A Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
“One church, one faith, one Lord” – is the celebratory phrase we will sing in our final hymn today. It’s a phrase which some people, sadly, stumble-over. For, patently, we human beings have failed to maintain the unity of which the hymn speaks.
In so many ways, we are not ‘one church’ – but rather a multiplicity of them, are we not? Whether we are catholic, orthodox, protestant, evangelical, charismatic, pentecostal or any number of offshoots – it is an act of the purest optimism to suppose that we might ever become ‘one church’. But I’m an optimist.
In so many ways, we really do not have ‘one faith’. Within the worldwide church, there are many competing arguments about what ‘faith’ is, and about what specific items of faith we should believe in. We argue over the meaning of the Cross, over the efficacy of prayer, over what to believe about the transubstantiation, or the consubstantiation, or the memorialisation of even the Holy elements on the Lord’s Table. Or should that be ‘the Altar’? It is an act of the purest optimism to sing that we we have ‘one faith’. But I’m an optimist.
In so many ways, we really do not have ‘one Lord’, either. Jesus, mediated to us by the Gospels, is such a puzzling, complex, intriguing character, that it is possible for each of us to make Jesus in our own image. It all depends on the lenses we use when we read his stories. For the Pentecostal Christian, he is the Lord who dispenses miraculous healing and personal experiences of the Holy Spirit. For the Evangelical, he is the Lord who died upon a cross, paying the price for our sin. For the liberal Christian, he is the Lord who calls us to transformed lives that, in turn, transform the lives of others. Each of us worships a different Lord – we conceive of him differently. We tend to make him in our own image. It is therefore the act of purest optimism to sing that we worship ‘one Lord’. But I’m an optimist.
But why am I an optimist? What hope can there be that we will ever succeed in being those who have ‘one church, one faith, one Lord’?
There have been times, throughout the history of the church, when events outside the walls of our buildings have served to challenge us, shape us, and reform us. The Roman oppression of the early church formed it into a kind of spiritual guerrilla movement. The 313 Edit of Milan, by the Emperor Constantine, catapulted the church into an entirely new way of being. Global politics had much to do with the so-called Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 1054. The Reformation of the Catholic Church was also as much about politics as it was about matters of faith – as we experienced here in England under the reign of Henry VIII. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the progress of science and philosophy drove the period we call the Enlightenment. This had dramatic effects on what the church believed, how it was structured, and its role in society.
Do you see what I’m saying? I’m suggesting that the church has always been in dialogue with politics and the world outside the church’s cosy walls. Sometimes we’ve lead the debate, and sometimes we’ve been radically reshaped and reformed by it. My friends, I believe that historians of the future will look back at our time in history as another epoch of the church – another moment which radically altered the nature, and the ministry, of the Body of Christ. What title they will give this period is not yet certain. It won’t be ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Reformation’ – because they already have meanings that are cemented in history. But I shall be surprised if the title given to this period isn’t something like ‘the Globalisation’.
Never before in human history have we been so global in our common life. The cultural differences between nations and religions are being eroded at a breakneck pace. Communications around the globe happen at the speed of light. All the knowledge of humanity is available to the majority of humans at the push of a button, or the wiggle of a mouse. Every day worshippers of all religions are able to see, with their own eyes, that their understanding of God finds echoes in the thinking of all other religions. And thankfully, as never before, we are beginning to wake up to the impact that humanity is having on the Earth we all share.
Theologian Sallie McFague (who died in 2019) powerfully described creation as “the body of God” and the place of salvation. She wrote, “Creation as the place of salvation means that the health and well-being of all creatures and parts of creation is what salvation is all about—it is God’s place and our place, the one and only place.”
I think that, ultimately, it may be this renewed focus on Creation, and on our essential unity as people born from the same Earth, which may save us – and which is bound to radically reshape our church and all other religions. Franciscan writer Richard Rohr suggests that ‘Our very suffering now, our condensed presence on this common nest that we have largely fouled, will soon be the one thing that we finally share in common. It might well be the one thing that will bring us together politically and religiously. The earth and its life systems, on which we all entirely depend might soon become the very things that will convert us to a simple lifestyle, to necessary community, and to an inherent and universal sense of reverence for the Holy. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water. There are no Jewish, Christian, or Muslim versions of these universal elements.’
According to the etymologists who study the origin of words, the word ‘church’ comes from ‘circe’ (pronounced in old English with a soft ‘c’). In Celtic, the ‘c’ is hard, leading to the Scottish ‘Kirk’. It means circle. Stonehenge was probably known as the ‘great Circe’ by ancient Britons. The Greek word for church is ‘ekklesia’ – from which we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’. It means ‘the gathering’ – it was originally a gathering for political purposes, but then was appropriated by the church. So, from words alone, we can see clearly that the Church should be defined as ‘the gathering in a circle’ – it’s a place in which all humanity can gather together. We’ll gather with a common faith in the Source of all Creation. We’ll gather to worship one Lord: the God who gives us life, and shows us how to live, expressed through the wisdom of Jesus Christ, and all the other wise voices of the centuries.
I don’t know if I’ll see this truly happen in my lifetime. There are dark forces always at work to try to separate us, and the drive a wedge between brothers and sisters. Some people cannot get over their instinctive fear of anyone or anything which isn’t just like them. That tends to build walls where there should be circles. But my prayer is that at least within the lifetime of my grandson, the whole of humanity will one day be able to sing with renewed passion and re-formed faith those glorious words of hope: ‘one church, one faith, one Lord!’.