[Preached at The Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate & St Thomas of Canterbury, at a service organised by the Anglican-Lutheran Society to celebrate #Reformation500.]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thank you to the Anglican-Lutheran Society for this wonderful service and celebration, and for inviting me to preach today; and thank you also to the Christian community here in Northampton, and especially our Catholic brothers and sisters for being warm and generous hosts.
The brief for this sermon was: where are we now? How did we get here? Where are we going?
Where we are now is in many ways rather astonishing. Those of us here today come from at least 3 major denominations, RC, Anglican and Lutheran; in a service organised by a Lutheran pastor, a Catholic priest and an Anglican lay person, we gather together to worship, to remember the beginnings of the Reformation 500 years ago in a Catholic Cathedral, and with a Lutheran bishop, a woman to boot, preaching. And just to add a final gloss, that Lutheran pastor is now working as a chaplain in an Anglican church.
Over the last year we have seen the Pope and the President of the LWF embracing warmly and leading a service together in Lund. We have seen the Pope visit Anglican and Lutheran churches in Rome. We have seen the Archbishop of Canterbury affirming the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, signed by Lutherans and Catholics almost 20 years ago, and with which the World Methodist Council and its member churches affirmed their fundamental doctrinal agreement in 2006. As the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge, said this week – “If this is what some call the ecumenical winter: well, then let spring come now!”
When we look back at where we came from, this seems quite miraculous. Even within living memory things were very different. My mother was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor; and for a time when I was a child, I had a Polish Catholic nanny. She took me with her a few times to our local Roman Catholic church, and my mother was absolutely horrified that a Lutheran child had set foot inside a Catholic church.
Of course, it all started in ways that were much more serious than that. For decades following 1517, Catholics burned Protestants, Protestants hanged, drew and quartered Catholics, the religious authorities everywhere persecuted and murdered Anabaptists: and the leaders of the Muenster rebellion, tortured and killed when the city was besieged, were displayed in cages above St Lambert’s church for centuries. This, of course, was aimed at discouraging any form of rebellion against the Catholic authorities.
What happened 500 years ago was that Christians on all sides of all the arguments spent a great deal of energy building a wall, high and impenetrable, between themselves and other Christians. Sometimes this was a geographic wall – cujus regio, eius religio meant that in many parts of Europe Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed believers simply lived separately from each other and never met a person who differed from them in faith. That makes it so much easier to demonise the other, as the troubles in Northern Ireland also made clear. Mostly, though, this was a wall built of bricks of suspicion and intolerance, ignorance and fear. It was held together by the mortar of condemnations and anathemas, of papal bulls and Protestant pamphlets; and for several centuries, it held very firm indeed.
So it was not until the missionary efforts of Europeans of the late 19th century, which demanded some level of cooperation, that the first cracks began to appear in the edifice. And when the first bricks were removed by the first Edinburgh Conference in 1910, for the first time in 300 years or so Christians were able to peer at each other through the gaps, and to begin to discover how alike we are, and how our beliefs – sometimes identical, sometimes approximate, sometimes different – define us.
The Second World War, with all the horrors that were perpetrated against huge swathes of Europe and Asia, led directly to the foundation of the World Council of Churches; the Second Vatican Council, and the visionary leadership of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, took a sledgehammer to the wall, knocking great holes and gaps, through which we could not just see each other, but reach out and touch, and even clamber through.
Since then, much of the remaining wall has crumbled, aided by ecumenical dialogues, shared worship and prayer, and diapraxis, in other words just getting down to it and working together, fulfilling our mission to the world by rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in aid and service.
And today, truly, we can rejoice. Looking at photos of events like Lund, or this week’s Reformation 500 service at Westminster Abbey, we see not just a transitory happiness or self-satisfaction on people’s faces, but real joy. At last – Christians worshipping together, holding hands, gathered together in praise and awe – with the wounds inflicted by the building of the wall, and sometimes, by the destruction of it, finally beginning to heal.
We might sing with Peter Abelard
Oh, what their joy and their glory must be,
those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!
Crowns for the valiant, to weary ones rest;
God shall be all, and in all, ever blest.
But no, not time to rest just yet, for there is more to do. Much more. As the conclusion of ‘From Conflict to Communion’ says, “Lutherans and Catholics are invited to think from the perspective of the unity of Christ’s body and to seek whatever will bring this unity to expression and serve the community of the body of Christ. Through baptism they recognize each other mutually as Christians. This orientation requires a continual conversion of heart.”
In other words, we (and not just Lutherans and RC) are invited to reorientate our thinking, so that we start always from a perspective of unity. This requires not just reorientation, but, to express it another way, repentance, metanoia, turning back always to God, for where God is, we will also find our sisters and brothers in Christ. A true conversion of heart – not just of outward forms, not just of politeness and respect; but a conversion of love and faith.
FCC goes on to say that we must allow ourselves to be transformed by our contacts with each other – how hard that is! To go into each ecumenical encounter expecting not to persuade our partners of our rightness, but to expect to be changed ourselves. This feels risky, because it is.
And that, perhaps, is the point. In order to progress beyond where we already are – and even that feels almost unbelievable at times – we are going to have to take risks. We are going to have to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands, and trust that our loving Creator will guide us, keep us safe, as we knock down the last remaining bricks. For the truth really will set us free. We need no longer even to be able to climb over the wall, to join hands across it, but we need to take it down completely.
My prayer is that when we celebrate 500 years since the beginning of the English Reformation in 15 years time, it will be at a service where the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop celebrate Holy Communion together; a service where a great procession of British Christians – Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, URC – walks between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral to obliterate the last traces of the wall.
And perhaps at that service we will sing Abelard:
In new Jerusalem joy shall be found,
blessings of peace shall forever abound;
wish and fufillment are not severed there,
nor the things prayed for come short of the prayer.
November 4, 2017
PS A great chance to meet up with old friends, too…. Thank you so much to Sally, Roy and Philip for inviting me to be there.