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All mission, all Christian service, all the devotion that martyrs and saints can give begins with doxology. It is there that my homily begins: with adoration and thanksgiving to God for all that he has given to us. So the Apostle Paul, writing in his Epistle to the Ephesians begins: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’.
This draws our attention to the fact that the Church, seeking to be obedient to the will of God here on earth, needs always to be aware that we live and have our being within the ceaseless worship of heaven. Indeed, in a transitory, changing, world the concept of a Church always at prayer, living continually within the love of God and rejoicing in his victory over darkness and despair, is an image that we need to cultivate and develop as central to mission and unity.
As I approach the end of my brief visit to Rome, I am struck by the fact that this City, of all places, is a living testimony to the celebration of faith through the ages. Not far from here, the present Church of St. Clemente is built upon the remains of at least two earlier Churches and the visitor descends below street level to the earlier Basilicas and the street level of Imperial Rome. What more eloquent and tangible expression could there be than this to the continuity of faith and worship of successive generations of Christians here in this great city. How wonderful it is to be reminded of the round of prayer and praise which has been sung in this ‘eternal city”. Well did one Anglican clergyman write of the ceaseless praise of the Church in the words:
‘So be it Lord; thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
Thy Kingdom stands and grows forever
Till all thy creatures own thy sway’.
In my own country, close to my own home in Canterbury, the little Church of St. Martin, perhaps the earliest parish Church in England, has been in constant use as a place of praise and worship certainly since the sixth century and possibly, as the great historian Bede suggests, since the time of the Roman occupation.
It was to this parish church of St. Martin that Augustine came with his band of followers, which brings us back to this Church of St. Gregory on the Caelian Hill. For it was from the monastery here, in this place, that Gregory sent Augustine and his companions on their mission to England almost fourteen hundred years ago.
Next year, Christians of all traditions in Great Britain and Ireland will celebrate the coming of Augustine to our shores by joining together in pilgrimage. But it is not just to Augustine’s legacy that we will bear our joint witness, but also that great Celtic saint, Columba, who died on the Holy Island of Iona in the year 597.
Augustine and Columba are twin symbols of the diversity of expressions of Christianity in the ‘white Isles of the Britains ’. Celtic and Latin Christianity both had their unique role to play in moulding the Christian faith in Britain. We can be thankful for the pastoral wisdom of St. Gregory, who, when responding to Augustine’s puzzled questioning about the diversity of Christian witness that he has observed along his treacherous, and sometimes fearful, journey, remarks: ‘… If you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome and Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places but places for the sake of good things ’.
This acceptance of legitimate diversity is one of the key marks of our identity as Anglicans. The presence with me on this visit of Bishops from Africa, Europe and North America is a concrete symbol of how Anglicanism has spread around the globe. In learning to embrace and rejoice in this diversity we have learned to leave behind our British and colonial roots as Anglicanism has spread internationally. Instead we see the workings of God’s grace as each of the thirty-three independent provinces of the Anglican Communion have developed to carry forth God’s apostolic mission throughout the world.
It is of course a sadness to us all that the ancient and historic Sees of Rome and Canterbury are separated. No Anglican and no Roman Catholic passionate for the unity of the Church can be content with that. Nevertheless, God does not abandon us in our separation. We are given his grace and learn much in our own pilgrimage which has the potential to enrich any future union with those from whom at present we are separated. As Anglicans, we are discovering those bonds of unity and authority, of which the office of Archbishop of Canterbury is but one, which allow us to balance our diversity. This has been hard-won. But in learning to accept the autonomy of each of our provinces when decisions have been made that are not acceptable to all, we have also had to learn the responsibility of restraint and of being true to our common Anglican traditions and self-understanding. We recognise the need to develop, within the Anglican Communion structures in which provincial autonomy is exercised in the context of appropriate primatial, conciliar and collegial oversight.
But these discussions and explorations within Anglicanism cannot and do not take place within an ecclesiological vacuum . They receive much of their life-blood from the ecumenical dialogue s that Anglicans around the world have pursued with commitment and vigour both nationally and internationally.
Any discussion within Anglicanism on the subject of Primacy must address itself to the role of Gregory’s successor as a tangible, historic focus for unity within world-wide Christianity. We cannot ignore our roots s for they too have shaped our identity. We cannot ignore our own commitment to the apostolic succession and to the interrelationship between the historic episcopate and the continuity of the whole Church in faithfulness to the original witness and teaching of the apostles.
If however diversity is an issue we must address and, in particular, the legitimate limits of diversity within the body of Christ, we must also find ways in which the seeds of renewal and reformation in the life of the Church may be celebrated and shared.
We in the Anglican church cannot hide the fact that we developed out of the Reformation. It is tempting, especially in Rome, to feel particularly burdened by this historical rift in the body of Christ. Those of us who are heirs of division indeed regret deeply that the Western Church was split so widely. And yet for Anglicans and for other traditions such as the Lutheran Churches of the Nordic and Baltic region with whom the Anglican Churches have recently been able to conclude a substantial agreement, the Reformation was not a tragedy so much as a rediscovery; a rediscovery of the Bible and its authority; a rediscovery of the importance of justification by faith; a rediscovery of the local church; a rediscovery of the servanthood of ministry and priesthood. To be sure, all these things were there in the ancient Church but they needed a rediscovery. It is good to note that in our ecumenical journey since the Second Vatican Council all these rich discoveries and much more have been shared in our common pilgrimage together. We cannot deny our history any more than another Church can deny it’s, but we can travel together sharing those things whereby God has blessed us even in our separation.
Central to this journey must be a willingness to listen attentively as we recount those hurts and wounds which have damaged our relationship and hindered our common witness. In this season of Advent, when all Christians are called to prepare penitentially and prayerfully for the coming of our Saviour, we cannot but offer our failings and inadequa cies to the healing power of the Holy Spirit. We recognise the hurts and wounds of the centuries which go deep within the respective self understandings of both Roman Catholics and Anglicans. There have been sins and failures on both sides. There is still much need for the reconciliation of memories, both individual and corporate, if we are to achieve the full, visible unity in Christ which is the will of God and to which both our Churches are committed.
Some thirty years ago, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey put in train the process which lead to the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. In 1982, following the publication of the final report of that first Commission, Pope John Paul II together with Archbishop Robert Runcie committed themselves to a second International Commission.
The fruits of these dialogues have represented a real convergence and developing mutual understanding of each other. But I believe that we have yet to benefit from their full potential and hope that further study of their results will be possible at local, national and international levels. The dialogue between us will continue, no matter what barriers, even ones that seem insurmountable from a human point of view, are in the way. For God’s will and God’s hopes are greater than our s, and nothing is ever impossible to him who has created and redeemed us.
* Praise be to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. Pauls’ great paean of praise echoes down the centuries. God’s great generosity in Christ accepts us all. He accepts us as Christians and he accepts our Churches with all the weaknesses we bring as human beings . How good he is to take us as we are. How remarkable is his grace and how wide is his love . Pope John Paul, you have in your distinguished Ministry as Pope expressed the love of God to all in compassion and true Christian service. You have in Ut Unum Sint taken a courageous step in inviting other Churches to talk with you about the role of your office in the search for full, visible unity. I and the ecumenical community honour you for that bold step. As your Brother in Christ let us walk together into a deeper unity which both of us know to be the will of our Lord. If we, representing our churches, are going to lead our people towards that goal it can only be done by the generosity to forgive, by the willingness to tolerate diversity in matters outside the biblical core of our faith, and by the humility to accept gifts from one another that may surprise and confound us.
If doxology, then, is the heartbeat of Christian existence we can take comfort that, whatever the dangers and difficulties the Church of God goes through, God will triumph in the end and bring all things to completion in his Son. Advent reminds us of our secure hope that God’s kingdom will come for he has indeed ‘blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ’.