Sermon Epiphany 3, 21 January 2024
Readings: Gen. 14. 17-20; Rev. 19. 6-10; Jn. 2. 1-11
Theme: Christian Unity
This week, in the calendar of the church of England, we celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity from 18-25 January. There was a time when I was growing up in the 1970s when things looked pretty rosy with respect to Christian unity. Having been born in Liverpool in the 1960s, I was privileged to have two cathedrals in my home town and two bishops in Derek Worlock and David Shepherd who worked collaboratively, doing a great deal together for the cause of Christian unity and to foster the role that churches play in social issues. Recent decades and the various struggles over women priests and issues in sexuality appear to have made this horizon of unity seem to be ever more distant. It is a sad situation because divisions between churches weaken the body of Christ.
However, it would be unfortunate if the great progress made on matters of doctrine and of church polity were to be forgotten in the face of the recent challenges that we face. Of particular note has been the various commissions which studied central aspects of doctrine such as the nature of the sacraments, of priesthood and of authority in the church. The so-called ARCIC commission produced three documents illustrating substantial agreement on many of these issues and in 1999 the joint declaration between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches produced a substantial agreement on the nature of justification, which was one of the central theological issues behind the Reformation. So, despite what may seem like current insurmountable challenges it is not an exaggeration to say that some of the basic issues which created the divisions between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have now found substantial theological agreement.
This is why it is so important for us to work ecumenically together at our grass roots levels. As, it can be the case that seemingly abstract declarations find it difficult to permeate the encrusted attitudes of local traditions and cultures that may have all sorts of reasons for propagating an antagonistic attitude to Christians of other denominations.
In my own journey of coming to better understand different churches, I have found two particular approaches to be of particular use for fostering good relationships between different churches. The first is the notion of what has been called ‘receptive ecumenism’. This is an approach to church unity which starts by first looking at what each denomination is struggling with within its own tradition. Rather than meeting another tradition with the attitude of ‘I am right and you are wrong’, this attitude of ‘receptive ecumenism’ suggests that each tradition begins by looking at its own difficulties and asking how other traditions might be able to be of help. Meeting another tradition with such vulnerability fosters the appropriate attitude of humility with which to approach another way of seeing things. At a personal level, this is also a good way of dealing with people who are different from ourselves and it represents an evangelical attitude which goes a long way in opening up constructive dialogue.
The Gospel passage of the wedding feast of Cana today manifests this attitude in that Mary recognizes that it is only the Lord who can provide us with the wine for the wedding feast. The nuptial celebration of union between the bride and the bridegroom is a powerful symbol of the unity of the church with Christ who is its head and also between each of the members of the body of Christ who are the various churches of today.
The other approach to ecumenism which I have found helpful is that of rethinking what we mean by the catholic church. It is all too easy to associate the catholic church with the Roman Catholic Church. But the meaning of the word catholic is universal. It applies to all churches who profess the faith set out in the Nicene Creed. Understanding catholic in this way, means that it is possible to view each church as a fragment of the whole; as a part of the universal church towards which each church is working towards. Moreover, it also means that no church can and should think of itself as self-sufficient. Each ecclesial community has in good faith attempted to plumb the depths of its understanding of the Gospel in order to seek its own way of manifesting the truth of Christ. In this way, the project of building a catholic church in history is one of valuing the insights of each of our churches and finding ways to learn from one another what it truly means to believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” as we profess each Sunday when we recite the creed.
I prefer to think of this statement in the creed as project, a process rather than a completed reality. It is a call to action that all the different churches should hear as the goal to which we are heading. That is why it is so important for us to seek concrete ways to foster this at our local level. In our own situation this is especially important, since being a church in diaspora, so to speak, we are reliant upon the Roman Catholic Church for the use of churches to gather in. This dependency certainly comes with its challenges, but it also comes with its advantages. Being a small minority in a culture allows us to operate more nimbly than in England where there is so much baggage from the being the established church, perceived as having so much power and influence. There is a certain freedom which comes from being a guest in the churches of our Spanish hosts. It makes clear that we are dependent on others to operate, even in terms of the very spaces that we occupy here in San Pedro and Sotogrande.
So, in this week of prayer for Christian unity it is good for us to fix our eyes on the goal of Christian unity which is to truly become the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which we are called to be by virtue of our baptism.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.