Peter Lyon offers an elegiac exhortation for the forthcoming Week of Christian Unity
Some years ago we attended a glorious Evensong in Durham Cathedral. In the choir pews where we sat were notices telling us to remember that people had been taking part in evening worship since the first century of our era, and would go on doing so to the end of time. In the tremendous atmosphere of that great building, we thought of St Cuthbert, of all the choirs who had sung their hearts out over the centuries, and of those who would follow on until the place itself was a ruin.
As Shakespeare puts it: ‘When Time is old, and hath forgot itself, When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy, And blind oblivion swallowed cities up, And mighty states characterless are grated To dusty nothing…’ there must remain love and truth. Cressida was a false lady, but those lines of hers were abundantly true: the chorus of praise must go on, whether sustained by vast crowds, or by the half dozen left who still remember and remain faithful.
The tiny remnant
The Church of England is figuratively the half dozen, who still commemorate the great set of events two thousand years ago, and look forward, in however puzzled a way, to a second great set of events before humanity and the world finally go to bed.
In that sort of service at Durham we become conscious of immense companionship, from even before the Christian era, when the Jews asked themselves about the acceptable year of the Lord, a time when everything would come right, when the bereaved would be comforted, those unjustly imprisoned released, and the weak strengthened; when in fact everything that works against God would get its come-uppance.
Isaiah said he had come to proclaim that acceptable year, and Jesus used Isaiahs words in his first recorded sermon. The first coming of Christ was in the future for those Jews, and is in the past for us, but we are together with them, as with many others, as we wait for the second coming.
We think of this in our earthly stance, as the final triumph of that love we are on earth to proclaim, shown directly by our Lord to us in accepting our miserable efforts and by ourselves to each other in ways that have always been obstructed by our weaknesses. This sounds like preachers talk, abstract and mouth-filling, but it translates in less exalted terms into a time when everyone’s arthritis will be cured, when the dead will rise up, and the world will cease to be dominated by newspaper campaigns and nasty television programmes.
The acceptable year
It was in that material way that Paul, the greatest of theologians, saw the coming of Christ and the world’s end as coinciding, as in a sense they must; but they will probably coincide only in a sense, for the world may well come to an end in a nasty sticky way, even while we are all feeling the immense relief for which we and Paul hope.
In heavenly terms, in fact, the acceptable year of the Lord is once and for all, past and to come. The trumpet that will sound is no earthly trumpet and sounds at no earthly time. It sounds through the centuries as that Evensong at Durham sounded, and those who listen are the Prophets and the Apostles, Bede, Francis, Theresa, the Russians, the Mexicans, the Ugandans, and the blessed angels themselves, in a dimension we can only dimly know about, until we see it face to face. It is so important that we should express through our Englishness the sense of an entire Christendom.
In those transforming moments we surely realize once and for all that the Church of England is a small part of a whole, yet able to be as great a part as any other, so only that it accepts those others and fights its way, not away from them, but towards them, who are the people of God.