Saturday 18 to Sunday 25 January 2020
Context: Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – a very mixed group of persons, academics, students, regular worshippers of various ages and from all Christian traditions and visitors who may be from any country and any faith, but who on this occasion are aware this is a service which has Christian Unity as its theme!
Aim: to challenge us into new ecumenical understanding and activity
As a young Benedictine monk I was fortunate to spend some of my student years in Canterbury where I took the first of several theological degrees, being the 1970s it was a period when the Second Vatican Council was being taught, and I can recall the enthusiasm with which some of the older clergy took to the open windows and winds of the Conciliar Reforms as well as the excitement of a more open and pastoral theology that allowed dissenting voices and alternative points of view. A time of John XXII’s ‘aggiornamento’, opening windows to let the Holy Spirit blow into the dusty crevices and corners of the Church and a move for renewal of faith.
It was also an encouraging period for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Basil Hume had just been appointed Archbishop of Westminster and his monastic background and role as a conciliatory figure encouraged all kinds of ecumenical activities between Anglicans and Catholics. Canterbury Cathedral at this period was no exception; Canon Donald Allchin was a personal friend who enabled the Benedictines of Bec to return each year for a week living in the Cathedral (part built by St Anselm of Bec) to host weeks of liturgy and talks. Later it was a Dean, Victor de Waal and his famous wife the Benedictine writer Esther de Waal who carried on this work. Benedictines like myself were very present at these encounters as were Christians of all persuasions and none. I have never forgotten the warmth and spirit of those days especially in the cooler temperatures of present-day ecumenism.
The image of Paul as promise of harmony
In the South Choir area of the Cathedral is a chapel dedicated to Saint Anselm and in it the most wonderful example of a 12th century wall painting of Paul being bitten by the adder, part of the story in our reading, there was also a corresponding one of Peter now lost. This painting was often the focus of my meditation as I often wandered round the Cathedral or attended services from time to time. I can partially remember some of my musings, but a much stronger impression, still in my mind’s eye is that I now see the image as a symbol of my own perception of ‘ecumenism’ unafraid to place itself in danger or take risks in reaching out to others.
For me, Paul represents both an event which gained him the reputation of somebody blessed and touched by God, but also a representation of that future time of peace in God, prophesied by Isaiah 11, when harmony reigns amongst all creatures. Paul is still a voice of the Kingdom of Heaven amongst us now, calling us to greater engagement as disciples of Jesus. With the symbiotic help of Peter, he continually presents to us the challenge of becoming brothers and sisters in Christ, trying to find ways of building bridges across the gaps and chasms we have dug for ourselves over the course of centuries. The history of that early community which we find in the book of Acts, may not be sequential nor clearly verifiable from documents except as the transmitted memory of those connected to Jesus and familiar with the ministry of Peter and Paul. But for me that is enough, these words somehow ring true, they also challenge my conception of what it means to be a Christian and should so yours too!
Challenging the hypocrisy of Peter in us all
What then is the future of Ecumenism? The most important challenge is to resist the temptation to go backwards into lazy theology and even lazier practice of denominational wagon circling! A strange image not at all, we get a hint of it in Peter’s behaviour, Paul writes about him after a confrontational meeting at Antioch, which we discover in Galatians. Paul opposes Peter to his face for his hypocrisy, eating with Gentiles and then denying it when friends of James (the Jewish Christian Group) came to visit, as Paul wrote: ‘But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy’ (Gal 2:11-13).
We must follow Paul’s example, the Church of Christ is a prefiguring of the Kingdom, which is not nationalistic or partisan, but open to all, so must we be, and challenge what hinders this, even if it costs us dear!
The tendency amongst groups to canonize their own point of view very often leads to an amnesia of difficult facts, like the Christian behaviour over slavery, minority groups or capital punishment amongst many other things! We are always called to ‘metanoia’, and that goes hand in hand with ecumenical outreach!
We need truthful rediscovery of our shared history, before or even during our times of division, because acknowledgment of our human story (like Peter’s denials and hypocrisy) takes the sting out of what has happened, and makes us realise that we do muck things up, that the Divine will is not necessarily to be confused with our own. Let us trust in the Spirit who leads us to understand that we share far more in common than that which divides us, and may we go forward in sure and certain hope!
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