Sunday, 17 October 2010

A Parish Sermon

'The need to pray continuously and never lose heart' : from today's Gospel

We were secluded in Walsingham this week, and only heard second-hand about the rescue of the Chilean miners. One report though that came to us said that one of the men, on being released, knelt to thank God; and the crowd fell silent. How heaven must have been battered with prayers for those trapped men, not just with prayers from their families but from all over the world; and those prayers were heard and answered.

We don’t seem terribly good in the Church of England – or maybe not terribly good in England at all – at calling on people to pray. It happened during the war, the second world war; and even more during the first war, the Great War. But I don’t recall much of a public response in prayer even during the Falklands, and the nearest thing to prayer with the present conflict in Afghanistan is the crowds who gather to welcome home the bodies of the dead as they arrive at Compton Bassett. Perhaps we no longer have Church leaders who believe they have the authority to call the nation to prayer. So there have to be spontaneous events, like Wootton Bassett – or the national outpouring when Diana died.

Just occasionally, though the call is not to the nation at large, our bishops and archbishops ask the churches to pray. We took the week of Prayer for Christian Unity very seriously back in the sixties; Portsmouth Guildhall would be filled with Christians of every denomination back in those days. That praying continued for a long while; certainly all through my student days, and well into my early years as a priest. It seemed as though the answer was being given us; it came in a series of reports by the Church of England and the Methodists; and by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Somehow, when the Anglican-Methodist report produced no results, we gave up on praying for Unity. Our schemes had come to nothing, and we were in no mood to go on asking.

Well, someone must have continued to ask; for suddenly there came an answer that none of us had expected. It is only a year since that time-bomb with the strange name was planted among us. Anglicanorum Coetibus it is called, in that peculiar Latin way that the Catholics use when they are being serious. It is just the Latin version of the first words of the Pope’s document, which in English is “Groups of Anglicans”. That is who it is for – groups of Anglicans.

As we saw during his visit to England, the Pope is very straight-forward. He had been heavily involved in those earlier conversations, the ARCIC conversations as they are called, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Conversations. They seemed to be getting somewhere, in all sorts of previously difficult areas. They reached agreement on paper over the Eucharist, the Ministry, even the role of the Pope in a unified church. But what was also clear was that though there might be agreements on paper, it made no difference to the way the Church of England behaved. You would think that since we were agreeing on the ministry, we would not alter that ministry.

There were pressures, though, to change the ministry quite dramatically. For twenty centuries, following the example of Jesus in appointing his apostles, the ordained ministry was always male. The Archbishop of Canterbury consulted with the leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. They made it clear that if our church altered the unvarying practice of all the Episcopal churches up to that time, it would be erecting great obstacles to Christian Unity. The Pope even sent a Cardinal to the Anglican Bishops to tell them this. Well, we all know that the Bishops, and the General Synod, ignored this advice, and ploughed on regardless.

Actions have consequences; and the consequence was that the Catholic Church felt it could no longer deal with the Anglican Communion as a whole. Instead it would be prepared to deal with Groups of Anglicans - (Anglicanorum Coetibus, you remember) – who asked for help. Some of us, who would call ourselves catholic Anglicans, had been dismayed at our church’s action. It was not just a matter of ordaining women as priests or bishops; it was, rather, the question of where our Church thought its authority lay. Were we a Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostles, continuing their teaching; or were we a body which could make up its own doctrine, change the unbroken tradition of the Universal Church? How could our little fragment of a church dare say that we knew better than the overwhelming majority of all Christians?

But the prayers we had made for unity were not wasted; it is just that they were answered in a surprising way. No one supposed that an octogenarian Pope would be a great innovator. Well, we reckoned without God’s sense of humour. He answered our prayers, unexpectedly, not by giving success to any of our schemes for reunion, but with a generous offer from an aged Pope – an offer which had no precedent in history.

It has taken a year from the time of that offer for many of us to get our act together. It is beginning to happen now, and within a year, possibly even within six months, both the Catholic Church and the Church of England will look very different. Some of you here at St Francis are taking the Pope’s offer very seriously indeed. No amount of planning, though, will produce results. Only prayer will resolve things. Today’s gospel tells us how even an unjust judge will give in if an old lady goes on battering at his door; God is not unjust, quite the contrary; and he wants to answer our prayer. But we must make that prayer, and go on making it. This is a crucial time, not just for the churches, but for England, and indeed for the whole of Britain. We must pray and pray and go on praying, and be ready to be surprised by God’s answer. As Jesus taught his disciples, pray continually, never lose heart. Then it will be better for us, and more overwhelming, than we can imagine. Nothing less than the start of the re-Christianisation of our Nation.

[A Sermon preached at St Francis' Bournemouth, 17th October 2010]

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