Sermon: Practical Unity
The Reverend David Sudron, Sacrist and Succentor; Minor Canon
Preached on 23rd January 2011
by The Reverend David Sudron
St Matthew 4. 12 - 23
This is the second time during my ministry here that I have praught on the Sunday during the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. I was thinking about this last Wednesday week when the Precentors’ Conference gathered in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey. At lunch there was a queue for the loo, a particularly antiquated contraption, whose cistern took an age to refill. When I quipped to Michael Macey, my opposite number at the Abbey, that I hoped that the Holy Father hadn’t had to use this wretched facility before divine service in the Abbey in September, he was very embarrassed to admit that he had. Probably one of many reasons he looked completely bemused at the beginning of Evening Prayer…
And I found myself reflecting still more on my feelings about that visit as I made my way from the Abbey to Westminster Cathedral for the 5.30 Sung Mass, preferring, as I do, to worship in a church where I am not made to feel like an inconvenience. Despite it being partly because of claims made about his office that many of us are not in communion with the See of Rome, I was profoundly moved by the Pope’s presence in this country, touched by a renewed desire for the Petrine ministry to be exercised according to its ancient character, a focus of unity and communion, not a locus of absolute and universal jurisdiction.
We ought to be thankful for living at a time when, for the majority of Christians, a right and proper affection and regard has grown up between the institutionally divided. To know that the ring worn by the Archbishop of Canterbury, given by Paul VI to Michael Ramsey, has been kissed by Benedict XVI should be a cause for quiet rejoicing. These things are instinctive and they speak powerfully: more so, often, than the technicalities and formulae.
At the same time I also remembered the furore over Cardinal Kasper’s comment that landing at Heathrow was in some ways like arriving in a third world country. The words struck me as being surprisingly poorly chosen from a man known for his eloquence and diplomacy, the very skills which made him so effective as President for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Amidst the tensions the media was busily trying to whip up in the weeks before the Pope arrived there was a sudden rush to sideline the cardinal, the Archbishop of Westminster himself describing the comments as ‘inexplicable’.
But I suggest that it was only his turn of phrase which was inexplicable. What he was hinting at is all too clear, hence the loss of so many tempers: that Britain, presently, is very much like the Galilee of the Gentiles of today’s Gospel, a place where the Faith has receded from being an invigorating and enlivening presence to being what the rural dean of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, the excellent Canon Peter Mullins, calls ‘background radiation Christianity’, which I suspect has much in common with the Judaism of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the first place from which the Assyrians dragged away the Israelites to exile in Babylon. Heaven forefend that anyone should make such claims about Albion today: the wrath of the gutter press will descend!
The churches must bear a great part of the blame for this, and especially the Church of England. If we invested as much energy in trying to understand the society to which we are called to minister as we do in obsessing about out internal concerns the situation might well be different. Instead we give the distinct impression that we are ignorant of and not interested in what is going on around us. In times past we have acted to the detriment of others, not least in the exploitation of the Durham coalfield. We imply to the good people with whom we live and move and have our being that we are not so much a blend of wisdom and innocence as one of folly and naïveté.
Christ’s call to repent, to turn, to change because the kingdom of heaven is at hand is as much for those of us who believe as it is for those who don’t or who are not sure. We hear that call continually on an individual level, and I want to say that it is on an individual level that I see the greatest evidence of at work: the Church is not wanting for people who live lives in which grace is obviously at work. The problem is far more obvious at corporate level, when the Church often looks nothing like the sum of her parts. Individuals, parishes, cathedrals, dioceses, provinces ought to be doing what the Archbishop of Canterbury said so succinctly towards the beginning of his incumbency: engaging in a mission which is about looking at the world, finding out what God is doing and joining in.
One of the ways this can fruitfully be done is ecumenically. A shared, practical response to social issues will often yield a greater sense of ecclesial cohesion and mutual regard than debates on points of doctrine or the tiresome, specially arranged services that don’t really say anything of moment so as to avoid offending particular sensitivities. In my own experience I think of the Daily Bread food larder project supported by the churches of North East Lincolnshire and networked with local landlords to provide food and accommodation, usually within a few hours, for people suddenly made homeless. Eyes, ears, contacts and resources all over the borough were put in touch by the Church and made an enormous difference. Or I think of the Churches Together in North East Lincolnshire dinner attended by the 350 we could squeeze into the Winter Gardens in Cleethorpes, demand for tickets far outstripping the supply. Not a church-centred occasion, but one on which to consider the government’s Respect agenda, explained to us by the civil servant at the head of the Whitehall taskforce, in critical dialogue with local Church leaders.
It seems to me that there is more in this of the Jesus who went about the land of the Galilee of the Gentiles than we might at first assume: his Church, his body, going beyond herself, going into the places where she is needed, engaging with the ills and sorrows of the people she meets, making herself part of God’s work there and then. In work like this the doubting and the disbelieving come to see what their background radiation Christianity tells them it is supposed to be about, and sometimes they even recognize it publicly: imagine how touched the recently-retired Rector of Grimsby was to be granted the Freedom of the Borough in thanksgiving for the twenty-five years he has spent in getting the Church to engage with her community in a desperately deprived area of Lincolnshire.
It is in these concrete things that we can do most to continue to overcome ‘the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions’, to quote from the great prayer Michael Ramsey introduced to the Venerable English College in Rome before Paul VI gave him, on an impulse, the ring which the Archdiocese of Milan had given him on his election to the Papacy. There is a great deal that we ordinary Christians can do to encourage men of this calibre. I wonder when the last time was that any of us wrote to one of them to say how much we admire him, how encouraged we are by his ministry. I know that Rowan Williams receives a great deal of critical correspondence from people who are blind to his humility and longsuffering and deaf to his wisdom and patience. Perhaps those of us who are sometimes frustrated by his not taking up the cudgels for the causes we know he passionately believes in would see him do so if he were encouraged by the greater number of the people of God who are with him. And he is one among many who deserve our support, regardless of which denomination of the Church they represent.
That sort of encouragement is one of the most powerful spiritual weapons each Christian has, be it a simple message on a postcard or a kiss on the back of the hand. It is a spiritual space where Christ is at work in reconciling the world, just as he is in the collaboration for the relief of the poor and the destitute and the supper shared by his people as they wrestle with the issues of the day. Landing at Heathrow would make any observant person wonder what sort of place they had come to: but the answer of the Gospel, in every time and place, is that it is a place of divine opportunity, somewhere where God is at work, summoning his people to stop messing about and join in.
May glory be to him in his Church and in his world, in all time that ever was and ever shall be. Amen.