General Conference 2000 - May 2 - 12

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Archbishop Sermon



Towards an ecology of Unity: A Truly Colourful Church - mission and unity in the 21st Century. Eph. 2:4-10

10th May 2000- 8.30am

Thank you for inviting me to address you at this Act of Ecumenical Worship during the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is a great delight for both, me and my wife to be here and join with many other representatives from different parts of God’s Church in order to surround and sustain you with our prayers during your great meeting. When I presided over the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury in 1998 which brought together nearly 800 bishops of the Anglican Communion it was a privilege to have Bishop Bill Oden as the United Methodist representative. His contribution was very important. And at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Dundee last September we were delighted to have Bill Grove with us. So it is good to be here with you, though sadly, not for as long as I would like.

My title says everything that I want to put before you this morning: Towards an ecology of Unity: A Truly Colourful Church - mission and unity in the 21st Century. It’s a title which, like me I trust, is forward looking, hopeful and thankful to God for the way he has blessed us as different churches and traditions- in spite of our weakness and disunity. But my hope is not uncritical, but forward-looking, though not deracinated from the challenges of the past.

Indeed, the title of this address calls us to ask, as we enter the 21st Century: "What sort of Church is God calling us to be in order both to face the challenges and faithfully preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the World?

In 1780, Charles Wesley published his Collection of Hymns for the use of the people called Methodists, and the opening Hymn of Section 5 is still used in England at the beginning of the yearly Methodist Conference:

And are we yet alive,
And see each other’s face?
What troubles have we seen!
What conflicts have we passed!
Fighting without and fears within,
Since we assembled last.

Well, those were troubled days for my Church, the Church of England, as well as for the fledgling body which was to become known as the Methodist Church The Methodists were determined to bring life and joy to the church; the institutional church seemed determined to keep them out! There is a church near Cambridge with an extraordinary plaque commemorating an incumbent who lived two hundred years ago. It reads: 'Erected to the memory of the Rev *** who served as vicar of this parish for thirty years, without the slightest trace of enthusiasm!'

It is scarcely the kind of memorial I would want! The 'enthusiasts' of course were the Methodists and he repressed them! Alas! Sometimes religion has that effect on people- instead of liberating, it imprisons; instead of bringing life, it desiccates.

But Wesley's hymn resonates with us too, not merely with those of his day.

What conflicts have we passed!
Fighting without and fears within,
since we assembled last'.

No doubt in your meeting as at our General Synod you have had to resist the tendency for maintenance to dominate mission and "safety first" to come before the Kingdom of God. No doubt you have had extremely weighty and burdensome matters on your minds, over the last few days. You will have had difficult decisions to make and I am sure that you will have made them in conformity, insofar as we can discern it, with Christ’s Gospel and with our eyes and minds set to follow Him as best we can. But that doesn’t make the decisions that you have had to have to make any easier or less challenging. Along the way to the decisions, some people will, almost inevitably, have been hurt or disappointed and are at risk of feeling marginalised or ignored. How we deal with such a situation is a test for us, a test of the authenticity of our faith as expressed in the Community that we forge.

As we stand on the verge of the 21st Century and look both at the Church and the World in which we are called to serve, we might be tempted to a certain degree of pessimism. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writing in his monumental work The Autumn of the Middle Ages reminds us that "Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, more intense that yearning".

Well, if that were true of the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance, it is also true for us at the turning of the Millennium. Ours, is a world that is increasingly confusing but equally challenging. A world where old certainties seem to have been displaced by new relativities and where corporate religion with its authoritative command of truth and reality has no longer either the impact or even much in the way of a visible place in our society.

And yet, has there ever been a time when there has been such a great and visible hunger and thirst for the things of the Spirit? The body, mind, spirit sections of our bookshops are full and the World-wide Web has given many spiritualities and not a few heresies a new lease of life.

It is at times like these when we may well be tempted to echo the words of St Brendan the Navigator, the Irish Saint who reputably crossed the Atlantic in a small boat made of cowhide and wattle; "Oh, God, this sea is very big and my boat is very small!".

But, to extend the nautical metaphor a little this is just the time when we need to take our bearings before making the next part of the journey and I want to remind us of St. Paul’s description of God’s work for us in his Epistle to the Ephesians. I have chosen as my text Chap 2: verses 4-10, but in order to follow the Apostles’ argument at this point we need just to keep an eye on the verses before it. Paul is often very good as describing what we might call the "human condition" and in the first verses of Chapter he paints a pretty pessimistic view of the way that human beings have gone. It’s strong language and Paul would certainly not want to say that human beings were entirely bad or wrong or misguided. Rather, he recognises and describes that sense of distance and emptiness that we can all admit to have experienced at some point in our lives. Alone, drifting and purposeless one is reminded of Coleridge’s words:

"Oh Wedding Guest!/this soul has been /Alone, on a wide wide sea,

So lonely ‘twas that God himself scarce seemęd there to be"

And after Paul’s beginning there is an almost sigh of relief. Paul says: "but God is rich in mercy and because of his great love for us, he brought us to life with Christ…" In the context of the trenchant analysis that he has just given us of the human conditions this is a promise of profound joy. Notice I said joy not complacency! But we would agree with John Stott that "Paul first plumbs the depths of pessimism about man, and then rises to the heights of optimism about God".

And he is quite right to be so optimistic. Despite all humanity’s shortcomings God is eternally generous. Paul paints a picture of a God who is merciful, purposeful and abounding in grace. It’s a wonderful, grand vision of God’s scheme for humanity worked out through Jesus Christ. It is big and bold, challenging and yet comforting. It puts us in our place while not denigrating or belittling us. It is by God’s grace that we are saved and that alone.

And in the face of that vision of God and his merciful gifts to us what are we to say? Does it mean we have to do nothing? Does it mean that we have to become totally passive and immobile?

Of course not. Paul may well be underlining that it is through God’s gift that we are saved and not by our own efforts but he is certainly not saying that we should descend into quietism and abandon any effort to engage with the world and its challenger. Being saved by Christ, we need to be conformed to Christ. We need to build a Church that engages the world on those issues which Christ showed to be important.

And if salvation is a gift from God, so too is unity. And that brings me to ecology. Ecology is the term given to variety and diversity of living organisms living together and contributing to one another's welfare by mutual interdependence.

This applies to churches too. I abandoned long ago a theology of unity that assumes it means uniformity and sameness. Human nature cannot accept that and history denies it. Indeed, the world of New Testament scholarship now accepts that diversity is a key element is studying the origins of our faith. In other words, later differences in church life were already implicit in the ecclesiology of the New Testament.

Of course, I am not saying that we should give up the quest for full, visible unity. I am saying that if we mean by that our vision is of One, great organisation with a uniformity of belief worshipping in the same way, the hope is unachievable. Indeed, in all our great traditions we already accept legitimate expressions of diversity. To take the example of the Anglican tradition we are very used to great theological breadth and liturgical tastes to suit most people! As archbishop I have become used to moving from the celebration, say, of a very florid Eucharist in the catholic tradition, to a Low Church, evangelical, or charismatic meeting where there would be great freedom of expression. I do not find this a great difficulty because we are held together by a common understanding of faith and order which not only tolerates such diversity but which accepts that we are all part of one family.

But how may this kind of ecological unity help us in our quest to be recognisably in the eyes of the world 'one Church'?

It may encourage us to move in stages towards whatever final form of unity God may have in store for us. And, obviously, the first stage should be to discover the shape of apostolicity in each other. I think one of the greatest achievements of theological conversations of ARCIC, and particularly the Niagara Report of the International Lutheran/Anglican Conversations, was the recognition that we are able not only to see Christ in one another, but on the basis of the grace so palpably given, to affirm that our churches are apostolic churches - standing in continuity with apostolic faith and faithful to the gospel. And to say this truly and sincerely is an exceedingly positive affirmation.

The next step beyond that is, of course, to recognise one another's ministries as authentic and apostolic ministries. And here we are torn between experience and theology; between the theological and historic undergirding of ministries and the actual experiences of churches in place and time. Humility requires us to accept gladly evident signs of grace in the ministries of Churches with which we not yet in Communion. I think of Dr.Donald English, one of the great leaders of British Methodism who was also a good friend. Donald died sadly a few years ago. It is simply impossible for me to think of him as a minister who was deficient in any respect. How can I say that he lacked anything in ministerial orders because he was ordained a Methodist? And that kind of conclusion - far from uncommon - illustrates some of the questions of Order we must attend to. While experience informs our theology and makes us more aware of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts, it can never replace the tough work required in bringing different understandings together into a comprehensive and coherent theology of ministry. Nevertheless, there is a stage beyond the recognition of authentic and grace-filled ministries in the reconciliation of both Churches and Ministries in order that unity may be fully visible.

This staged approach is behind the formal Anglican-Methodist talks recently started in the United Kingdom. You will appreciate that this has particular poignancy in our circumstances because thirty years ago our two churches were within a whisker of full unity which, alas, did not get the required majority in our General Synod. It is my strong hope that over the next few years a solid foundation for unity between our Churches will develop into a visible unity achieved by measurable stages. That, I believe is the only responsible course of action. I also welcome developments between the Episcopalian Church of the United States of America and the United Methodist Church in this country and encourage this dialogue.

However, the use of the word 'ecological' in the context of unity introduces naturally the concept of mission because ecology is about the well being of the whole. Emil Brunner said so finely years ago: 'The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning’. When the church serves, it is most true to itself. When its first commitment is to the Kingdom of God, it is most truly the Church of Jesus Christ!

I have observed on many visits to the overseas church that the best demonstrations of unity have been in prophetic situations of witness when churches have stood together for people and for the gospel. I think of South Africa when Methodist, Catholic, Anglican and other churches have shared in bold and sometimes heroic acts of witness. I think too of Sudan at the present moment or Northern Ireland or those countries where the evil shadow of communism cast its 70-year-old blight on the human spirit. But sadly I have also noted that when the common enemy has been overcome, the old divisions between the churches have returned. Not deliberately and probably more due to preoccupations with churchy affairs, with our committees for the management of our life.

I believe we must transcend the concern for the survival of the church and start to focus our concern upon the Kingdom of God and its centrality to church and society. I want to encourage the Lund principle of 'only do that separately which you cannot do together'. Let us start doing our evangelism together. Let us minister to young people together. Let us share social concern together. Let us do our thinking and theological exploration together.

And, if your meeting is anything like the Lambeth Conference, ladies and gentlemen, you are tackling the same social and personal issues that we discussed and continue to discuss. Issues to do with personal freedom and its limits; sexuality and homosexuality; abortion and euthanasia;family life and the roles of women and men in advanced societies. Surely there is scope to do this kind of theological wrestling together.

This unity that we seek is not simply for the sake of unity but in the service of the Gospel. We desire that "all should be One" that the world shall believe. We are not in the business of ecclesiastical joinery for its own sake. Rather, we are in the business of building a Church which, like God in our reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is graceful, generous, merciful and conforms every more deeply, to the person of Jesus Christ.

And this church to which we all belong is a colourful, noisy and vibrant body which is on its way to being 'One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic' Church - sharing in an ecology of being where we are called to recognise the reality and the validity of one another as life forms of the Spirit. And, because all analogies in the end break down, we acknowledge that ecology is not enough, the same Spirit welcomes all the gifts he has given us in separation and calls us into that deeper unity which is our destiny.

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