"We must harness the synergy present between Christians of different denominations," says Bishop
Wednesday 28th September 2011
Bishop Peter with Gabrielle Grace
The Bishop of Taunton shares the importance of unity not uniformity as he welcomes Gabrielle Grace, the new County Ecumenical Officer for Somerset Churches Together. The special commissioning service took place in Street on Thursday 22 September.
Read the Bishop's Full Sermon below:
"In the most recent edition of Concilium, a catholic theological journal founded in 1965, there is an article entitled, ‘Ecumenical Spirituality as we already know it.’ It is an abridged version of a conversation between two of the world’s most eminent theologians, Hans Kung, a Swiss Catholic and Jeurgen Moltmann, a German Protestant. They are talking about the Eucharist.
"‘In the 1970’s’, says Moltmann, ‘we had an ecumenical group in Tubingen, where we read the Bible and prayed together. At some point people asked, ‘Why can’t we celebrate the Eucharist together as well?’ A Jesuit and I were given the task of devising a liturgy for the purpose. We thought it might take a few weeks, but our ideas weren’t very different and we had it ready in three hours. So then we celebrated our Eucharist together and we were delighted. ‘First’, he continues, ‘comes experience, then theory!’ At the Lord’s Supper or in the Eucharist we don’t celebrate our theory, but the presence of the living Christ. Hence my proposal; we should eat and drink together first, then remain seated at the table in the presence of Christ which we have experienced, in order to discuss our differences, settle our disputes, and so on. First comes eucharistic fellowship and then discussion of theology and theory.’
"For Christians, Jesus embodies the love of God for all peoples. Jesus welcomed children, sinners, tax collectors, fishermen, women, Roman soldiers, thieves, faithful Jews, the poor and the outcast. Indeed the New testament depicts Jesus’ followers as one of the most diverse groups imaginable. And when Jesus called people, he never said, ‘come with me and you will become just like the rest of us.’ Jesus never issued a demand for uniformity. Rather, he invited people to follow with a promise of healing, transformation and love. He did not say that his followers would be alike; he said that despite their differences, they would be changed by love; As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love. Love would open the way for people who were different to be reconciled – brought into harmony with one another – and model the dream of God’s shalom. Paul did not depict the Christian life as one of uniformity. Rather, he envisioned a community of unity in diversity, bound together in love.
"I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In other words, first comes experience, then comes theory!
"In his new book, ‘The future of faith’, Harvey Cox says much the same thing. ‘Christianity, which began as a movement of the Spirit guided by faith, soon clotted into a catalogue of beliefs administered by a clerical class. But now, due to a number of different factors, the process is being reversed. Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty first century hurtles forward.’ And I for one want to rejoice in that!
"At the General Synod of the Church of England sometime next year, we will be invited to debate a report which is currently being written, ‘Fresh Directions in Unity in Mission.’ It does seem that there is a recognition across the churches that the ecumenical structures that have been created over the years have sometimes appeared too rigid and complex for the needs of mission. What matters most now is to be able to harness the synergy that is now present between Christians of different denominations at a local level in many places in ways that will enhance God’s mission. Often that synergy is most evident when Christians are working together on local initiatives, whether it is street pastors, town centre chaplaincies, more recently the Olympic initiative, ‘more than gold', or as I heard only last week at the College of Bishops, churches together groups offering practical help and support to those affected by the recent disturbances in our cities. Why is this? Perhaps because it underlines the principle that ecumenical commitment is best when it is relational and not structural and when structures are put before relationships the spirit of unity is very often obscured. First comes the experience and then comes the theory.
"So right at the top of the job description for our new County Ecumenical Officer comes the request that she will encourage and develop ecumenical working together in the mission and growth of God’s Kingdom throughout the county particularly through Churches Together Groups. Those of us who were responsible for Gaby’s appointment are confident that we have someone whose background, experience and passion will equip her for that role.
"‘For me’, writes Moltmann, ‘ecumenism doesn’t mean combining the assets of the existing churches. No, ecumenism means fellowship emerging from the renewal of the churches in Jesus Christ. It is not unity that brings renewal, but renewal that brings unity.’
"‘Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’"
Peter Maurice, Bishop of Taunton