Bishop Geoffrey Rowell considers the big picture of Christian unity.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16.13)
This year, 2013, has seen two anniversaries that, in this country at least, have barely been noticed, though that is not the case in Europe, and that means at least for a couple or so of weeks more in my diocese. The first of these is what we know as: ‘The Edict of Milan’, the decree of the emperor Constantine in 313, which transformed the situation of Christians in the Roman Empire from one of persecution to one of recognition, freedom and tolerance. The second anniversary is the one thousand, one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Sts Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of the Slavic peoples. It marks the beginning of the conversion of the Slavic peoples to the Christian faith. When I was in Slovakia in the summer, every church had a banner of Sts Cyril and Methodius, marking this moment of time when, through the preaching of these two brothers from Thessaloniki, the Gospel of Christ, and the Good News of the Kingdom, touched the hearts and minds of many, and gave a new Christian identity to many of the peoples of Eastern Europe.
We can, sadly, be very little Englanders here, and be locked up in our own concerns and fail to see the big picture. As the poet Francis Thompson said: ‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged face, that miss the many-splendoured thing.’ Time and again when I have come back to the Church of England from my ministry in Europe, I have been all too conscious of a constraining parochialism; and it has been a real sadness that the debates of the General Synod all too often do not show any real awareness of the big picture, of the vitality and the reality of the life of the great churches of both east and west, with whom as Catholic Anglicans we claim, and rightly claim, to share so much in common.
We may debate, and rightly, as to whether the conversion of Constantine was an unmixed blessing; whether it ushered in an alliance between Church and state that has not always been healthy. You could say there is a direct line between Constantine and Henry VIII. There are sharp questions to be asked about what is the proper relationship between Church and state, Christianity and culture? What is the price sometimes paid for recognition by the state? There can be many Babylonian captivities of the Church. We should remember that John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833, which Newman saw as marking the beginning of the Oxford Movement, was triggered by Government interference with bishoprics, with the successors of the Apostles. It was in that context that Newman asked, rightly and sharply: ‘On what ground do you stand, O presbyter of the Church of England? That is a question which we rightly have to continue asking. Do we stand, as the Church of England has claimed to do, not least in the response made to Leo XIII’s condemnation of Anglican Orders, on the historic, apostolic ministry, or do we stand with the spirit of the age and the cultural currents of the day? The Gospel is indeed to be proclaimed afresh in each generation, and that means addressing the questions of each generation not adapting to current cultural norms, they have to be tested and tried by the Gospel and by the faith of the Church Catholic.
Yet the Edict of Milan is something Christians should celebrate. It opens with words which proclaim a remarkable tolerance and freedom of religion:
For a long time past we have made it our aim that freedom of worship should not be denied, but that every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission to practise his religion as he chose… [we therefore] give the Christians and all others liberty to follow whatever form of worship they chose… This therefore is the decision that we reached by sound and careful reasoning: no one whatever was to be denied the right to follow and choose the Christian observance or form of worship; and everyone was to have permission to give his mind to that form of worship which he feels to be adapted to his needs, so that the Deity might be enabled to show us in all things His customary care and generosity.
By this Edict of Milan, whose 1700th anniversary we keep this year, Christians moved from a situation of persecution to one of recognition, tolerance and respect. We know that in our world of today there are many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer persecution for their faith – be it in Pakistan or in Syria or many other places. As Rupert Shortt has reminded us in his fine recent book, Christianophobia, there is a hidden story of Christian persecution in many parts of the world that we need to know and recognise. Such persecution, whatever form it takes, springs from a conviction that I have the truth and there is no place for any other understanding, and that can be the case whether it is the law laid down by an Inquisition, or a Calvinist decree, or political correctness.
Rooted and grounded in Christ
In St John’s Gospel, in that reading which we have just heard, Jesus promises to his Church the gift of his life-giving Spirit. The Spirit of truth ‘will guide you into all truth’. What that truth is, is related to Jesus: ‘He will take what is mine and declare it to you’. The truth for Christians is rooted and grounded in Christ. The Spirit guiding us into truth is not an endorsement of each and every change; it is always related to who and what Jesus is. The guidance of the Spirit is into an ever-deeper understanding of the Gospel, and ever deeper understanding of who Christ is. There is a necessary unfolding of Christian truth for the simple reason, as John Henry Newman saw, that the eternal truth of the Gospel, the good news of salvation, is proclaimed and lived by a Church which necessarily lives within the changing scenes of life and history. Every age and every culture puts its questions to the Church and to the proclamation of the Gospel. Newman saw that this meant that there would be, there must be, change in response to the different questions of different ages. But that never meant that ‘anything goes’, nor did it mean a simple endorsement of each and every change. As Newman put it: ‘it changes always in order to remain the same.’ Faithfulness to the Gospel, means faithfulness to what has been received, and standing by what has been received, though of course in new and different circumstances and situations.
The mystery of communion
St Paul, writing to the Christians of Corinth, says: ‘I handed on to you, that which I also received.’ He proceeds to remind the Corinthians of the central mystery of the Eucharist, the handing-on of what had begun with Jesus himself, saying, as he broke bread and shared the cup of wine with his disciples as the danger built up around him: ‘You are to do this, you are to go on doing this, in remembrance, really for a re-presenting of me’. This doing, this powerful breaking and giving and sharing, establishes communion in the midst of betrayal.
The mystery of the Eucharist is a mystery of sacrifice, of the God who freely gives himself into our fragility. In this giving we are, in the powerful words of the ARCIC statement on the Eucharist: ‘drawn into the movement of his self-offering’. We, in the many nights of our betraying and being betrayed, are drawn into this mystery of communion in which over and over again we find our identity, and are remade in Christ. Our faith is in so many ways a faith of paradox, of communion established at the very heart of a betrayal which is a denial of communion; of a love which bears all things, and endures all things, when it would seem that that same love is denied. The Lord himself, as that acerbic Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, put it, ‘climbed step by step downward, but still he climbed.’
Outpouring of love
St Paul writing to the Christians of Philippi, spoke of how the One who was: ‘in the form of God did not think equality with God was something to be grasped, snatched at, held on to, but he emptied himself and was made in human likeness.’ Paul continues: ‘he became humbler yet, even to death on a cross. Wherefore [and what a wherefore that is] God has highly exalted him, and given him a Name above all other names, that at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow.’ This self-emptying, this total outpouring of love, is the very Being of the God whom we worship and adore, the love which comes down to the very lowest part of our need. This is the God who stoops to wash our feet, who submits himself to us. This is the God whose wondrous incarnation is at the heart of the Christian and catholic faith. This is the God whose transforming and transfiguring grace is at the heart of our lives. This is the God who subverts the idolatries of every culture, and who reaches beyond the manipulations and measures of every Synod, for as another great Anglican theologian, F. D. Maurice, once said: ‘The Kingdom of God does not come by arrangements of our own.’ Catholic Christianity witnesses to a Gospel which is beyond the pettiness and prejudices of every generation; which is a supernatural religion, transforming us by the grace and life and power of the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ. Tradition, for the Orthodox world, is the life of the Spirit in the Church, leading us into the truth, keeping us faithful to that which we have received, and transforming us into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another. It is that Gospel which Cyril and Methodius proclaimed to the Slavic people in their day; and it is the Gospel which we are called to live out and proclaim today.
Christ whose body we are
In a few moments we shall be asked in words which have been used by Christians down the centuries when they come together to make Eucharist, to ‘lift up our hearts’, and the heart in the Bible, let us remember, is the place not of feeling, but of willing and choosing. We are to lift up our choosing, our vision, to the Christ, who came down to the lowest part of our need, and catches us up with him into the heavenly places, catches us up, being drawn into the movement of his self-offering. In doing this we are one with Christians of all times and all places, one in the communion of saints, those made in the likeness of Christ who share in God’s holy things. Here in these holy mysteries we find and know who and what we are. As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, in the awesome darkness: ‘over again I feel thy finger and find Thee.’ Being fed by the simplest things, this bread and this wine, we are fed in and through these holy things by the Christ whose body we are, and whose body we receive.
As Augustine said so long ago, speaking of what we do in this holy sacrament, ‘Behold the mystery of yourselves! Be what you receive, and receive what you are!’ ND
This homily was preached at the National Assembly Mass on the 19th of October