Sermon at Eucharist on Sunday 24 May
24 May 2009 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
‘That they may be one, even as we are one’. That phrase from Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the reading we have just heard was very influential in the life of the churches at least in the last century. It was part of the prayer of Jesus not only for his own followers but ‘for those who believe in me through their word’, which, of course includes all of us. And it was probably the most often quoted biblical phrase in the whole ecumenical movement of the last century and provided much of the inspiration for the churches to try to search for some sort of unity. Jesus and the author of the Fourth Gospel were, of course, addressing a very different situation from the divided Christendom with different churches not in communion with one another that we face today, but the words of that prayer did provide a call to address that issue. Now, in the early part of the twenty-first century, it perhaps looks more difficult with some speaking of a new ecumenical winter, which is not because relationships between the churches have soured in any way, so much as it not being at all clear what the next stage of any ecumenical journey should be.
So it is perhaps worth noting first of all the huge progress that has been made in relationships with our fellow Christians over the last century or so. You do not just have to go back to the wars of the Reformation period, even some of the history of the late Victorian church shows a very different world, where very sharp words were said by representatives of churches to one another and where the sort of easy relationships that exist today would be almost unknown. Someone said many years ago that they personally were not sure that the walls between the churches should be totally demolished, but he did hope they would be lowered enough to enable people to shake hands over the top. Well that at least has certainly happened, and here, for example, I think we are all delighted that we have a Roman Catholic priest, the former administrator of Westminster Cathedral, and the Senior Methodist Minister from Methodist Central Hall over the road as members of the Collegiate body of the Abbey.
But you do not need to know much about the life of the churches today to know that some of the deepest divisions are not those between the denominations as those within denominations; just look at the tensions within Anglicanism today, which can often be mirrored in different settings within other churches. Indeed I am sure I could quite easily find some Roman Catholic priests or some Free Church ministers with whom I would have far more in common than I do with some of my fellow Anglicans clergy, even some within this country.
So what are we to make of the words from that prayer of Jesus in our own context of today?
Well, first of all I think it must mean that we genuinely value the diversity of approaches that we find between the churches and within individual churches. There are diversities of styles of worship, diversities of styles of speaking, certainly diversities of theological understandings, and, lying behind those, not only diversities of history and tradition, but diversities of temperament as well. Of course most of us will find our closest links with those who share a similar outlook, but it would be very foolish ever to consider that only those people form the real church. Most of us would probably never say publicly that we thought they did, but it is very easy to act as though they did, and I am probably as guilty of that as anyone. But really welcoming diversity does seem to me to be part of our response to Jesus’ prayer in today’s context, and that can be a real challenge for anyone.
But having welcomed diversity, I think it is not enough simply to be nice to one another, although that is not a bad start, but it might involve really engaging with the issues that divide us. If we can get the context of mutual listening and respect correct, and that might take time, then we should find ways of listening carefully to one another and just sometimes we may find our prejudices are challenged. That point of view that I had always thought was so blinkered and so obscurantist may actually be slightly different from what I had always imagined, and there may be sophistications and nuances that I had never before discovered until I started the process of really careful engagement and listening. Really engaging with those who take different points of view does entail being willing to change oneself.
But perhaps the real secret to making the process work lies in the very context of the words of Jesus, in prayer. I am not talking here about any simplistic sort of piety, but part of the process of praying seems to me to involve moving the centre of my looking at things from purely my own perspective to trying to see the issue in the context of a world that has God at its centre. Rooting my relationships with others, including my relationships with those with whom I disagree in the context of trying to see the world as God sees it does make a difference. Unless we have an image of God that is purely made in our own image, which would, of course, be idolatry, to pray about our relationships with others certainly gives a broader perspective. If God loves the world that must mean that he also loves those with whom we happen to disagree. And seeing someone else as an object of God’s love does change our perspective of them.
So perhaps at least the start of a way of responding to those words from Jesus’ prayer is to pray with imagination and sensitivity for those other Christians with whom we happen to disagree, whether in other churches or within our own. And just maybe if enough of us did that it might make a real difference.