Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 January 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Today begins the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And every year, when this week comes round, I find it leaves me entirely unmoved. But perhaps I’m using an old model for Christian Unity, and maybe you are too. Christian Unity was always seen in terms of a business merger. We would field our best team in the hope of making the world a little more Anglican, and they would summon theirs, and after months of talking and many air-miles, an optimistic report would be published indicating partial agreement on the meaning of religious words. Now I’m sure this was all good work, but it was very clerical, and had nothing whatsoever to do with everyday life. Nor were these moves towards Christian Unity very successful, though there was a minor foray among the Lutherans and yet more meetings with the Methodists. But I don’t think that Anglicans, in all conscience, can dare to make such approaches these days, because our own Church is irreparably divided, more now than ever, on matters of faith, order and ministry. If we divide our own church, how can we expect to unite with others? We need realism here, not false optimism.
One way to revive the cause of Christian Unity is to stop talking, and start doing. This is what happened here a few weeks back, when we accepted an invitation from the Jesuit Church at Farm Street to sing Anglican Evensong. We brought what we were proud of, and we were received with gracious hospitality and fellowship. Somehow our separateness no longer mattered. Why was that evening such a success? I think it was successful because we allowed union with God to underlie the event. Union with God is not something we achieve; rather we surrender to it. That’s why the evening went well. We weren’t trying to achieve Christian Unity. The Unity was there already, at a much deeper level, God’s faithfulness to all of us. It found us, that deeper Reality, and we surrendered to it, without knowing consciously what we were doing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘When I am weak, I am strong’. That’s the Christian way. The arguments, word games and rivalries of tribal Christianity lead not towards unity, but to conflict and further division. After all, our religion is one about dying to self. We have to let the words and ideas go.
So how can we recast Christian Unity in a shape which does justice to its importance, the Gospel injunction “that they might be one”? Let me put a few ideas to you, so that you can come to your own understanding of what a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could possibly be. Unity is not uniformity. The unity of God is reflected in His Creation, which delights in variety; no two persons are the same. Uniformity can not be imposed on the world, nor on the Church. When we see difference, conflict and confusion, the natural human reaction is to clamp it down, stop the noise, enforce the rules, but it doesn’t really work. There’s a dark side too, when to our surprise (for we thought we were rational beings) we find in our own emotions, moods, and feelings, a sort of fearful and destructive anger that things are falling apart. Our security is really threatened; the disunity out there becomes the discord in our minds. What then? Maybe sometimes we have to observe a situation without trying to change it. This is a contemplative stance, just seeing things as they actually are, accepting what is. Maybe we were hoping for uniformity, when all the time we are being called to find unity elsewhere, at a deeper level.
Christian Unity is not just about finding solutions to denominational division. The terrorism in France, the destruction of churches in Syria and Iraq, the rise of a demented fundamentalism, call Christians to unite with people of all faiths and none, simply to defend civilisation wherever it is threatened by barbarity. This is an example of unity at a deeper level, which helps us too to rise above our little local difficulties, because we discover that we are not on our own anyway. We are caught up in something greater than our minds and imagination can grasp, and that ‘something greater’ is God. God draws all humanity, not just us, into a unity. Remember the word ecumenism. It comes from the Greek oikia, meaning house or home. God calls each of us home, to himself. And when we are able to put our own fears to one side, including our fears of other Christians who don’t think as we do, or don’t like us, if we can do something about that, then we can respond to God’s call to unity, we can respond from the heart, sincerely, united within ourselves, for the Spirit of God lives in us, working for the redemption of every one of us, whoever we are, and however we might be labelled. So let’s take Christian Unity to the next level. It’s not about suppressing denominational difference. It’s about all the boundaries, cultural, ethnic and political, which keep us alienated from each other. After all, what matters to God, if I dare ask that question? I don’t think God is for one moment as concerned about our religious differences as we religious people are. Jesus doesn’t talk about that. But he does say, Love your neighbour as yourself. God is in all things. That is Unity.
So the way to get through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is to take the big picture seriously, and to be humorously observant of the little differences and even of those weighty historical divisions which still oppress us. As Henry Chadwick said: ‘A church that has lost its memory is most to be pitied.’ Differences are not to be glossed over. I remember strolling over to St Augustine’s Kilburn one Sunday evening for a comforting Evensong and Benediction. To my consternation it wasn’t E & B at all; it was to be a walk of witness with the Roman Catholics through a no go area of Kilburn. As we followed our cross through the grim tower blocks, between the rival ethnic gangs hanging out on the pavements, past the burkas and the betting shops, in the gloom a voice rang out, directed at the Roman priest, and the voice was clear and Irish, and she said: What are you doing with those Anglicans, Father?
I wouldn’t expect to have Christian Unity in any other way.