Introduction to the Service:
Most of today’s service uses texts produced via The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, drawn in particular by Christians in Korea, a country divided in two whose political disunity symbolises the disunity in the Church.
Our service has three acts of unity –a sign peace, a creed we hold in common in our traditions, and our common prayer: the Lord’s Prayer.
Our service also has 3 hymns, all praying for unity while acknowledging our lack of unity, incidentally, all three are Anglican hymns.
And our service has 2 readings –Ezekiel, two joined as one; Acts, conversion of St Paul
I want to say a few words about the relevance of today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul to Christian unity, a feast kept by the Anglican and Catholic Church today.
To convert means to change, and to achieve unity will involve change.
Conversion involves many things. It involves recognising that we need to change; it involves, recognising the destination –what we want to change into; and, it involves realising HOW to change –what we must do to get to the destination.
Now, when we think of St Paul, when he has just Saul, one of the striking things about him was that he saw no need to change. If the young Saul was to hear of a future feast of his “conversion” he would no doubt have said, “But I don’t need to convert, I’m already a faithful Jew, a Hebrew born of Hebrews((Phil 3:5)”.
And this, of course, as we all know, is the pattern true of each of us at so many moments in our lives. We do not recognise what is wrong with us, we deny our sin or deny the seriousness of it.
And often this is something we see more clearly in hindsight. That when we look back over our lives we see that where we were lacking in charity, lacking in patience, lacking in kindness; where we failed to honour our parents as they deserved to be honoured, where we stubbornly failed to forgive those who has sinned against us –so often, we can see that we failed even to see that we needed to change.
Now the Church, meaning both our individual traditions and as all of us together, the Church too failed to see its need for change with respect to this question of unity and disunity. Now, it’s easy for me standing here to stand in judgment over past generations, but it does seem true that there was a failure to realise that the hatred and bitterness and stubbornness that were a part of what separated our bodies –these things were often not recognised as things we needed to change.
We were like St Paul in thinking that we had no need to convert.
Over the past hundred years much has changed with respect to this first stage in conversion –we have, generally, acknowledged in a way that was NOT acknowledged before, that our disunity is something we need to change.
This is the first stage in any conversion, and achieving it is something to rejoice over. But acknowledging our need to change is only the first step.
The next stages are much more difficult, and they involve recognising what we must change into, and recognising how to change into it.
It is possible for us to take a step back in our ecumenical endeavours and say, well, this far and no further; this far is good enough.
And that, I’d suggest would be like St Paul realising he was blind but not then wanting to be healed.
I say this, I freely acknowledge, as a Catholic, with a Catholic view of what unity is like and a catholic view of what ecumenism should be like.
But I would say to you that where we have got to is not enough. It is not enough “to respect each other’s differences” –no, the lack of corporate unity among Christians is something that remains is visible scandal that prevents many from becoming a Christian –how can they know how to become a Christian if they cannot see amid all the different groupings of us?
It’s possible to think that we’re united already and so don’t need to really do anything, but we’re not united yet -And when others look at us from the outside it is very obvious to them that we are not united yet.
The next stage in the ecumenical conversion must involve seeing what true unity is like.
This, of course, is something where we do not agree.
Does unity mean agreement in doctrine?
Do dogmas divide “man from man” (as the hymn goes) or do they unite us to a common truth?
Does unity mean common liturgical and ecclesial law?
Does unity means a common mutually acknowledged authority?
Does authority create unity or does it create division?
Does unity mean a common agreement as to what is sin and what is virtue?
Can we be converted from sin without being told what sin is?
Or, does unity itself require diversity in these matters?
Does unity require unity at a worldwide level,
or does unity mean unity with the local group?
I think we all agree that there must be some uniformity and some diversity,
Even among Catholics we have different liturgical and canonical rites,
We have Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics, and others too.
-even Catholics acknowledge some diversity!
But although we all acknowledge some need for uniformity and some need for diversity
We do NOT agree as to what this means.
And until we do agree then any talk of having “achieved unity” is very premature.
On this feast of the CONVERSION of St Paul, I would return to the fact that he thought he already had it sorted, that he didn’t need to convert, and that we each to acknowledge that conversion means being open to look again at unity and the components of unity, to consider what can be sacrificed and what cannot.
Of course, we all tend to think that true unity looks like what we are and what we aim to be
But the CONVERSION of St Paul calls on us to be willing to think again, as the Lord had him think again.
After over a century of ecumenical focus in the church there is much to rejoice over, but this is still the beginning, not the end.