Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and St Mary's Battersea worship and pray together at this service
Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Preached at Choral Evensong
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity provides an opportunity for Christians to gather and pray together. We pray together, giving thanks for that which unites us, of which there is much to be thankful for; and we pray together, recognising that the divisions that remain among us are one of the great scandals of Christian history, as our borders, tribes and disagreements present a great impediment to the mission of God in the world. I’ll focus on both in the context of the part of the world that is the source of this year’s theme of the Week of Prayer: the Middle East.
Nowhere is the division more visible, tragically, even violently, than in Israel and Palestine. I will always remember my first visit to the Holy Land, travelling in a coach to visit the sights of Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. Among the sites we were to visit were the supposed site of the Shepherds’ Fields, where the angel appeared and announced the birth of Jesus. As we drove up to the site, outside Bethlehem, we stopped at a junction, at which there was a three-way road sign. Turn left it said for the Roman Catholic Shepherds’ Fields, turn right for the Lutheran Shepherds’ Fields, go straight on for the Orthodox Shepherds’ Fields. Cleary the Anglicans didn’t get their in time to carve out their own patch of Shepherds’ Fields; I’m sure we would have wanted a piece of Shepherds’ Fields if we’d had the chance.
Perhaps the greatest scandal of all though, comes at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most-likely site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Inside this holiest place in Christian pilgrimage, naked turf wars exist between the various denominations, with fist fights breaking out occasionally between those monks and priests charged with policing the various boundary markers. You have to go on to the roof to find the place where the Ethiopian Orthodox are based – they were once foolish enough to manage to get themselves locked out of the Church and have never been allowed back in, on the basis of ‘you snooze, you lose.’ It is one of the most extraordinary facts about the church that, such is the distrust that exists between Christians of different traditions, that the keys to the building are entrusted to a Muslim family.
“Take no part in unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them,” writes St Paul to the Ephesians in our second reading tonight. The Apostle has a very simple approach to teaching Christian ethics, of how to live as a Christian. Become who you are, is the long and short of it. No longer are you a free individual, if you are baptised; now you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to you. More than that even: “It is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me,” he says elsewhere. The journey of the Christian life is from darkness into light, away from all that is not of Christ, into all that is of him. So, he says to the Ephesians, “Live as children of light- in all that is good and right and true.”
Perhaps the greatest sin that the Christian church has perpetuated is the sin of schism and division. From the days of the earliest Christians, the small communities of people to whom Paul wrote his letters, the Church has been made up of people of different backgrounds, different cultures and different belief systems. For the apostle, as we see throughout his writings, when we allow those profound elements of our nature – and lets not kid ourselves that background, upbringing, culture and belief systems are not profound elements of human identity – when we allow those profound elements of our nature to set us apart from one another in Christ, we have failed to live up to our calling. I think it’s fair to say that, among Paul’s greatest concerns is that we fall into disunity, whether that is through ongoing human sin, or an over-scrupulous attitude towards the behaviour of others.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to map that onto the history of Christian disunity and the ongoing scandal of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and all it represents. When we allow so much of what we love about our own traditions or ways of doing things in the Church, or when we take secondary matters and turn them into primary ones and require of others that they adopt these things in order to truly belong to the Church, then maybe we continue to participate in unfruitful works of darkness. I think this is part of the tragedy of the Middle East, as Christians of different hues have spent so much time carving out their own identity against their fellow Christians, and less time building up the whole body of Christ in what is a part of the world increasingly hostile to Christian faith. It cannot be denied that, in part, one of the reason why the indigenous Christian Church in the Middle East is in danger of completely disappearing, is because of Christian disunity.
Paul’s message is clear: “Wake up!” “Be the children of light”. Pope Francis puts it like this: “Being Christian is not just obeying orders but means being in Christ, thinking like him, acting like him, loving like him; it means letting him take possession of our life and change it, transform it, and free it from the darkness of evil and sin. … Let us show the joy of being children of God, the freedom that living in Christ gives us which is true freedom, the freedom that saves us from the slavery of evil, of sin and of death!”
Here in Battersea, as in much of the Christian West, we give thanks that the Holy Spirit has been at work in drawing Christians together over the past century. The High Priestly prayer of Jesus is slowly being answered, as we learn to understand, pray and serve Christ together. At the same time, Anglicans and Catholics (to focus on the two traditions here tonight) have been in an intense, generation-long journey of understanding and listening to one another. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission has helped us to understand one another’s deeply held convictions and to see them in a new light. Slowly, we are realising that our differences are much more about emphasis and language than about first-order issues; slowly, we are finding a path towards fuller visible unity, while facing up to the matters that really remain to be resolved. In a recent interview after a meeting with Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin Welby said this, “we talked about the need for the church not to be stuck, not be stationary, but to be walking. And there, I think, we have the same understanding of the ecclesiology of what it is to be the church, that we walk together…listening to one another carefully. Strengthening the weak, and enabling the strong to serve the weak, and not to dominate.”
Perhaps the secret to greater Christian unity in the Middle East is this walking together. I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury that much of this happens not in theological dialogue but in common service of the vulnerable. It’s interesting to note that our focus of work between St Mary’s and Sacred Heart has been in serving our neighbour – the Surrey Lane Estate, Battersea Communities, the Night Shelter, Coronavirus Angels. I think it would be a fascinating exercise for us to reflect on what we have learned about Christian unity, about walking together, from this work. For this is what “living as children of light” is about: discovering what we share in Christ and how what we learn can be a blessing not just for those we serve, but to us as we continue to live in a divided church. Perhaps as we pray for Christian Unity, both here and in the Middle East, it is this walking together in service that we should pray for most. Perhaps it is the path from the darkness of disunity to the light of unity in Christ.
The Puritans of the 17th century, a tradition which would probably have severe problems with both 21st century Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, had a saying which perhaps can be a word to us, as we pray for, and work towards, greater visible unity. They said this, “unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things.” Or, as the Apostle himself put it, “the greatest of these is love.” Amen.
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