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This Service of the Word on the hundredth anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has both sadness and joy.

SVD Ecumenical Dialogue in Bristol

On Sunday, 20th January, the Christians of Bristol, in England had a special celebration. The event was part of the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A special Evensong was held in Bristol Cathedral at 3.30 pm. The invited preacher was our SVD confrere, Michael Cleary, the Parish Priest of Saint Mary-on-the-Quay Church. He focused his sermon on the duty of the Christian unity. Many people from the Catholic parishes, Anglican and Baptist churches came to pray together. Tim Higgins, the City Canon of Bristol Cathedral said to Michael “The clarity was really appreciated and as I stood afterwards several people were keen to comment positively on what you had to say. You also issued for us some challenges: I hope that we will press on with them together”. The celebration was a ‘beautiful gift’ to our Saints Arnold and Joseph in their “Centennial Year”.

This is the full text of the sermon of Michael Cleary

The sadness is surely the fact of our disunity. There exists among Christ’s disciples that kind of division that prevents them from drawing together in full Eucharistic communion. The Eucharist, in the words of St Augustine: “sacramentum pietatis, signum unitatis, vinculum caritatis”, “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity”. Disunity of such a radical nature must be a sign of our fallenness.

The joy is surely in the fact that we can come together to acknowledge that failure (time was when we couldn’t) and to pray; to pray for the Spirit of God to work on our all too apparent need for renewal and restoration. A renewal and restoration that comes from being drawn together. “I will make them one . . . in order that they may be one in my hand.” So we heard from the Book of Ezekiel [37:15-23].

But, the scandal of Christian disunity is not that it contradicts a text from the Bible. It contradicts the very nature of the God. It contradicts the very nature of the God that the Church is called to embody. It is a very unnatural state of affairs.

We are divided. And yet here we are, in “the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity”. Our Evensong is full of doxology: confession and praise of this Triune God. We must take this seriously: the God that we worship, whom we are somehow to embody, is not some single individual being, living in isolated splendour.

We acknowledge the being of God as communion; Father, Son and Spirit in a divine communion of giving, receiving and returning love. “God” is an eternal dynamic communion.

Whatever we mean by the oneness of God, it is something expressed in that holiest of all communions: the diversity and interrelatedness of the Father, Son and Spirit. The Triune God is a oneness in a diversity of relations. There are implications:

The Triune God is the inner life of the Church. Therefore, Trinitarian unity-in-diversity is the model of Church unity. In the words of the ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper: “The communion of the Church is prefigured, made possible and sustained by the communion of the Trinity... It is participation in the Trinitarian community itself. The Church is, as it were, the icon of the Trinitarian fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

That being the case, we can say something about one of our fears about corporate unity: Christian unity cannot mean that we cease to be ourselves, that our various traditions should divest themselves of their uniqueness. For instance, it is unthinkable that in the Church of (God’s!) future, the beauty and majesty of the Anglican liturgy that we are celebrating this evening would ever disappear. For the unity of the Church is a unity in diversity. In this way does it reflect the very being of God as communion.

From a Catholic perspective the goal of the quest for Christian Unity must be Eucharistic. It must be full sacramental Holy Communion, the act of being taken up into the life of the Trinity through the one, all-sufficient sacrifice of the Eternal Son of God.

But, to be full, it cannot pretend. It must be a celebration of those things which are considered fundamental, non-negotiable in our being Church. And on a number of these matters of faith and morals between us and our brothers and sisters of the Reformation Tradition, there is as yet no great consensus. There is no need to rehearse those difficulties here. It is otherwise with the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

It seems to me that the goal is a great way off. It seems the more we move along the path of Christian unity, the further away our destination appears to be. But, we have no option. We have to go on, forge away at it. We have to be true to the implications of our belief in the Triune God. We have to say, in the legendary words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God”

But, while the Church leaders and theologians work away on the doctrine, our Gospel reading [the Parable of the Last Judgement, Mt. 25:31-36] this evening reminds us that the work of discipleship must go on. Our social responsibility in response to the Gospel is both urgent and decisive.

This pig of a world that Christ came to redeem cannot wait for us to reach doctrinal consensus, not because doctrine is irrelevant, but because the world is bleeding, hearts are broken, and lives are being destroyed. And now, in a mind-blowing flight in the face of history, traditional Christianity is being made the scapegoat for all the ills of the world. And people are perishing for want of vision.

That’s the urgency of discipleship, as far as I can see. And its decisiveness is quite simply this. The upshot of Matthew 25 is that the ultimate worth of our discipleship is not to be assessed on the basis of our doctrinal precision, but on the living out of our faith in orthopraxis. At the end of the day, when we are drawing our last breath, we will be asking “did it make a scrap of difference, or was it all a chronicle of wasted time?”

And that, surely, is the question that faces the ecumenical fellowship of the Bristol City Centre Churches. To my mind we have within our grasp the means of answering it positively. On the basis of our common baptism into the Triune God, we can come together and reflect on the word in Scripture. We can bring to each other the characteristic gifts of our different traditions. These can only enrich our wider communion. We can together put the “social gospel” of Matthew 25 into practice.

While full Eucharistic communion may be a long way off, even now we can go into mission with a unity in diversity. It will be seen in us not doing separately what we can do together. And what we can and have to do together is spelt out in Matthew 25. Remember, the Last Judgement there described is also the Last Judgement of the Church!