Sermons from St Faith's

Christian Unity
The Revd Martyn Newman, Methodist Minister
Ecumenical Development Officer, Churches Together in the Merseyside Region 1998-2007

Christian Unity Sunday, January 20th, 2008

This year is being celebrated as the 100th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for it was in 1908 that Fr Paul Wattson, an American Episcopalian minister, began the tradition of praying for Christian Unity over the course of the 8 days from the 18th to 25th January – from the Feast Day of the Confession of St Peter to that of the Conversion of St Paul.

So here we are in 2008 – 100 years on – and many are now asking “How far along the ecumenical road have we travelled?” “Have our prayers been answered?” “Have we prayed sufficiently widely, deeply, seriously?”
I want to reflect upon these matters with you over these next few minutes. Methodist sermons traditionally have 3 points and are based on a scriptural text. This sermon has 5 points and is based on a picture. There’s ecumenism for you!

The picture which is the basis for this reflection is the traditional ecumenical logo. The stole which I’m wearing was very generously given to me at my retirement by the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. They wanted me to have a stole which reflected the ecumenical vision – and the ecumenical logo is set in parallel with the Methodist logo.
For those who cannot see it very clearly, here’s one I made earlier:

What do you see there?

The first thing some people see is a boat adrift on the open sea – the Marie Celeste, perhaps. No sign of life, no activity, no sense of purpose. And, say some, that’s a good image for ecumenism today! It’s true that, outwardly, some of the steam has gone out of the ecumenical movement and that the ecumaniacs are not so vocal as once they were. But we have moved beyond making a fuss about ecumenical partnership – it is taken increasingly for granted, especially at local level, that we are partners in discipleship. Perhaps Marie Celeste is the right ecumenical image for us – heavenly Mary. A couple of years ago the statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ was published by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. I have a sneaking suspicion that this could turn out to be a significant document in ecumenical relations – I think it scratches where not only Anglicans, but many free churches, are beginning to itch – the understanding that Mary, the mother of our Lord, can help us to focus more clearly upon her son. And if anything comes of it, wouldn’t it be marvellous for any of us when we get to the gate of heaven and are asked by the Lord why we think we should be allowed in, if we come up with the clinching argument: “But Jesus, I’m a friend of your mother.” Marie Celeste!

Some people will look at this logo and say: How do expect this ship to get anywhere? – it’s got no power – it’s lost its sails – no wonder it’s becalmed. Certainly the, at times frantic, ecumenical activity of the last third of the last century has diminished. The burgeoning of Local Ecumenical Partnerships and Churches Together groups has given way to a less frenetic kind of partnership working. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all over – perhaps it means that we’ve come to the end of the honeymoon period. Perhaps the passion has given way to quiet contemplation and the joy of working quietly to build up the relationship. For you notice that, although there are no sails, the mast is the Cross – and that is the motive power; that is the driving force of ecumenical partnership – the shared silence of a vulnerable love, not the noise of a lot of hot air. At Golgotha, after the hammering of the nails, there was a stillness as the disciples, and a group of women, and the gawpers from the town, contemplated the mystery of the Lord opening up the new world. If the ecumenical ship ever ceases to have the Cross as its driving force, it will simply go round in ever-decreasing circles until it is lost without trace.

But then some will look at this logo and point to the choppy seas and say: Yes – now the ecumenical movement is going through turbulent times - it’s rough weather out there. And for sure, some of us have felt a bit sea-sick at times over these last years. It’s not all been plain sailing! No wonder that many of the denominations, not only in this country but in many parts of the world, appear to have gone back to their home ports to explore their roots. After all, journeying through the gales in the ecumenical ocean can be a titanic struggle – and we all know what happened to the Titanic! Yes, choppy waters there are, storms there will be, gales come upon us. But they are there to be faced up to, not hidden from. But just remember this - that the scriptures remind us that our calling is not to build a bridge over troubled waters, but to have enough faith to walk on the waters – we shall only sink if our faith fails.

Others will look at this logo and will simply see a ship on a journey – it’s at sea so it must be going somewhere. But where? There is no land in sight. But this is a positive angle on our ecumenical journey. We know where we start from – but we don’t know where we shall end up. The ecumenical journey is an exploration in faith. I’m delighted that the Liverpool Catholic Archdiocese, as it looks to shape the church to meet the challenges of the next decade, has taken its cue from St Paul’s final journey and is engaged in a project called “Leaving Safe Harbours”. Any journey of faith is a risky journey, but unless you’re prepared to make yourself, your church, your denomination, vulnerable you’ll not discover the joy of the grace which comes from above, opening up new worlds beyond our imagining. Perhaps the patron saint of the ecumenical movement should be Abraham, who “left his own country without knowing where he was going” (Heb 11.8) because God had made him a promise. He left the security of the past for the uncertainty of the future because he had faith in God and obeyed his call.

But then there will be those who look at this logo and point to the shell which forms the frame. For the scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrim. Our ecumenical partnership is not merely a voyage – more importantly it is a pilgrimage. And the purpose of a pilgrimage is not merely to reach a destination and to engage in various acts of devotion there. The value of a pilgrimage lies as much in the nature of the journey itself as in the destination. Pilgrims walk and talk together. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims told each other stories, all, in differing ways, illuminating the human condition. Our ecumenical pilgrimage changes us as we journey – in walking and talking together, we learn more about each other, our traditions, our hopes and fears, we learn more about ourselves, we learn more about our God. Not everyone’s ecumenical pilgrim journey will be the same. Some will be centred on mission and action; others will focus on prayer and spirituality; yet others will be shaped by a theological exploration. But if we have not been changed on our journey together, then it has not been a true pilgrimage. If opening ourselves up to one another has not enlarged our vision and enriched our faith and enhanced our hope, then it has not been a genuine ecumenical journey. Pilgrimages are not to be undertaken lightly, for they are journeys when God is working miracles of grace.

In my nine years as Merseyside’s Ecumenical Officer, I was frequently frustrated – but I do not despair. For beyond the present reality, there is the vision of the future. Beyond the failure of our own efforts there is the dream of what God will do. And I pray that none of us will let go of the dream and that we will continue to pray for Christian Unity. For Christian Unity is not just about uniting churches – it is about being a sign and symbol of the reconciliation which is the will of God for his world.

The readings which we heard this morning spoke about the people of God taking on the role of the servant of God, following in the footsteps of him who was so filled with the Spirit of God that the new world broke in to this one.
That is essence of what praying for Christian Unity is about - that together we may be faithful in that gospel calling as followers of Christ. We’ve only been praying for Christian Unity for 100 years – our task is to carry on praying - till kingdom come.

Pilgrim prayer
Lord God, we thank you for calling us into the company
of those who trust in Christ and seek to obey his will.
May your Spirit guide and strengthen us
in mission and service in your world;
for we are strangers no longer
but pilgrims together on the way to your Kingdom.

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