Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on St Peter's Day 2016
Start Date 29th Jun 2016 5:00pm
Description

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Two weeks ago we celebrated here at the Abbey the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Anglican Centre in Rome, whose Director, Archbishop Sir David Moxon, is the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Holy See, in other words to the Pope. The archbishop of Canterbury gave the address. The Pope's representative in the United Kingdom, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the papal nuncio, was here, as were Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and the Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley, Roman Catholic co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, amongst many others.

We were reminded of what happened fifty years ago when the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, visited Pope Paul VI in Rome. This was a notable and historic occasion, the first formal visit of an archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the world wide Anglican Communion, to the pope since the breakaway of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century. The dialogue between the pope and the archbishop on that occasion led to the foundation of serious theological engagement between our two communions on the faith that unites us and the issues that divide us. The visit fifty years ago, we were reminded, was concluded with a breathtakingly powerful symbolic moment. Pope Paul VI removed from his finger his episcopal ring, one of the permanent symbols of his being a bishop, and in particular the bishop of Rome, the so-called fisherman's ring, and placed it on the finger of the archbishop. This extraordinary moment seemed to symbolise what words could not convey, a recognition of the archbishop of Canterbury as a bishop of the Church of God and a fellow leader within that Church. Words have not since been found to convey a similar thought. Technically, according to what has been written and spoken, and from the point of view of the Vatican, the archbishop is not only not a bishop but not even a priest. Since 1896, Anglican holy orders have been considered formally by the papacy to be 'absolutely null and utterly void.' But often actions speak louder than words. The current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wore that same ring at the service here two weeks ago.

Fifteen years after the pope and the archbishop had met, in 1981, we awaited the first visit of a pope to these shores and the final report of the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. A series of lectures, given here at the Abbey during Lent that year by Roman Catholic and Anglican members of the Commission and by the then archbishop of Canterbury, indicated high hopes that extensive agreement reached between the two partners could lead towards reconciliation between the divided Communions. It was expected that when Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie met in Canterbury some positive steps would be announced towards unity. It was not to be. The atmosphere was warm and mutually respectful, as it should be when the successor of St Peter, the prince of apostles, and St Gregory met the successor of St Augustine, the apostle to the English. But the only step was towards further discussion, and after that, even more discussion. There has been no material change.

There are obviously serious obstacles to the reconciliation of divided Christendom. When organisations grow apart, they develop habits of life and ways of thought which diverge and make it uncomfortable, and in practice almost inconceivable, that they should come together again. There are no theological obstacles between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches; they each recognise the validity of each other's holy orders, in other words they acknowledge each other as authentic Churches with true ministries of word and sacrament. But institutionally, organisationally, they are worlds apart. The great schism between the eastern and western Churches took place in 1054. The divisions of almost a thousand years are too difficult to heal. Next year we shall mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the protestant Reformation in Europe with a special service on 31st October, 500 years to the day after Martin Luther fixed his protest, his 95 Theses, to a church door. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation confirmed the break-up of the Church in the West. Over a hundred years ago, one of the great 20th century projects was initiated: to promote and to strive for Christian unity. It has led to a reduction in suspicion and enmity and an improvement in mutual respect and collaboration but it has borne no significant tangible fruit.

But we are better together. We need reconciliation between those divided from each other, in the Church and the world. Former enemies must learn to work together for the common good. In this country we have been much engaged for many weeks in considering and debating the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Last Thursday, a majority of those who voted in a referendum supported leaving the European Union. It seems that few people really expected that Leave would win and now there is considerable uncertainty and turmoil as a result, not just in this country but in the nations of the European Union and beyond. The United Kingdom was not a founder member of the Common Market when it was formed in 1958 but joined on 1st January 1973. The original treaty between the six countries that formed the European Economic Community was signed on the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, 25th March 1957, in Rome.

For many centuries Rome had been the prevailing power in Europe. First the Roman Empire ruled great swathes of modern Europe. After the collapse of the Empire the papacy exercised jurisdiction. Monarchs and rulers were under papal authority. Some resisted. Kings of England in particular sought independence. Henry II fought the power of the Church, and the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. Later, Edward III refused to allow a former abbot of Westminster Simon Langham, who had become archbishop of Canterbury, to be a cardinal while remaining archbishop. The king feared the meddling of a foreign power, even though that power was the papacy. In 1368, Archbishop Langham resigned his see and left to serve as a cardinal in the then papal city of Avignon. Henry II, Edward III: Henry VIII's decision to begin the break with Rome in 1532 may have resulted from his personal wishes, but was not out of the blue.

Striving for the reconciliation of former enemies is never easy; achieving collaboration with those from whom we are divided by centuries of difference, by our distinctive histories, is inevitably tough. Structural Christian unity has not been achieved despite a hundred years of aspiration and fifty years of serious effort. Structural unity between neighbouring countries, ever closer union, has proved unattractive to many with its implication of a loss of integrity, an abandonment of history, though there are other darker forces at work. On the other hand many have been the rich blessings of a once-divided continent with a dramatically bloody history living in peace and harmony together. But we are where we are. Breaking up is not really hard to do; it is quite easy. And the motivation may be trivial and misplaced. Reconciliation is hard.

There can be no direct read-across from the struggle of the Churches for Christian unity and the search for a reconciling union between the nations of this great and complex continent of Europe with its long, powerful and influential history. And no priest should use a pulpit to propose a political manifesto. But those of us who live in this great city must be conscious of the value to our community and communities of the rich diversity of people who, in the past fifty years or so, have brought their talents, energies and creativity to contribute to the wealth and welfare of everyone here. Reduced to the struggling monoculture of the immediate post-war years we would be poorer indeed.

But there is a strong biblical principle which might inspire and encourage our thinking about the structures we need if we are to live and work together in peace and harmony. The principle is unity in diversity. We can be united but not in such a way as to extinguish our differences, not rendering us bland and tasteless. St Paul enthuses about the variety of the gifts of the Spirit. 'The gifts … were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.' He recognises that 'Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free': all the diversities are lifted up into Christ who is 'all and in all.'

Above all, the peace of Europe in a sea of troubles, and the spread of the Gospel in a world that seems to turn away from Christ, each in their different ways demand that we rejoice in what we have in common, that we celebrate our differences, that we travel together, that we find unity in our diversity. May the examples and prayers of St Peter and St Paul encourage us and drive us forward into peace and reconciliation!

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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