same time, let us not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the desire for unity between Christians, which we know to be the will of God, might be translated into something more concrete. What might that be? Even if we are, in the end, not yet able to share the Body and Blood of Christ, is not the Great Jubilee an opportunity to express in a radical way the reality of the spiritual communion in which we already share? This is a communion in mission and witness, a communion in action, and a communion in prophecy.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it was the Second Vatican Council which so beautifully described the Church as a ‘pilgrim people’. And so we are; travelling together from many backgrounds and traditions, each of us loved and valued by our Lord who calls us to follow him. As we travel, we are converging on that ecumenical vision which we know to be our Lord’s will.

My Lord Archbishop in a day or two’s time, we will visit together the shrine of St Willibrord at Echternach. Born in England, he was a great missionary, church builder and teacher. He was also a trailblazer, a man unafraid to go off in new directions for the sake of His Lord. We are being called in our day to be ‘trail blazers’ too. May God give to each one of us generous hearts to accept his love, willing hands to offer that love to others and ready wills to put into practice all that our ecumenical vision requires.