Sermon: Faltering but Faithful Ścumenism: Peter and Nathanael
The Reverend David Sudron, Sacrist and Succentor; Minor Canon
Preached on 18th January 2009
by The Reverend David Sudron
Faltering but Faithful Œcumenism: Peter and Nathanael
Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St John 1. 43 - 51
The Church Unity Octave was first observed in January 1908, spanning the feasts of the Chair of St Peter at Rome on the 18th, and the Conversion of St Paul on the 25th. Fr Spencer Jones, the Rector of Moreton-in-Marsh in the County of Gloucester, was its instigator. His inspiration was his desire to find a way to reunite the Churches of England and Rome, a subject on which he had preached several years earlier at St Matthew's, Westminster in sympathetic comapny. Present on that occasion was Lord Halifax, who would go on to initiate the Melines Conversation - what we might venture to call the first serious dialogue between Anglican and Roman theologians of the twentieth century.
After changes of name, first to the rather more specific "Chair of Unity Octave" and then back to the more general "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity", a great deal has grown from the passion of one Anglo-Catholic priest in Gloucestershire and his friends, in ways still broader than their original intent. Since today is what has been observed since the fourth century as the Feast of the Chair of St Peter (even though is was removed from the Roman Calendar by John XXIII), I want to think briefly about what the characters of St Peter and Nathanael could suggest about the quest for the visible unity of the Church.
I think it is fair to say that both of them were less than ‘polished'; rough diamonds seems nearer the mark. In Nathanael's case, his first words after Philip's introduction are far from socially graceful. To insult the birthplace of a stranger as one's opening gambit is blunt in the extreme. Jesus's reply is delicious: it might as well be, "Thank GOD! A man who doesn't mince his words!" But Nathanael is no loud-mouthed moron. For all his plain speaking, this man has been sitting in the place of the contemplative: under the fig tree. He is an Isrealite, one who, like his ancestor given that name, wrestles with the things of God, and he is promised that he will see the same vision of angels as his forefather, Jacob.
St Peter's blunders were numerous. Despite everything, from the comparatively minor mistake of not understanding the importance of Jesus's speaking of his impending death and begging him not to say such things, to the grave failing of his threefold denial, this is the man who first confessed Jesus to be the Christ. In spite of losing his temper and cutting off the High Priest's servant's ear, this is the rock on whom the Church is built. One imagines that he was a man for whom it was easy to have enormous affection, devoid of preciousness and full of that earthiness of life that tends to characterise those whose livelihood is earned in the face of danger. And he is the one to whom the keys of heaven have been entrusted.
They are apt figures for reflexion in this week because, more than anything else, they should cause us to ask ourselves questions about our basic dispositions. Cardinal Mercier, chairman of the aforementioned Melines Conversation, said, ‘In order to be united it is necessary to love one another: in order to love one another it is necessary to know one another: in order to know one another it is necessary to meet one another.' One might go a stage further back and say that in order to meet one another it is necessary to want to do so.
Some of us are thankful for having been born by a time when, for the majority of Christians (saving a few arrogant exceptions), that willingness can be taken for granted, and, indeed, that there is a regularity with which Christians of different traditions meet. It is true that after the business of meeting it all becomes rather more erratic. One sometimes gets the impression that some end up with more knowledge about the ways of others than about their own; there are instances when a right and proper affection and regard has grown up between the institutionally divided; and there have been institutional steps towards the recovery of unity.
In that sense the rather two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress of what William Temple christened the Ecumenical Movement is not dissimilar to St Peter's apostolate. He wasn't any less prone to getting it wrong even when martyrdom called: there is a tradition that he fled the city down the old Appian Way, where he met Jesus who asked him, "Peter, where are you going?" The church of Quo Vadis now stands at the place where, after a moment's thought he replied, "To be crucified, Lord." Even then is is loving correction he encounters. Perhaps we chastise ourselves more severely than we should that we haven't made enough progress fast enough towards the restoration of full, visible unity; but perhaps we are not thankful enough that we have got as far as we have, either.
If we want to grow into being ever more authentically the People of God, Israelites indeed, then we must encounter each other with integrity. Fr Michael Seed, the Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, has suggested that instead of focussing on worshipping together at joint services specially arranged, we should go to each other's regular services. There will, of course, be difficulties, elements in the customs of others that challenge us, but the Christian way is to engage with them charitably, not give up and sulk. One has to leave at the church or chapel door not only one's own ideas of who is right and who is wrong, but those of one's own church, with all of the irksome burdens of status and self-satisfaction. Dialogue and debate will surely follow, but it will be the more authentic for issuing from experience instead of theory, and there can be a world of difference between the two: my experience has usually been that less divides us in practice than in principle, and in what we do than in what we say. That is especially true when churches leave behind their self-obsession and get out into the world to join in with the work of God.
When you work in a fishing port, you find a lot of people like St Peter and Nathanael who speak as they find. I will never forget the words of Ken O'Riordan, priest of St Pius's Roman Catholic Church, at the funeral of his former colleague Mary Stephens, Team Vicar of St Martin's, next door in the Local Ecumenical Partnership. In his lovely lilting Irish delivery he said something which someone of his obedience isn't technically supposed to say, with a conviction as gentle as it was absolute: "Mary was a priest from her mother's womb." The High Priestly prayer of Christ felt just a shade nearer being answered. And there are countless more examples.
May glory be to him in his Church and in his world, in all time that ever was and ever shall be. Amen.