This is the sermon I delivered today at Holy Trinity Roehampton Anglican Church at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Holy Trinity and Minstead Gardens Methodist Church have worked successfully together for many years as part of an ecumincal parish, committed to serving Christ together in their area. The set gospel reading for today was Mark 1:14-20.
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And Simon said unto Jesus, “But how shall we follow you, O Lord? As Baptists, as Anglicans, as Catholics or in some other way?” And Jesus said unto them, “No, I just want you to follow me.” And the multitude with Simon did laugh and mocked Jesus, and Andrew questioned the Lord, saying, “Surely you do not expect us to make a lifelong commitment of this kind without some clear creedal statement about the nature of your being, the purpose of your atonement and the role of holy communion.” Peter marvelled greatly, saying, “You have not even told us whether or not we should have women bishops.” And Jesus did leave them, despairing, saying unto himself, “Verily, I think I shall join the Quakers in Nazareth.”
Now, fortunately, I am not allowed to re-edit the scriptures and I can confirm that the gospel of Mark does not contain those last few sentences! We are, though, entering the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when all Christians are challenged to consider what it means for them to follow Jesus within their own tradition. Our set reading today, from Mark’s gospel, gives us the additional challenge of reflecting upon the relationship between ecumenism – the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches – and mission. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow him, was he calling them to follow him as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans or something else? And today, when churches speak of evangelism, or making followers of Christ, are they actually talking about making people members of a particular club or tribe, with their own particular set of traditions?
Here, in the wonderfully ecumenical parish of Roehampton, with its excellent relations between Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Methodists, we may not think that this is much of an issue. However, it has been a major headache for the Church for thousands of years. In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, bishops in the Roman Empire were horrified to discover that the barbarians at their borders were Christians but the wrong sort of Christians! They had been evangelised by followers of the heretical teachings of Arius, rather than the orthodoxy of Rome and Constantinople, and threatened to engulf the whole empire with their false doctrines. In the years after the Reformation, bloody battles were fought between Catholic and Protestant missionaries seeking to ensure that those who wished to follow Jesus, followed him in the right way. And in the era of European and American missionary activity in Africa and Asia, right-thinking Christians were horrified at the mass confusion of many would-be followers of Jesus caused by the bewildering prospect of Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic and other missionaries all presenting their own version of the truth. The only place where such confusion was avoided, it seems, was in the South Pacific, where, in a rare example of common sense, the churches agreed to work on different islands. This has resulted in Tonga being the only country in the world where Wesleyan Methodism is the state religion!
The challenge of the fractured nature of Christ’s body – the Church – and the call to mission remains for us today. We all know well that one of the frequent responses to any attempt at sharing our faith can be something along the lines of, “Well, why should I believe what you believe, if even you Christians can’t agree among yourselves?”. Our response might be that such differences don’t really matter anymore; certainly they seem to matter far less than they did even a few generations ago. But if that is really the case, then are we really happy to pull all our buildings down and come together in one giant sports hall and sing the same songs, and worship in the same way as our Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox and Pentecostal brothers and sisters? (To name but four of the innumerable denominations of Christianity.)
Whenever I hear Christians say that divisions in the church don’t matter anymore and we’re all ecumenical now, I am immediately reminded of a friend of mine at college. He was a member of an independent evangelical church and was very critical of my out-dated loyalty to Methodism. “We’re a non-denominational church,” he proudly boasted. “Really?” I asked. “So, you’re happy for women to act as pastors and have oversight of men?” “Oh no,” he said. “And you believe that the bread and wine of communion becomes the actual, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ?” “Er, no.” “And you believe in the efficacy of infant baptism?” “Definitely not!” “Bad news,” I said. “You’re a denomination.”
All Christians need honestly to recognise that, even with the greatest enthusiasm and openness on our part, we are members of a divided Church. A Church which has enormous amounts in common but which still has significant differences in matters of theology, practice and worship. The movement for Christian Unity has indeed taken enormous strides in our own time, and we must pray that dialogue and joint working will continue to flourish and grow across the globe. We must acknowledge with humility, though, that Christ’s prayer to God for his disciples, “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21) has not been fulfilled, and that our continued division still hampers our efforts to make followers of Jesus.
How can we respond to this challenge? What can we – ordinary, everyday Christians in our tiny part of the global Church Temporal – do about this? There is a temptation to shrug our shoulders and to leave it for others to tackle this seemingly insoluble problem. But we have to remember that Simon and Andrew were just ordinary fishermen who were called to do extraordinary things by the Lord. There are things we can all do.
First, we can mind our language. We are studying the book of James on Sunday evenings this month at Putney, and I think there are few truer comments in scripture than his comments about the use and misuse of the tongue: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6) All of us – Methodists, Anglicans and all the rest – can so easily assume an air of ‘effortless superiority’ when talking about the practices and traditions of others. It is also very easy to adopt the language of prejudice when speaking about others. “Typical Catholic!” we might casually say. When actually what we mean is that one particular person or group has annoyed or irked us in some way, or simply that we – often out of habit –do things differently. Our world is in desperate need of good examples of how to disagree, while respecting, and even loving, those with whom we disagree. Let us show potential followers of Christ that we can differ on matters of practice and tradition but that we can still speak about one another with respect and genuine love.
Second, if we are going to be members of a divided Church let us rejoice in our differences, and offer them to the world as a blessing. In some ways, we might argue that the diversity in Christianity reflects the diversity of God – a God who is a god that reveals himself in the wonders of liturgy and clouds of incense, as much as he does in the hymns of Charles Wesley or a good 40-minute sermon. I recall one older lady asking me earnestly during one Week of Prayer, “Do we really all have to be one? Because I don’t think I’ve got the knees to be a Catholic.”! With humility, we need to confess openly that none of our traditions have a monopoly on God’s truth. When I come here to lead worship at Holy Trinity, I am always challenged to reflect on whether we have lost a true sense of awe and wonder in worship in the Methodist tradition, and a proper respect for the sacrament of holy communion. All of our traditions have benefitted from the wisdom of, and been changed by, the others, and still have much to learn. When we encounter those who thirst and hunger for Christ, we must never fall into the temptation of effectively saying, “It’s my way or the highway! This church here is the only path to knowing Christ.” We must also avoid the temptation to imitate the rival companies of the marketplace, demanding absolute customer loyalty. If a potential follower of Jesus comes to our tradition and finds it is not the one for them, then we must help and encourage them to find the right path, not regard it as a failure on our part or a betrayal by them.
Finally, let us recognise that ultimately it is the example of our own faith lived out in practice that will encourage or discourage people to follow Jesus. For so many folk I encounter, the ‘brands’ of Christianity mean very little. I am regularly called Vicar, Father or Reverend, and certainly very few people have an idea what on earth Methodism is. If we enquired closely, many would struggle to say what exactly divides Roman Catholics from Anglicans or Baptists – let alone all the others. For so many of them, a good church is a good church. It is a church where they are made to feel genuinely welcomed and part of a fellowship – and that doesn’t mean just a quick chat over a cup of tea after the service, but true hospitality. It is a church where they see the words of Jesus Christ making a real impact on the lives of those who attend, and in turn encourages them to change the world. It is a church where they can genuinely encounter Jesus Christ – through worship, prayer, the scriptures, and through their neighbours in the pews – and have their deepest questions about life, death and everything in between discussed honestly. Just as with Jesus and those first disciples on the Sea of Galilee, all the theology, all the centuries of tradition, all the pride in our denominations mean nothing, if our lives do not attract those whom we encounter in our everyday lives.
In this Week of Prayer, therefore, let us set aside all that we believe divides us. Let us leave behind the language of prejudice and self-righteousness. And let us re-commit ourselves to serving that same Lord, who walked along the beach in Galilee so long ago. The same Christ who calls us, and all humanity, to follow him and to experience for ourselves the true depth and breadth of his divine love for each one of us. Amen.