With a vision for Unity and Truth
Geoffrey Kirk preaches a farewell sermon at the National Assembly Mass
Of the many casualties in the culture wars of the last thirty years in the Church of England, the most significant and certainly the most tragic has been the sad demise of ecumenism. Such is the parochialism of English church life that the man and woman in the pew has even now not appreciated the enormity of what has happened. Its perpetrators, of course, have sought at every turn to minimize it. But the truth is there for all to see.
There have grown up new divisions within and between parishes, within and between dioceses, within and between Provinces of the Anglican Communion. And the hope of full visible unity with the ancient churches of East and West – once the Holy Grail of ecumenical endeavour – has receded into a future so distant that it cannot now be imagined.
We need to ask ourselves what has happened and why. Because, as events overtake us, even the unity of our own movement is at risk from internal dissension and antagonism. Two factors, it seems to me, have contributed to the ecumenical disaster.
In the first place there was too much concentration on structures and institutions: top-down rather than bottom– up ecumenism, if you like. In those now distant, heady days, when it seemed that churches might come together in new and exciting ways, the emphasis was on negotiated settlements.
The process produced theological documents of a sophistication and complexity way above the heads of most ordinary Christians. It was as though the ecumenists were crawling patiently across the pages of denominational history trying to unpick past disagreements. But what was really needed was the ecumenical equivalent of relationship counselling. Protestants and Catholics were suspicious of each other and separated from each other, not primarily because of theological disagreement, but as the result of an overarching mythological construct, which in this country at least, was rooted in the very sense of what it is to be English.
Tragically, whilst this archaeological ecumenism was still plodding on, it was overtaken by events. The issues were no longer those of the sixteenth century but of the European enlightenment. Equality, justice and human rights were the heady concerns of the day, and both as concepts, and in their practical out-workings, those notions divided Christians far more deeply than the religious divisions of the past.
Cardinal Kasper told the Bishops of the Church of England that they must choose between the Protestant Reformation and the undivided Church of the first millennium. Dare I say that I think he got the analysis wrong? The choice for them – indeed for all if us – is not between different versions of the Christian past, but between Christianity itself and the post-Christian moralism which is seeking to replace it, which is equidistant from the religion both of the reformers and of the first millennium.
The second contributory factor to the demise of ecumenism was not unrelated. It was the growth of doctrinal indifferentism. Ordinary Christians came to think that the doctrines which had divided their forebears did not really matter that much. The problem, for them, was not individual dogmas, but dogmatism itself. They began to think that Truth – or more specifically the truth of theological propositions - simply did not matter.
This was partly a product of the ecumenical endeavour and partly something new. It stemmed from the ecumenical endeavour because there had always been a tendency among some ecumenists to attribute all disagreement to misunderstanding. If only each side could explain itself adequately to the other, both would discover that they had been in agreement all the time! Such a view looks like optimism - everything can be resolved in the end. In fact, it turns out to be a species of cynicism. It can seem to deny that there could be mutually exclusive positions, and so to assert that all truth is relative. You have your truth, as the American Episcopalians say, and I have mine.
Relativism ultimately renders ecumenism itself irrelevant because it turns churches simply into clubs of those who like that sort of thing.
There will be a tendency in the coming months and years
– as ways forward from our present impasse in the Church of England become clearer – for members of Forward in Faith to be at each other’s throats. Atavistic anti-Romanism and accusations of cowardice and self-interest could tear us apart and make of us less than the faithful Christians we aspire to be. So it is as well now, overlooking the ruins of formal ecumenism, to ask ourselves what it is that unites us. What is the source and cause of Christian fellowship.
In Paul’s phrase we are one ‘en Christo’, in Christ. And in all that happens to us and in all that we do, we must not lose sight, in the first place, of that foundational relationship. We are one in Christ because we are bought with his blood, chosen by him out of the world to be his witnesses, to be salt and light. To borrow one of Pope Benedict’s phrases, we are there to defend his truth in the public square. We are to be in the square, but not of it.
Granted all that, we need to ask ourselves: who is this Christ in whom we find both unity and salvation? The relativists will tell you that there are many Christs, perhaps as many as there are Christians. So we need to acknowledge who is the Christ who unites us. And I think we can be quite explicit.
We are united by faith in the Jesus of the New Testament. By that I do not mean a ‘Jesus of History’, hand crafted by some diligent academic using the scriptures in much the way in which an archaeologist digs up a field, but the Jesus who speaks to us from the pages of the text. He is both a first century Galilean peasant and the eternal Son of the Almighty Father. He is both in history and beyond it. In a radical sense, what he says goes.
And, as if we had any reason to doubt that magisterial identity, we find it reaffirmed for us in the teachings of the
Fathers and the formularies of the Catholic Creeds. We can say with Calvin : ‘we teach not an iota that we have not learned from the divine Oracles; and we assert nothing for which we cannot cite, as guarantors, the first teachers of the Church.’ And with Blessed John Henry Newman that we find in the teachings of the Fathers and of the undivided Church that ‘haven of rest’ from which we ‘look out upon the troubled surge of human opinion, and upon the crazy vessels which are labouring without chart or compass upon it.’
Brothers and sisters, it is much which unites us, beside which what may come to divide us is very little indeed. In these troubled times for Christian believing we may well find ourselves fighting from different trenches, and from different positions. But it will be the same battle, and for the same Lord.
Unity is ‘en Christo’: that is certain and it could not be otherwise. But there is more. It involves, not merely intellectual assent, though that is important. But affective commitment, and that is essential. To know Christ is to love him. It is to take him to the heart and to long for his presence and company. Unity is not merely an act of the human will; it is an eschatological gift. It is consummated only in heaven, beyond judgement and with Him.
It is not sermons, but poetry which can best express that eschatological dimension of unity which we presently sense and will one day experience. Call me sentimental, but I like these words - Cistercian words undoubtedly, and I like to think that they were penned by St Bernard himself. Bernard, you will remember, was described by one chronicler as a great ‘lover of God and hater of the brethren’ – so in that respect he was not unlike us. But his better nature compelled him to write Jesu, dulcis memoria. ND
Jesu, the very thought of thee Jesu, our only joy be thou
With sweetness fills my breast As thou our prize wilt be.
But sweeter far thy face to see Jesu be thou our glory now
And in thy presence rest. And through eternity.
Clairvaux Abbey 1472