notre dame montreal

Sermon preached by Mr John Stubbs 27 September 2003
Reflections following the Forum for Churches Together in England

Part way through the war Winston Churchill said

"This is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning"

These words might also be appropriate for  Saturday 1 November when the signing of the Covenant between the Anglican and Methodist Churches will take place Central Hall Westminster and conclude in Westminster Abbey and will involve the President of the Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury. So because the relationships between Christians both between and also within denominations is very much in the news at the moment, I hope you will allow me to think with you on those matters rather than reflecting on the lectionary lesson St. Mark's gospel for today. It will also allow me to share with you something of what I heard at the recent Forum of Churches Together in England, the largest ecumenical gathering of Christians in this country.
Let me begin by getting to read a passage from John Simpson's book "A Mad World, My Masters" which I have read recently. He has a chapter entitled "Villains" and has been musing on the nature of evil - found often in the most unexpected places. This is what he has to say:-                 Simpson page 75

'In other words these things are not as clear cut as one might imagine. One of the most evil people I have come across - I cannot say met, since I have only observed the traces of her wickedness - was clealry a loving mother, a committed Christian, and a conscientious teacher. She ran a school in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and when the outburst of almost inexplicable race violence welled up there in 1994 between Hutus and Tutsis, she led a large gang of killers to the houses of Tutsi families whose addresses she knew because their children attended the school. In her house, alongside the school, we found a blackboard with directions to the killers: where they were to go, the weapons they were to take, how precisely they were to use them, stabbing, maiming, murdering. And in one of the rooms I found photographs of her with her own children on her knee, and others of her affectionately posing with some of the children she taught, and attending their communions. '

Now it would be nice to believe that this is some sort of aberration, that Christians would not behave like that. Unfortunately as our history shows us that is not the case. And if you think; about the conflict which has been pulling the Church of England apart over the last few weeks, the case of Canon John, the gay candidate for a bishopric, and think of something of the language and the attitudes which therefore lie beneath that language, you will recognise that there are emotions at play not dissimilar to those which clearly motivated that Hutu woman. The suggestion of one prominent layman that he would expect the Archbishop to be discussing his future in the church with Canon John - represents an kind of death threat if not of the body at least of the life and commitment of Canon John. Now I am not wanting to discuss the rights and wrongs of the case, or what position should the church adopt towards gay and lesbian priests or lay folk. You will have your own views about that as have I. But what does concern me has been the violence expressed on both sides of that argument, angry vicious words by both those who support the Canon almost as much as those who are against him. There has been little enough of the spirit of love for all men and women which our Lord wants of those who are His followers. And lest we think that this is only an Anglican problem, I would suggest to you that there are enough people on both sides of the fence in Methodism that we might replicate the argument, and maybe the quarrel. And a writer in the Roman Catholic journal The Tablet (I got my complimentary free copy at the Forum - its too expensive to have regularly) wrote at the end of an article about the whole dispute "This is not a happy Church. And Catholic observers should not feel smug. It is a debate that is coming to the Catholic Church." It is also possible to detect similar sorts of feeling among people in one denomination about another. The quality of some of the letters in the Methodist Recorder about the covenant showed very little charity towards the Anglican Church. 

I want to contrast these pictures of division, of animosity, of arrogance and lack of love with a picture which was painted for us at the Forum by Archbishop Rowan Williams in his keynote address. He talked to us about the church of St. Paul's, Manhattan, a typical new England building, neat, elegant, inside all white paint and gilt. But now a building whose pews are scarred and stained whose walls are no longer plain but hung with cloths on which there are many hundreds of letters, a building full of dust. For, as you have perhaps guessed, St. Paul's Manhattan is right next to Ground Zero, literally across the road from it. And it is suggested that it was only the line of trees between it and those twin towers which saved it when those towers came crashing down. And the scarring came from the boots and the equipment of the policemen, firemen and other workers who took what rest they could and slept for a while on those pews, or as they took food and drink there. And the dust blew in and was brought in. Indeed it seems likely that the congregation will not dust those pews for the forseable future when they come to use them for their worship. And at one time - for a long period there were piles and piles of boots, all sizes. The boots of those workers on Ground Zero melted in the intense heat of the site and had constantly to be replaced. And in a marvellous phrase the Archbishop talked of the Grace of God in spare boots. For as you will have guessed the people of St. Paul's clergy and lay folk in that traditional episcopal church exercised a tremendous ministry in the aftermath of September 11th. And not just them. They were joined by people from other churches and denominations...Denomination; creed, churchmanship, whether one was liberal, evangelical or fundamentalist did not matter. For the Archbishop said the testimony of those who were involved was that they had claimed the baptismal covenant for their own. The baptismal covenant meant the Christian response and commitment which all Christian churches express in some way and which essentially is the same for all of us. Denominationalism dissolved in the face of the need which faced them. And what he suggested the church and its people offered was what he called radical hospitality. That was hospitality which sought no return. The church was open to all who needed what it could offer by way of help and care and rest. And radical hospitality is costly. It means mess. It meant a very great deal of mess in St. Paul's. And we don't like mess. I wonder how many open church youth clubs have closed because the young people made a mess, or didn't quite conform to whatever nice standards the congregation expected of them. And the hospitality which St. Paul's extended in God's name was an open door which allowed the world to come in just as it was. For as the Archbishop said hospitality, that hospitality summed up in the love of Jesus given for, us is extravagant, and it is never in the abstract. There was nothing theoretical about the way the churches worked together at St. Paul's. And that ecumenical action, extravagant, costly, wearing will I am sure have changed the attitudes of all those involved to the other churches alongside whose pastors and people they would have worked. And remember, it was not the ecumenical rituals which we carry out - the Week of Prayer, Christian Aid Week, and so on, important though those may be. It was deeply committed sharing in the face of the need of the world. 

What is it, the Archbishop wanted to know would make us so receptive to God's hospitality that we would want to be hospitable to the world? Why is it that we seem to need crisis to really bridge our barriers and divisions. How can we match the urgency of Christ himself? And as I reflected on it, it seemed to me that if we look around us there is always crisis in our world. There are always people who need what we have to give them. And the church in action is very often ecumenical.  Let me give you one small example. The Board of the YMCA in Bedford is a group of Christians drawn from a wide variety of churches and churchmanship. We have Baptists, members of the Rutland Road Free Church, a Plymouth Brother, Anglicans, Methodists and a Roman Catholic. Theologically we would never agree. We could have a real set too I am sure over gay priests or; ministers. But faced with the needs of 27 young people at anyone time in the hostel, many of  whom are damaged or inadequate, and the need to support the staff who bring their own varied denominational backgrounds, those things which divide us are not an issue. We are committed to those young people a commitment which grows out of our commitment to Jesus even though that commitment is expressed in a variety of church forms. It is true in many other ways - chaplaincies are more often than not ecumenical endeavours. The barrier which we so often erect against our fellow Christians arises it seems to me out of either arrogance or insecurity. And the message which the ecumenical world is trying to put to the churches is that all of us, both individuals and churches, have only a partial view of God and Jesus. None of us knows and understands the nature of God and his love completely and utterly and therefore all of us need each other to be both givers and receivers as we try to find and follow the one who says that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Rev. Jean Mayland a staff member of  Churches Together in Britain and Ireland writes

"It is not uniformity we seek, but a unity which holds together our diversity, a unity which is made more beautiful by our diverse colours,
as the one rainbow holds together the colours of the spectrum in a beautiful whole.'

Or as Samuel Kovia,  newly appointed Secretary General of the World Council of Churches said at his inauguration, quoting an African proverb

"It you want to walk fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk together with others".  

So what does this mean for you and me this morning? You may rightly point out to me the strong partnership we have established between Anglicans and Methodists here. There are other churches in this part of the town outside that partnership, what of them? And ecumenical action is not just the function of priests and ministers. Above all the Archbishop said the challenge is to take on for ourselves the urgency of Jesus in his love and concern for the people of this world. And remember we need each other if we would try to show to men and women what God is like. What that means to you individually only you can say. I have been blessed with the opportunity to discover something of it through my YMCA links but that is only part of my life and there is much more for me to find and do.

We heard in our first lesson about the challenge of God to Abraham. He was to be the founder of a mighty nation, that was the promise. And then what does God do? Asks him to sacrifice his son, effectively ending the hope and revoking the promise. For what God showed Abraham was that even the most precious things should not stand in the way His Holy Will. That goes for our individual lives. And it goes for all we hold dear in our Church. An especial challenge for me whose role is to uphold Methodism in ecumenical circles. But a challenge for each of you also as we begin to explore the routes to unity.  So I pray today that we may all be one as Jesus prayed, and that we may all individually and collectively find ways in which to bring unity about for the sake of all who live in God's world.  Amen

Judy Jarvis, Vice President of the Methodist Conference brought with her to  Synod a card whose picture she had used for a focus for worship at the Conference. On the other side were the words which it seemed would have been word which the people of St, Paul's would have recognised.  If we would have a church like that, then we must play our part in creating it. Let us pray

The following poem was read by John later in the service

If this is not a place where tears are understood
Where can I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing
Where do I go to fly?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked
Where do I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard
Where do I go to speak?
If this is not a place where you will accept me as I am I.
Where can I go to be?
If this is not a place where I can try to learn and grow
Where do I just be me?
(attributed to William Crockett)