George Carey at Chester Cathedral.jpg

January 18, 2014

This afternoon I want to emphasise two words: Celebration and Challenge, but listen first to these words from John 17.

‘May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me.. (and two verses on).. may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me, and have loved them even as you have loved me’.

Celebration: we have so much to celebrate together and this afternoon is a tangible sign of the way church relations are so much stronger, and our common life much more healthy. Some of us of my generation can look back on a different story of bitterness and undisguised conflict. At College one of my friends was John Redford. John went as curate to an evangelical church in the Midlands, but in his first year was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Back at College we received this news with profound dismay! It was like a dear friend dying! More than 25 years later, John Redford, now a Catholic teacher and theologian, and I met at a Church conference in Durham, and embraced one another. John died last November. That renewal of our friendship brought home to me that we may have been estranged through church differences, but in the Lord nothing had changed.

But what had happened in the meantime to bring about this change in church relations? A number of things. There was the amazing impact of Vatican II ; there was a new openness in all our denominations towards each other, and there was an increasing awareness that our disunity was a disgrace to the good news we all declared we were offering to the world.

It is undeniably the case that we have travelled a long way together, and many of the old hurts are in the past. Occasions like this afford opportunities to express those hurts, our differences that still remain and give our apologies to one another. I know, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, of the way formal relations have been transformed between church leaders. I recall Archbishop Derek Worlock, former Roman Catholic Bishop of Liverpool telling me, at a dinner that I hosted at Lambeth Palace in his honour, of the time in the late 50”s when he was Chaplain to Cardinal Griffin. Derek had to convey to Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher at Lambeth Palace, a particular difficult letter. Geoffrey Fisher, who was known to have a formidable temper, read the letter and then exploded. He marched the chaplain to the top of the steps and said in his stentorian voice: ‘Get out of here! You Catholics have no place in England!’ Derek said he had never forgotten the hurt that extraordinary statement caused but, looking around the gathering of friends of all denominations in Lambeth Palace that evening, Derek said ‘How different it all is today!’

But we should not condemn Geoffrey Fisher too severely. What is often forgotten is that it was the same Geoffrey Fisher who took the inspiring initiative to visit Rome in 1960 and meet Pope John XXIII and so create wholly new links with Catholics. And the same can be said of relations with non-conformists, church leaders, house church leaders. We are in a different position today and we rejoice and we celebrate.

But that is not sufficient, is it. There is still a long way to go. For some of us the goal is full, visible unity. For others of us, it may be far less than that – even to the point of wondering if our differences are now so much part of our identity that we have concluded that there is no point in doing any more. I regard that last conclusion unsatisfactory, because it falls far short of what the Lord of the Church wants for us and from us.

So let us listen again to Christ’s longing for his people as we read it in John 17. There we find that we have been given three wonderful gifts – the gift of Christ, the gift of glory, the gift of love.

The gift of Christ is fundamental to all of us and to each of our churches. John’s gospel says: ‘may they also be in us’. That is our starting point and he is our reference and polestar. It is in relation to him that our faith stands or fall. A very strange Turkish man called Nasreddin Hodja who lived in the 13th Century was notorious for his sayings. One day a stranger shouted at him across the river and said: ‘Hodja, how can I get across the river? Hodja answered, “But you are already across the river!”

Each one of us sees the world from where we stand. Our perception of the other person or community is inevitably interpreted from where we are ourselves, not only in terms of our beliefs and culture, but also from the point at which we have arrived in our personal journey to make sense of our life and faith. So all of here today come with our own sense of Christian experience and judge and assess others in this light. It is understandable, but it is also limiting, because there is no river to cross, only a person to come to- the Lord himself. But notice that our faith has a Trinitarian origin! ‘May they also be in us’. In us! In the Triune God. Júrgen Moltmann said years ago: ‘The nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together’. But the coming to Christ is a coming to a Father as well as a Holy Spirit. That is God’s gift to his people and that is a fact that we do well celebrate and rejoice in thankfully, day by day.

But there is a second gift- the gift of glory. Glory. In John’s gospel the word ‘glory’ is repeated often and is invariably used of Jesus’s humility in stooping so low for us.

But glory is not always what it seems. It seems to us often romantic, beautiful and other -worldly. It is not so most of the time. It is interesting to recall that the Hebrew word for glory – kabod – actually means ‘heavy’. It strikes the note that may look very attractive but comes with a cost. What is heavy and weighty has value and worth. For the ancient Hebrew the most valuable material was gold and only the best was good enough for Yahweh, Lord of all life. So when Moses exclaimed to God on Mount Sinai ‘show me your glory’ he could think of nothing more precious that seeing something of the image of God.

True glory is heavy. I have often wondered about the song by the Hollies with the refrain ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’. I am sure you know it! From Wikipedia I see there are three possible sources. One source says it comes from Fr.Flanaghan’s wonderful Boys Town when in 1941 Fr.Flanaghan saw a line drawing of a boy carrying another and saying ‘he’s not heavy, he’s my brother’. But there is an earlier version of a small Scottish girl carrying her little brother and saying to a concerned lady who was affected by the lassie carrying such a heavy burden: ‘he’s not heavy, he’s my brother’. There is still another version, this time from Vietnam, where an American GI saw a Vietnamese boy carrying his dead brother and the same words occur: ‘No, he’s not heavy, he’s my brother’.

These words boil down to one glorious- yes, glorious idea- that when you bear the weight of something precious, the burden is insignificant. We would all agree, we would do anything, anything in the world, for a child we love, a dear one we are devoted to. Anything. True Christian service is like that. Some people might be amazed at what church people and Christian people do for their faith. What? You give up an evening for choir practice and the whole of Sunday morning? What, you give so much time and money to your church? What, you clergy get so little remuneration for your job when you could be earning three times as much stacking shelves at Sainsburys? Why? Because we love it. It’s not heavy – he’s my brother, my Lord. I am doing it for him!

There is a touch of the heaviness of glory in the passage. Here is Christ saying to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion: ‘The glory I am giving you is for the world! I want people all around you to understand what it is all about. As they see my people in action, so they will perceive my glory.’

There is an element of the cross in what we are affirming today. At the lowest level of commitment- that of money- the burden of ecumenism is great. Are you aware that annually churches are paying out enormous sums of money to keep unity projects going? The Church of England’s commitment to unity last year, represented by payments to the WCC. CTE, CTI, CCBI, was £478,00! No doubt other churches are contributing significantly. It makes one wonder: Are we really getting value for money? If the churches had an equivalent of George Osborne, that person would, I am sure, be asking: ‘What value are we getting for such an outlay year after year?’ Or to change the image, no keen football supporter ( and I speak as an Arsenal fan) would be convinced by an argument that goes: ‘Well, we spent £30 million on that striker; I agree he hasn’t scored all season but what a lovely mover!’

If you are not delivering, then logic suggests that we put ecumenism on the back burner, and spend the money or more pressing things.

It is a tempting argument.

In the nearly fifty years I have been involved in formal ecumenism we have witnessed amazing political events happen: We have seen the cold war end between West and East end, the Berlin wall removed, apartheid destroyed in South Africa, deepening harmony in Northern Ireland – and, ingloriously, no substantial acts taken to bring Christian Unity about. The world seems to move faster than the Church. Perhaps a stronger case for putting formal discussions into cold storage could not be put. We might well conclude: ‘If there is no will for structural unity, then let’s use the money for more urgent demands’

There is a compelling case for that argument, I believe.

But I don’t waver for very long. If Christ longs for the unity of his people and died for us, then his objectives must be ours and his desires, ours. He links glory with mission, and that link must be sustained and must galvanise our vision of unity.

But I draw several conclusions from the nature of our commitment:

First, we must turn talk into action. I don’t know where theological discussion has got to these days, and I suspect that whatever is being said is not going to set the world on fire. What will make people sit up is a resolve to find forms of dialogue that show that our churches are here to serve the world together.

Second, we must build on the unity we already have; by deepening the unity of our individual churches as well as reaching out to others. I think of the Church of England which is undergoing some seismic shifts and changes as a result of disagreements on ministry, marriage and human sexuality. We must not allow ourselves to fracture under the colossal weight of dancing to the world’s agenda.

Third, there is the local challenge to make ecumenism real this coming year. Here in Chester, I have no idea what that might mean for your relationships, but when we get to that point in the service when you make a formal commitment to continue your journey together, let it be heartfelt and let us commit ourselves to translate service and mission in and to the world in terms of glory.

But the passage says there is a third gift – that of love. Where you find true glory you find Jesus: when you find Jesus you find unity and where you find Jesus you find love. Even mission can sound austere and wearisome; and religion can sound severe and forbidding. That is why the gift of love is so precious. ‘May they be brought to unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you loved me’.

We live in very difficult times for the church. There is something far worse than persecution and it is apathy. There may be very good will for our churches and our service is deeply appreciated but the message is ignored. You know it and I know it too. Rarely has it been harder for the message to get a welcoming home. But this is not the time for self pity or regret. It is a time for us to express our message in terms of love. I get fidgety when I hear church leaders talk about reaching the ‘un-churched’. It is an ugly term; because the man who ‘so loved the world that he gave’ , didn’t die for un-churched people. He died for people like us, people with names like Joan, Fred, Tim, Hilary and Anne. The gift of love will always score. The ‘heaviness’ of glory is sacrificial service offered in love and conveyed with a smile.

At his installation service in Bradford Cathedral many years ago, Bishop Geoffrey Paul offered these wonderful words. He said: ‘There is no way of belonging to Christ, except by belonging gladly and irrevocably to that glorious ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’.

My fellow saints and fatheads: I have offered you an enormous challenge but we celebrate something far more wonderful – the glory perceived in the Lord who draws us together. And what a destiny is ours and what a hope we offer to the world, for, ‘there is nothing in the whole of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.’