Le Gard Ecumenical Celebration
St. John’s gospel chapter 17 is one of the most beautiful and powerful passages in the gospels. It is the only chapter in the Bible which takes the form of a prayer of Jesus. It is truly ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.
Having prayed for himself, and having prayed for his disciples, Jesus widens the scope of his prayer. He prays for all who through the generations will believe because of the message handed down from the apostles. That means he prayed, and is praying for us. We today in the 21st century are the object of his loving prayer.
The content and aim of Jesus prayer for us is remarkable. It is a prayer for complete unity. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is”, wrote the psalmist, “when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil running down on the head, running down on the beard.” Unity feels like an anointing of precious oil. And Jesus prays for this anointing for us.
What is more, the nature of this unity is quite extraordinary – Jesus prays that we will enjoy the same kind of unity that he himself enjoys with his Father. The model for unity amongst Christians is the pattern of relating within the Holy Trinity. This is the very deepest kind of mutual commitment.
Since the unity between the Son and the Father is the only basis for Christian unity, it is evident that Christian Unity, like Christian love, is a divine gift, not a human achievement. Any discussion of Christian Unity which is only about external harmony or formal structures or legal resolutions, still less about saving money, is therefore necessarily inadequate. Because the unity to which this text points is a unity that descends upon us from above, like the oil dripping down from the head over the beard.
But just because unity is a theological quality, doesn’t mean it is merely mystical and invisible. Love for St. John is not an invisible, mystical feeling. Rather it is about keeping the commandments and washing feet. So also, Christian unity is made real in the hard work of praying, sharing and working together across traditional or organisational boundaries.
Moroever, Christian Unity has a missionary intent. Jesus prays that his followers should be one, “that the world may believe”. It is no accident that the 20th century ecumenical movement had its roots in a world mission conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910 – where Protestant missionaries tried to address the problems caused by missionaries competing with each other on the mission field.
When we come to think about inter-church working, about ecumenical working, it is easy to become disenchanted. There are those who speak today of an ‘ecumenical winter’. Sitting in committees, passing resolutions, agreeing statements, seems a long way off the kind of organic, spiritual unity that Jesus prays for in John 17. Yet it is important not to understate the damage that institutional disunity has caused over the centuries, or the huge progress that has been made in building warm and respectful relationships between our churches in the last century.
Let me give two examples of how Christian unity has been made powerfully real in my own experience. The first is a more political example; the second is more personal.
The political example comes from my home country. I grew up in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout this period, there was one source of conflict that was never far from our news headlines, and that was the fighting in Northern Ireland. I knew about this situation first hand, when the troubles spilled over from Ireland into England. A bar in the quiet English town where I went to school was bombed and blown up by terrorists killing and wounding many people inside. I walked past this bombed out bar every day on my way to school.
The conflict in Northern Ireland has many dimensions – cultural, historical, political. But, there was, undeniably a religious dimension to the conflict: Catholics against Protestants. And the conflict was deadly – more deadly for us, actually, than Islamic terrorism is today.
During the Northern Ireland troubles, some religious leaders by their statements poured petrol onto the flames of the community divide. But others worked quietly and patiently for peace. The community of ‘Corymeela’ was founded in 1965 to promote peace-building through the healing of social, religious and political divisions in Northern Ireland. It focussed especially on giving people a residential experience where they could encounter people from the other side of the community divide. Eventually, the prayers, the hopes and the hard work of people in Northern Ireland bore fruit. 2007 was a momentous year for the province. 10 years ago, on 30th July 2007, the army withdrew from the streets. No longer did the different religious communities need to be kept apart by soldiers and guns. One of the last armed European conflicts involving opposing Christian groups seemed to be drawing to an end.
My second example of Christian Unity is more personal. Last year, pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops spent 8 days week together on a retreat in Canterbury and Rome. We started at Canterbury Cathedral and we ended at the Vatican in Rome. There were 19 pairs of bishops from all over the world – Europe, America, Africa, Asia, Oceania. We studied together, worshipped together, and enjoyed some very good food and drink together. For much of the time we were in casual dress. The remarkable thing was that when we were in casual dress it was not possible to tell who was Catholic and who was Anglican. You could tell that someone was African, or that he was Asian – but whether he was Catholic or Anglican – well that was not significant.
At the end of our time together, we were invited to a service of Vespers at San Gregorio al Celio in Rome. There we were jointly commissioned to go out in mission by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis. I was commissioned with Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp. My colleague, Bishop David was commissioned with Robert Legall, Archbishop of Toulouse. It was truly remarkable for the heads of our two communions to commission joint pairs of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops. It would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Mgr Legall recently described this to me as one of the most important spiritual experiences of his lifetime. And I would agree for myself too.
In that historic ceremony we caught a glimpse of what it might mean to receive the gift of unity. This is a unity which is poured upon us from above, and which unites us with the same powerful love that unites the heavenly father with the divine son.
To conclude. In John Chapter 17 Jesus prays for us today. The purpose of his prayer is that we should know the wonderful blessing of unity. For our own good, yes of course. But also for the good of the world, that the world might see in the relationships within the church nothing less than the manifestation of divine love. So let us hear again Jesus prayer for us. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”