The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2017: the Guild Vicar’s Sermon

Solemn Evensong on the First Day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18 January 2017

The Revd Dr Barry Orford

To those of us of a certain age the annual arrival of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity too easily makes us respond with weary indifference. Oh yes, we pay lip service to the conviction that Christians should be drawing together and not resting in our divisions. We recognize that praying for such unity is desirable. We acknowledge that things are better between Christians of different denominations than they were, say fifty years ago. We know that learned scholars have met for countless hours trying to understand our divisions and how some of them might be overcome, and they’ve made progress. But having said that, the questions remain: has any major reconciliation of separated Christians been achieved through all this? Have entrenched positions finally been set aside?

The issue becomes particularly pointed this year, when we are invited to commemorate, even celebrate, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s beginning of the Reformation in Germany. Now I don’t want to spoil the party, but I would have thought that this was more an occasion for international Church penitence, because the Reformation led to a massive rift in the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, the worst since the catastrophic split between the Eastern and Western Church which began in the 11th Century.

I don’t for a minute deny the blessings which, by the Grace of God, have come in the wake of the Reformation; but I do regret that the voice which prevailed was that of Luther, and not that of his scholarly contemporary, Erasmus. Luther had a belligerence which made him willing to force matters to a break with Rome. Erasmus, who was every bit as concerned that abuses which had crept into the Church should be put right, always argued in the interests of peace and caution.

Erasmus wanted harmony and careful reforms, not division. Hence his remarks in a letter in 1521, “Everyone knew that the Church was burdened with tyranny and ceremonies and laws invented by men for their own profit. Many were already hoping for some remedy and even planning something….Oh, if [Luther] had either left things alone, or made his attempt more cautiously and in moderation!”

If only Luther had heeded the words Erasmus addressed to him: “We must take pains to do and say nothing out of arrogance or faction, for I think the spirit of Christ would have it so. Meanwhile we must keep our minds above the corruption of anger or hatred, or of ambition; for it is this that lies in wait for us when our religious zeal is in full course.” Those are surely words which should be hung in full view when any Christian gathering is assembled. But when passions are aroused, moderates will never be heard.

Well, we can’t rewrite history. Our business is to ask what the spirit of Christ wishes for His Church now, and this is where the ecumenical work and prayer of the Twentieth Century helped us by producing three important shifts in our perception of the Church.

The first was a deepening awareness that the divisions between Christians are a scandal. How can we preach peace and reconciliation to the world when we ourselves are so divided, and sometimes so bitterly? The situation makes a mockery of our words.

The second shift was to get away from a view that the Christian Church had originally been united, and had then fractured. Research into Christian origins will not allow this. Look in the New Testament, and you’ll see that the first Christians inherited all the divisions existing in Judaism, and then added more of their own.

This was an important alteration in viewpoint, because it freed us from the notion that a unified Church must necessarily be unified in structure. What matters is our sharing a common faith and understanding, and they do not require a straitjacket of unvarying practices. There is plenty of room for variation in worship and practice so long as we are at one in the essentials of belief. Differences of nationality and culture will alone make variation inevitable.

The third shift in our understanding of the Church was to recognize that we Christians already have what we are seeking. We are all united in Our Lord Jesus Christ by reason of our baptism. Our divisions are, if you like, over matters external to that, over matters of understanding and interpretation. That’s not to say that they are unimportant, but it means that any discussions we have about those divisions need to be constantly aware that we are seeking a practical expression of the unity we already have in baptism. And if wars are too important to be left to generals, seeking that practical expression of baptismal unity is too important to leave solely to professional theologians. It must be done by us. Major change in the Church comes from grassroots up, from the Holy Spirit working in the Christian faithful, and not by pronouncements from the top down.

That said, the difficulties inevitably arise. How are we to do this? How are we to give expression to the unity we have at the most fundamental level? This is where we return to our original question. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity may be an excellent idea, but what does it achieve? Perhaps the simple observance of the week can offer us a challenge – a challenge not to rest comfortably and unconcerned in our divisions. That should press on us with particular force now, because just as we are witnessing everywhere a deeply disturbing retreat into nationalism and sectarianism, we can expect that dark spirit to creep into the Church if we are not on our guard against it. It will assure us that it is acceptable to be separated from each other.

The work of evil is always to foster division, as opposed to the work of the healing and unifying Spirit of Christ, and evil works by corrupting things which are fundamentally good. In this case, the forces of division operate through our devotions and loyalties.

What I mean is this. We all have our Church traditions, our familiar customs and ways of conducting our worship, and if we are not devoted to our good traditions, then we are being unfaithful to gifts which have been given to us. We should indeed treasure them. But that’s where the temptation slips in, a temptation to treat our treasures like dragons guarding a heap of gold.

In mythology, dragons protect their hoard to make sure that nobody gets possession of it. That should be a warning to us, because we’ve seen the dragonish mentality often enough in the Church. We see it when part of the Church says, “we’re right, the rest of you are wrong. We’re the real thing, the rest of you aren’t.”

You’d have thought that we might have learned from St Paul the folly of one part of the human body saying to another part, “I don’t need you”, and realize from that that we can’t separate ourselves from each other and then claim, “we alone are the Body of Christ.” Our shared baptism forbids it, but it doesn’t stop us doing it.

We ought to remember that dragons ferociously guarding their treasure can wake up one day to discover that it has become worthless, because treasure is meant to be shared, not hoarded.

That, then, is the question which faces us in this Week of Prayer. Do we value our inherited Christian riches so much that we are prepared to share them with other Christians, and in our turn, receive some of the riches which they have for us? That is a way in which our dreadful divisions can gradually be healed. After all, at the heart of our lived faith is what should be a shared meal. It is in that sharing that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us. I don’t need to spell out the wretched situation by which we Christians can still refuse to share that meal with each other, and try to treat it as our private possession. Perhaps by asking how we can share our treasures, we might come to see how intolerable it is not to share our food.

I quoted Erasmus earlier. Let me finish with other words of his. “The Church of God,” he wrote, “is the Christian people, cemented together by the spirit of Christ.” That Spirit is a shared Spirit, poured out on all baptised Christians without favour. Do we have the desire to live by that shared Spirit of Christ? If don’t have that desire, we had better devote this week to praying for it, because it is only by the power of Christ’s Spirit that we can live in the reality that we are already one in Him.