The Provincial Secretaries of the Anglican Communion gathered in Dublin at the weekend for their eighth periodic meeting.
The Provincial Secretaries of the Anglican Communion gathered in Dublin at the weekend for their eighth periodic meeting. The conference got under way on Friday (28th August) in the Emmaus Centre in Swords and its theme was ‘Peace and Reconciliation’.
In attendance was the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu–Fearon. The Archbishop of Dublin led a Bible study on the theme of Peace and Reconciliation and the Archbishop of Armagh gave a talk on Monday evening. The Archbishop of Canterbury will address the Provincial Secretaries on Tuesday morning.
The Provincial Secretaries have travelled from across the globe to represent their provinces at the meeting. In all there are 38 autonomous national and regional Churches plus six extra provincial Churches and dioceses that make up the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Michael Jackson took as his text Ephesians 6.10–20.
This was the reading from the Christian Scriptures for this year’s National Day of Commemoration Ceremony in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. The act of worship at the ceremony involves three World Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the occasion is attended by veterans of the Irish Defence Forces and the British Legion as well as the President, the Taoiseach, Government Ministers, ambassadors and citizens and other visitors.
The Archbishop referred to verses 13 and 14: ‘Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then …’
He stated: ‘Often we think of reconciliation somewhat romantically as breaking down the dividing walls of enmity, and this is good, but there are other considerations and to my mind this passage introduces us to the idea of standing as a significant part of reconciliation. Standing is a witness in itself and in the world of today we see every day those who stand and witness and die for their principles and for their faith.’
The text of the Archbishop’s reflection is reproduced in full below:
No passage of Holy Scripture explains itself directly from itself. It does, nonetheless, disclose itself from within itself and in so disclosing it opens up beyond itself. This is rather important because such a perspective respects it as a piece of human literature and also as a piece of divine inspiration.
As is the case with any of the Letters in the New Testament, we today hear or read but one side of the conversation. To have only the response, of course, encourages us to ask what are the questions or at least the presenting symptoms.
Involved and embroiled as we all are in the institutional church, we are clear that often in our work we too do not get as far as questions or causes but only as far as presenting symptoms.
Such is the nature of the particular nexus of relationships to which we belong in ecclesiastical life. And perhaps, even in a world of governance and accountability, it would sometimes be too painful and demeaning to ‘keep digging.’ But abuse has taught us otherwise and openness is an imperative.
This particular passage
Having been invited to share some thoughts from a Biblical perspective with you on reconciliation, I chose this particular passage because it was read at The National Day of Commemoration in Ireland on July 12 of this year.
This is a moment of reconciliation of memories in a complex Ireland. Ireland not only has had its own history of conflicts and need for reconciliations; but it has the substantial histories of people and families who have participated in international and civil wars together with internal civil wars and what we call The Troubles.
We also are a people where those who now live in Ireland come from around two hundred nationalities and many came as refugees from global wars. Despite more navigable road networks, Ireland very much remains a country of north and south, with attitudes and psychologies changing less than it might seem.
The Church of Ireland, like all cross–border institutions, seeks to transcend divisions by respecting them and to respect divisions by transcending them. And, like Scripture, we cannot ever understand ourselves best solely from within. We need The Other, difference, distinction.
The National Day of Commemoration is an act of worship involving three World Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Ireland this in itself is an act of reconciliation as Christianity here suffers from denominational indigestion. It is an occasion where the Irish Defence Forces and the British Legion and veterans meet.
Many civilians including the President, the Taoiseach, Government Ministers, ambassadors and citizens along with visitors attend. It is held in The Royal Hospital Kilmainham, built between 1680 and 1684 as a Hospital for retired soldiers from the British Army. Based on Les Invalides in Paris, it predates by two years the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London. It is an open–hearted event; it includes people from North, South, East and West.
Ephesians 6.10–20 was the Reading from the Christian Scriptures this year, perhaps for obvious reasons. In its context, it speaks openly of spiritual militarism, of different types of armour, of the nature of conflict itself and of the Spirit, the word of God and prayer for others.
To me, it speaks specifically of reconciliation at the point where what we keep hearing is the word: stand. I say this because such standing is very far from easy and it is in many cases beyond courage as we know it because it leads to death itself for those who stand.
Reconciliation is not about the collapse of one side in face of the other side. Reconciliation is about getting to the point once ingeniously described by a predecessor of mine as: agreeing to disagree but doing it agreeably.
Listen again, please, to verses 13 and 14: Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then …
Often we think of reconciliation somewhat romantically as breaking down the dividing walls of enmity, and this is good, but there are other considerations and to my mind this passage introduces us to the idea of standing as a significant part of reconciliation.
Standing is a witness in itself and in the world of today we see every day those who stand and witness and die for their principles and for their faith. There is a fourth reference to standing in this passage, in verse 11: Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Part of what many of us have done in our perceptions of Holy Scripture is to over–domesticate it in the following way: our squeamishness about evil, the devil and warfare have encouraged those of us who do not experience the opportunistic threat of life and death on a regular bas is to airbrush the language and therefore the ideas and the spirituality. *It is as if hope and equipping for service and survival in these ways ‘does nothing for us’ and therefore is no longer necessary as part of the Scriptural witness to our experience. But the voicing of different experiences in Scripture is what holds us together as the people of God, however infuriating we are to one another and even to ourselves; and however incoherent it may at times seem.
This airbrushing I suggest we do to our peril. We can, of course, speak of metaphor and of allusion, of suggestion and of example. However, my conviction is that this language and this thought pattern are there for a reason. They may have been more immediate in their impact on the occasion of their first expression and the writer may have taken a regular sight in the life of any of his hearers – a Roman soldier armed – and used this.
By taking the enemy as a picture, as a mirror of themselves, he is forcing his hearers to work hard, to engage with otherness and therefore teaching them the first steps of reconciliation. Because we feel that an iPhone is the only weapon we need today, this does not mean that we do not need to engage with these pieces of armour; they are part of our Scriptural inheritance and of our spiritual imagery and of our Christian witness.
The broad sweep of Ephesians
Many of us today are accustomed to cc–ing e–mails as a fast way of getting the same information to a wide range of people. This we do electronically and without even thinking. But we need also to do it carefully. The Letter to the Ephesians may, in fact, have been such a communication in its day.
A plausible theory suggests that it was a general letter pulling together the ‘big picture theology’ of St Paul for sharing around the churches in the Mediterranean Basin. It sets a context for reconciliation that we all need to hear today. It pulls no punches about the gift and the glory of the church. We sell ourselves short on this ‘big picture theology.’
As a child of the Risen Lord, it is not surprizing that St Paul would go for something that reconciles heaven and earth. His working definition of the church is that of members of a corporate society of divine origin, that is the church of Christ. The word corporate is important because, again, it offers us reconciliation.
Too readily do we in the church settle for the division of individual and community, of material and spiritual, of earth and heaven, of body and God so that we fail to see that such division is, in fact, reconcilable and crying out for reconciliation. We have bought a compartmentalization of different parts of our lives as a convenient way of avoiding questions that will require a significant amount of time to answer.
Irresolution is the very opposite of reconciliation in our working lives; and e–mails are the perfect vehicle of non–communication. I say this because they feed the cult of silent irrelevance when in fact a friendly or even a corrective word would make all the difference to someone’s job satisfaction and to a shared relationship and space.
In Ephesians, redemption and reconciliation are ‘big picture theology’ and they push the individual who experiences rescue and salvation into a community of corporate memory and responsibility – and from time to time of corporate forgetting. Reconciliation requires, from time to time, forgiving amnesia as well as dynamic anamnesis because memory can descend into being no more than the bilge water of bitterness.
This church of Ephesians is a continuation of at least two things. The one is a continuation of incarnation. As the body of Christ, the church in a way that is developing by progressing and growing is a fulfilment of Christ right here and now in the life of the church and the world without in any way diminishing the divinity of the same Christ.
It is for reasons such as this that the Encyclical of Pope Francis on ecology and climate change is both theological and topical; and many people don’t like that. Just think back to the Church of England’s ‘Faith in the City’ Report and the furore caused to politicians who wanted the church to keep tucked in silently behind the net–curtains of its own self–righteousness.
The second is that St Paul will not let go of a sense of the essential place of the church in the history of salvation. He argues that, in the divine scheme of redemption and reconciliation, the church, as the Israel of God, is continuous with the old Israel. It is not that as Christians we supersede Judaism – as St Paul says elsewhere: Me genoito! God forbid! *It is rather that we as Christians need the full sweep of the inheritance of God as revealed to God’s people and we belong to that people by redemption and reconciliation. The church to which you and I belong in its European manifestation has regrettably long ago given up on the very idea of growth. We have effectively accepted the mind–set of decline. Not only is this hopeless; it is unfaithful.
Ephesians teaches us to see within and beyond what we observe with our eyes, that is, to see the church as the body of Christ sacramentally: the outward and visible manifestation of God incarnate in the era after the resurrection, the organ of self–expression of divine presence and goodness, the instrument of action in the world of creation in which he himself came to dwell in great humility that on the last day …
Ephesians recalls us to our calling, most powerfully in chapter 4 verses 12 and 13, to the effect that incarnation lives in us: to equip God’s people for work in his service, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we attain to the unit inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God – to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.
Verses and words
Those final words I suggest still stick somewhere between the throat and the chest of the modern Christian. Is there any real need, we ask, to shove this maleness and this militariness at me in 2015? Can I not be left to make up my own mind in peace? Here I am back to what I said earlier about e–mails.
In the Biblical witness and deposit, nobody in fact is asking you or me to download this language uncritically. The capacity that we have developed to cc documents and answers, that we have not even been able to find the time to digest or assimilate in our own context and for others, seems unstoppable.
I have come to dread the phrase: There is no need to re–invent the wheel … when any of us realizes that you cannot fit the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf or a Nissan Qashqai on to a Peugeot 308. However freely available the information, we need to assimilate it, we need to understand it, we need assess it, we need to apply it after we have consulted locally without context. The information itself takes us absolutely nowhere. Exactly the same considerations hold in regard to the passage before us.
If we take the broad sweep of it in the context of the rest of the Epistle to the Ephesians, we see a few strong themes coming through. The first way in which we see that is that there is a willing, open recognition that our struggle is with evil powers on earth as in heaven.
The second is that we need to seek protection for ourselves. The third is that we need to pray for those whose life is a fearless living and preaching of the mystery of the gospel. It is for these reasons that there is the painstaking, indeed laborious, description of the armour of faith and of hope as an expression of the love of God:
– The belt of truth – The breastplate of righteousness – The sandals of readiness – The shield of faith – The helmet of salvation – The sword of the Spirit: it is the one piece that is identified in this way and it is so identified as the word of God.
The picture of the oft–hated soldier of colonial occupation is – with consummate daring and deep understanding of reconciliation – taken as the example, the definitive pointer to the reconciliation of earth and heaven.
The cautionary tale that we learn from this, if we can move beyond what might indeed seem to be the affront of over–masculinity, is that we neglect the word of God to our peril. And surely this reconnects us with the earlier way in which we have seen that the Word of God incarnate continues in the life of the church; it is hardly surprizing, therefore, that the word of God (lower case) looms so large in the work of the Spirit as the continuing presence and power of the Word of God (upper case).
But let us be honest, this language is very familiar to us. We hear it every year in the Advent Collect and the other clue to this connection is to be found in chapter 5.12: Whatever is exposed to the light itself becomes light … Advent is a Season that never leaves us. Advent prepares us for the whole of the Christian Year and therefore for the whole of the Christian life.
It is about armour and light; the alternative is hurt and darkness. Preparation and penitence make it possible for us to greet the light; the hope towards which we move and strive is that the darkness does not quench or conquer the light. The daily experience of millions of human beings and of Christians worldwide is the very opposite.
As we conclude our Bible study, I draw our attention to two examples, one of reconciliation and the other of the absence of it. Were we ever tempted to think it was a job completed, we should think again and think quickly?
A contemporary example of reconciliation
On July 26th 2015 there began in Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Stadium the Fourteenth European Maccabi Games involving 2,300 Jewish athletes and their supporters. The following report in the Irish Times of July 25th tells its own tale: ‘Organisers of the event in Berlin see it as a daring and timely gesture of reconciliation to the city where the extermination of Europe’s Jews was planned.
There were a lot of people who said that they would never in their lives step again on German soil and we have to respect that, said Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi Germany. But we are a new generation … and the question of guilt is long resolved.’ This is not a specifically religious event but it has to do with identity, confidence and reconciliation.
It has huge religious overtones: Germany about to celebrate Luther 500 in 2017; the manipulation of the same German Lutheran Church in its day under Hitler; the gift of reconciliation from a nation and an ethnicity and a faith persecuted and annihilated almost to extinction in the twentieth century.
We surely marvel at the glory and the horror of it. And it is a very tangible way to tear down the dividing wall of enmity. And we might just ponder the words of the British–Israeli historian Avi Shlaim: ‘History is propaganda written after victory,’ and ponder further what really is meant by victory in this or in other contexts.
Syria, the Middle East and Apocalypse
Revelation, the last book of the canonical Bible, presupposes the prior existence of the Heavenly Jerusalem for a very particular reason. It is a new creation, a newly constructed humanity of those who are witnesses and martyrs and who are victorious in their life and their death.
They have triumphed not only over evil but over annihilation itself; they live anew; this is the community of resurrection, of revelation and of reconciliation. Apocalypse comes from a noble and ancient tradition of response to the exotic and the inaccessible character of God. It was hammered out in a situation of intense persecution. God is still exotic and inaccessible.
The Lord’s Prayer is apocalyptic, as are significant parts of the Gospels and St Paul. We need urgently to connect our witness with the witness of Christian people in the Middle East and the Near East. They live in a situation of Apocalypse now, whether they be Jew, Muslim or Christian, like the traditions gathered for The Irish National Day of Commemoration.
Across the heartlands of Christianity, followers of Jesus Christ along with their human sisters and brothers endure and sustain unspeakable human suffering and degradation, intimidation and displacement. They carry the cross of Jesus Christ in a lived human crucifixion in tangible and tactile ways that are unimaginable to us; they die through obedience.
Yet they are the children of Pentecost and they continue to witness, in suffering, to the Day of Pentecost by their being there. On their witness in life and their martyrdom in death we are reliant for the faith that is ours to enjoy and in which we delight. As we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we pray for the life of all peoples of the Middle East and the Near East, foe and friend alike.
We pray for the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace (Galatians 5.22). We need to develop with them a new Liberation Theology of solidarity based on obedience, cross–carrying and witness. I fear this is something we have forgotten.
Ephesians 6.13: Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.