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Together with Cardinal Cassidy and our colleagues at our ecumenical forum, I want to say how pleased we are to be here this evening and to share in this act of worship. As you will be aware, for the first time, Anglican and Roman Catholic Leaders from around the world are meeting together in order to discuss the problems and challenges that lie before us on the road to the full visible unity of our two Churches. Of course, our two Churches have travelled a long way together during the last forty or so years and we have much in common. This evening gives us an opportunity to celebrate that fact.
Nevertheless we know that some Protestant Christians object to this theological dialogue. They fear that Reformation principles are being abandoned and gospel faith is being traduced. I reply that the journey the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have taken since the Second Vatican Council has not been a journey away from the Christian faith but a pilgrimage together into its heart. Polemics lead to hatred and division. Partnership leads to the promise of mutual service and eventual union.
Earlier this year I was delighted to respond to Pope John Paul II‘s invitation to join him and other ecumenical representatives at the opening of the Holy Door in the Basilica of St Paul’s without the Walls in Rome. Anglican Christians will be aware that St Paul’s has a particular resonance for us since it was there that Paul VI gave Archbishop Michael Ramsey the gift of an Episcopal ring which is still worn today when Archbishops visit the Pope.
And so it was that I found myself, together with a representative of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, standing together with the Pope as we prepared to open the Holy Door. When it came to the moment for us to open the door, we discovered that it was not a well oiled piece of furniture! The three of us had to go to some effort to get it open. Thus, the Ecumenical beginning of the Jubilee year required a suitable degree of ecumenical co-operation! I am sure that all of us here this evening, on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s 80th birthday will want to express our gratitude for his holy and inspiring Ministry and extend to him our love and prayers.
In the course of the service there were two reflections on the nature of the Church, one from the writings of Fr George Florovsky and the other written by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Father Florovsky, representing the Orthodox tradition, reminded us that:
“The Church is one, and there is only one Church of Christ. For the Church is his body. And Christ is never divided. With the creation of the Christian Church a completely new form or regime of existence has come into being . . . the Church is one: the Church is not simply one nota ecclesiae alongside others, but rather her very nature.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of the Church from a European, Protestant perspective is complementary:
“… the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ himself who has taken form among men…. the Church, then, bears the form which is in truth the proper form of all humanity.”
The twin testimonies of Florovsky and Bonhoeffer point us towards Christ as head of the Church. They urge us, from the outset, towards a christological vision of what the Church should be about. It impels us, when thinking about God’s Church, to start with our eyes very firmly focussed on Christ always concerning our selves with living our life as a Christian community, the life of the Saviour himself.
This is a great vision and we cannot, nor should not, avoid the fact that all too often in its life and history, the institutional Church has fallen short of this Christlike ideal. The theological divide between us has at times been very wide and the martyrdom of Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians testifies to a tangled and sometimes wretched history. We cannot undo the past but we can transcend it; more importantly, it is to the cross of Christ that we look not only for interpretation but also for healing.
One of my favourite books is Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. It describes the journey of a young Jewish artist growing up in an orthodox Jewish home. The parents could not understand the boy’s intense desire to paint – and the boy did not understand the distress he was causing to his Rabbi father and his orthodox faith which cannot approve of representations of God. The boy becomes an art student and the rift between father and son deepens. Even when he becomes a successful painter, the anger of his father and the pain of his distressed mother disturb him. On his return to New York after studying in Paris he has the opportunity to present his first exhibition. And he invites his parents to it. They come, suspicious, but anxious for reconciliation. The moment comes when the painting he has been working on for so long is unveiled and when it is, the parents are scandalised and walk out in anger. Asher has depicted a cross. On it is his mother and on either side of the cross are the quarrelling father and son, in some way reconciled and brought together through the suffering mother.
Only by going outside his own religious tradition to a cross to interpret the need for reconciliation could Asher express his deepest longings. And, in so doing, the gift became a crisis.
This remains true of the cross of Christians. It is both gift and crisis – taking the word ‘crisis’ in its New Testament meaning of judgement. The cross is a ‘gift’ when we allow it to draw us closer to one another. It becomes ‘crisis’ when we reject our Lord’s desire to follow him together.
The crisis of Christian division is the sad legacy of the past and our continuing failure to heal it. Although we personally are not to blame for those historical circumstances which have lead to today’s divided Church we are accountable to the degree that we are unwilling to work for resolution of the results of past conflicts.
As a Jewish writer, Potok deals with the cross as a symbol. The subject of the suffering is that he depicts is Asher’s mother, not a Christ figure. For us, however, it is Christ himself who is the centre of our faith and the subject of our devotion. He is the gift to us all and without him the Church has no foundation and no future.
But how does the gift of the cross help us today? I believe, profoundly, that our relationships as Christians need to be driven by a sense of God’s gracious gift. His gift to us of life and truth. His gift to us of our communal life in Christ within the Church. His gift to us of each other and our diversity and insight. We need to respond to God’s gracious gift in the sort of way that Paul adumbrates at the beginning of Chapter 4 of the Epistle to the Ephesians:
“… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain a unity of the spirit and the bond of peace.”
But this is not, and cannot be, just words. It is about the whole way that we characterise our lives in Christ Jesus. It requires us to transcend old prejudices and discontents and see in the other the face of Christ as a prelude to moving beyond our entrenched positions to a much greater future.
It means working from our common baptism towards a far deeper understanding of what we already share. Even though we do not yet have full Eucharistic hospitality and thus our unity is incomplete, baptism in the name of the Triune God asks of us: ‘In what ultimate sense is baptism incomplete?’ Baptism then becomes a catalyst to resolve the remaining issues that divide us and, indeed, becomes a foundational fact that drives us on towards full, visible unity.
But, of course, baptism, and the common Christian life it represents becomes in turn a catalyst for service and mission. Let us remember as an Irish Methodist has recently said, that ‘disunity distorts truth, wastes resources, hinders witness, impoverishes worship and discredits the gospel.’ It stands to reason then that the drive for a united Christianity will reveal truth, save resources, deepen witness, enrich worship and glorify the gospel. And it is beginning to happen as we see the cross as our common and gracious gift. It is happening in Northern Ireland as churches reach Christian hands across an Oh, so bitter divide. I see it happening in places of conflict like Sudan where I was just three weeks ago – where Catholic and Anglican leaders are standing together, witnessing together and suffering together.
Ironically, Asher Lev could only make sense of his pain by taking it to a cross. It became a gift and a crisis. As the generation of Christians charged with charting the uncertain waters of a new Millennium we have the opportunity to move more closely together. In the wonderful words of Professor Jurgen Moltmann, ‘the nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together’.
And in this Eastertide, it is surely good to remind one another that the risen Christ urges us to take his message to the nations; a message that heals, restores, forgives and makes new.
I have only recently discovered that the only occasion on which Easter is used as a verb in the English language is in the final stanzas of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland where he writes: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be/a crimson-cresseted east.”
I wish for our conversations and for all those who seek the unity of God’s purposes in his Church that Christ be Eastered in us, the light of his resurrection glowing and growing within us, a gift to encourage us, suffusing us with the light of its truth.