Sleep and Watchfulness

Mark 13,24-37

“What I say to you I say to everyone: ‘Be watchful!’ [‘Stay awake!’] Jesus spoke these words to the Apostles at the very end of His discourse on the grave and painful times of trouble, which He knew faced both Himself and them. He knew that he was soon to be snatched away from them suddenly; He knew that Judas Iscariot would betray Him; that Simon Peter would deny all personal knowledge of Him; that the others would all run away, leaving Him on his own to face his enemies; and some had gone to sleep – despite His warning to ‘stay awake!’ (or ‘be watchful!’). God’s gift of Sleep is essential to our health of body and mind. It’s our God-given duty to get enough sleep to ‘rebuild our bodies and minds’ so that we can ‘offer Him our bodies as a living sacrifice’ rather than the half-dead one – which we sometimes do on a Sunday morning after having an over-indulgent Saturday night! But it also can be our God-given duty to remain awake, as Jesus warned His Apostles, in today’s Gospel: “What I say to you I say to everyone: ‘Be watchful!’ [‘Stay awake!’]

Christians are often faced by such paradoxes: “Two apparently contradictory statements which, when investigated, may both prove to be true”, (is how my dictionary defines a paradox). For Christians, paradoxes are seldom insoluble. When God gives us two, seemingly conflicting, Truths, these can often be reconciled: by taking each Truth at its face-value, but accepting that the other may also be true: because The Truth itself may lie in both extremes (but each under different circumstances).

Take ‘Sleep’ for instance: When Jesus healed the sick he said he felt ‘power had gone out of Him’: meaning that He felt exhausted. But who would blame Jesus for falling asleep during the storm on the Lake of Galilee?

Christ the Redeemer – Rublev (Public domain)

Jesus called Himself both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’. He had been several days in Capernaum on the other side of the lake, where He had cured the Centurion’s Servant, restored the widow’s son to life, and argued with stone-headed Pharisees. Tomorrow He faced, on the other shore, the notorious Gadarene maniac, as well as raising Jairus’s young daughter. Sleep He needed; and sleep He did.

But contrast this with His instruction to His followers to ‘Stay awake’ during all the following forty years of distress and persecution which He foresaw would fall upon His nation and, not least, his chosen followers. Jerusalem would be ransacked; the Temple would be destroyed, the people carried off into far-away lands, Christians included. These would be just the beginning of troubles. How easy it would have been for the Young Church to give the whole Christian Faith up as a Bad Job. Many of them did. St Paul’s later letters are full of the names of people who had ‘fallen away’ from their first loyalty (which they owed to their Church). There’s not very much difference between ‘falling away’ and ‘falling asleep’ – as the Apostles did in Gethsemane. So ‘staying awake’ when ‘watchfulness’ is the ‘order-of-the-day’, is as vital to our immortal souls as sleep is, to our mortal bodies and minds.

Fr. Francis Gardom

“My Kingdom is not of this world”

Matthew 25,31-46

The Pentecost season comes to a climax in the worship of Jesus Christ as King of the Saints and King of His Church. From now the calendar turns a page and begins again to reflect on the earthly life of the Lord from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, his birth and his Ascension. Very soon we will hear again the message of the Angel, “this child will receive the throne of his father David, and of his kingdom there will be no end”. Before we begin Advent we reflect on Christ and his Kingdom.

This important theme brings a smile to my face as I remember my past feeble attempts as an Englishman and subject of “her Britannic Majesty” to explain to Republican citizens in the USA the significance of monarchy. I understood that the foundations of our British monarchy were established by King Alfred the Great [849-899] on a robust Christian foundation with a coronation which was a consecration under God to avoid its going off the rails. Even Church buildings were not simply as meeting places set in a great parking lot, but as a place to house the altar upon which Christ was enthroned as King of the Word and Sacrament. This word kingdom we use so frequently easily overlooking its importance. We say the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”. We hear Jesus in his parables saying “the kingdom of heaven is like…” or his first words after the Baptism, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Mark 1; 14-16]. There can be no kingdom without a king and the Church understands that the King is Jesus Christ and we followers are his subjects. This point is not missed by Pontius Pilate who says at the trial “Are you a King?” to which Jesus replies, “My Kingdom is not of this world!” [John 18; 33-36].

Anonymous, Greece (Public domain)

Christ is King of the Church but in a very special way, utterly different to the world’s way. St Bernard of Clairvaux in his reflections identifies this as a kingdom of the soul which stands forever as a judgement on the kingdoms of the world, especially those who routinely turn their backs upon God. This King and his kingdom require a turning around by those who seek admission, and so the preaching of Jesus in Mark’s gospel opens with the call “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Some are righteous sheep but others are unrighteous goats. Not everyone who calls Lord, lord will enter” and “those who are not with us are against us”.

The mystic Bernard of Clairvaux [Homily IV] was aware of these stumbling blocks which he prayed should be removed from his soul. He said “I struggle against these, but in as far as I receive help from my Lord Jesus who is my God, I will have no king but Jesus, come then reign in me as my King and my God”. May these words guide us in the turmoil of our times as we look forward to Christ King of Advent and Christmas.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Account for the Gifts God Gives

Matthew 25,14-30

This parable of the talents lies between the parable of the Virgins and the parable of Final Judgement. All three parables serve to prepare the people of God concerning the coming Kingdom. The parable of the Virgins teaches us diligence, because the Kingdom may come at any moment. The parable of the Final Judgement teaches us that in order to possess the Kingdom it is necessary that we accept the ‘little ones’.

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents or Minas (Public domain)

The parable of the Talents teaches us how to make the Kingdom grow. It speaks of the gifts we receive from God. Everyone has something to give, and we learn from one another. The key to understanding this parable is our view of God. Among the Jews who followed the Pharisees, some imagined that God was a severe Judge, who treated people according to the merit they gained from keeping the Law. So people feared God and stopped growing. This especially prevented people from opening their hearts to receive the new experience of God which Jesus communicated.

Therefore in this parable, Jesus tells a story of a man who entrusts to his servants – five, two, or one talent; each according to their ability. We think that one talent was worth the value of 34 kilograms of Gold, wealth beyond our imagination, so all receive his precious and valuable gift according to their ability.

We are told that the first two servants doubled their money. But the third buried his talent so not to lose it. It is a question of the goods of the Kingdom, which are given to people according to their need. Everyone receives some goods of the Kingdom, but not all respond in the same way. The worst response from any of us, is to do nothing.

So the story tells us that the Master returns from a long journey, and the first two servants render their accounts. They doubled their talents, and the Master is well pleased. “Well done good and trustworthy servant, you have shown you are trust worthy in small things. I will trust you in greater; come and join in your Master’s happiness” (Matt 25,21).

Fr. Nathan Williams

Eat, Drink and Be Merry?

Matthew 25,1-13

The story of the wise and the foolish virgins that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, looked at objectively, is a strange bitter-sweet mixture. What could be nicer than a wedding, we ask ourselves, particularly if we don’t have to pay for it, or do any of the running around. It is not mere coincidence that weddings crop up in the Gospels – at the human level, this is because they are signs, sacraments, of the fullness and the joy of human life that Jesus comes to bring, and are celebrations of the human love which reflects God’s love affair with his creation, and supremely with the men and women he has made in his own image. But more than that, they are reminders of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Weddings in New Testament times and indeed right down to our own time in Israel are very different from what we are now familiar with.

However chaotic wedding preparations may be in our experience, they don’t touch the customs of the Jews, with the bridegroom turning up whenever he felt like it, as part of a game really, to see if he could catch the bridal party out. He had to send a messenger in front of him to shout out “The bridegroom is coming”, but they still had to be ready at all times, just in case. What must it have been like for the bride as she waited, joyfully, but impatiently for the arrival of the groom? If he arrived after dark, torches would have to have been carried by those going out to meet him. On his arrival, the celebrations began, and latecomers were not allowed in. 

Hieronymus Francken II (1578-1623); The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins, late 1600 c. or beginning of 1700 c. (Public Domain)

So, at that level, a homely story, recounting a scene familiar to Jesus’ hearers, but now, as is His wont, is added the heavenly message – watch because you do not know the day or the hour. And the warning is about, yes, heaven and hell. The church from early days has seen this parable as a warning about judgment and the coming of the Kingdom. The Lord will return, those who are ready will enter into the joy of the Kingdom, the marriage feast of the Lamb, those who are unprepared will be left in the darkness, bemoaning the fact that the party is going on without them.

The important point to note is that those left outside are left there because of their own failures, and not because of the bridegroom – there is plenty of room at his table for all, but some will, through their own laziness, be excluded. That is what judgment is about. It’s not an angry God telling people that they are predestined to go to hell, so to hell let them go. It is about people who, by the choices they make or fail to make, here and now, are saying that they don’t want the seat that has been reserved for them with their name on it at the high table in the Kingdom, and that seat will be left vacant, to the pain of those around.

So, what are we to do, to ensure that, when the bridegroom comes, we are ready and waiting for him? We must look inside ourselves and, under God, see where we are falling short in our Christian life. An old hymn talks about living this day as if our last – if you knew of a certainty that within the next twenty-four hours your soul would be required of you, to use an old fashioned phrase, how would you spend that time? Of course, in all probability, that won’t happen, so the sense of urgency goes, but that is wrong. The English writer, G K Chesterton, commented that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting – it has been found difficult and not tried. We must not let the spirit of the age take us over and say, no God, no heaven no hell, vanity of vanity, all is vanity, so eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. We are called to higher things.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Bodies and Souls

Matthew 5,1-12

In the past, when Charities wanted to encourage people to give them money to feed, clothe and shelter the destitute, they often used the expression ‘to keep body and soul together’. It was another way of saying ‘keep them alive’ – because when people lack these necessities of life, they die.

But nowadays, although Charities still talk about the human body’s need of food, clothing, shelter and medicine, they avoid the word ‘Soul’ – its use being largely confined to funerals, where it suggests to most of those present a rather “airy-fairy” idea about something which they don’t believe exists anyway! So (regrettably) the word ‘Soul’ (in its ‘body-and-soul’ sense) has become almost obsolete. 

But St Paul [in First Corinthians 6,19], says that our Bodies are nothing less than Temples of the Holy Spirit: designed by God, working in partnership with our God-given Souls – to enable us to ‘glorify and enjoy Him forever’. 

Thank God, He didn’t design our Bodies to live forever in their present earthly form! We all die. But if death is all we could look forward to, our bodies (without our souls) wouldn’t be worth treating with the care which we and God lavish upon them.

God designs and gives each of us a Body and a Soul, to work in partnership. Our material Body is how our non-material and spiritual Soul lives, grows, develops and expresses itself in our earthly life. 

All Saints Day, 1st November, assures us that God designed us all to become perfect. It’s a gradual process of development, beginning at our Baptism, but which won’t be complete till after our death. 

By contrast, All Souls Day, 2nd November, tells us what, and where, and how we are now: half-, or less than half-finished, creatures who are in the process of being made perfect by Him. 

We live in a material world. But God has planted in each of us a Soul – like a spiritual Seed – which will, if nurtured and cared for by His Grace, turn us into Saints, and sharers of His perfection. 

Moreover He has prepared for each of us an identifiable, and resurrectible body – enabling us after our death to recognize not only those we have known on earth, but the rest of His Communion who have died, long before or after ourselves, but whom we’ve never had a chance to meet and know.

John Montgomery’s hymn, Palms of glory, raiment bright, (which is all about the Souls of men and the Saints of God), puts it admirably. He wrote:

They were mortal too like us;
Ah! when we like them must die;
May our souls, translated thus,
Triumph, reign and shine on high.

The word “translated” suggests ‘changing something we don’t understand into something we do, (for example, a Norwegian word, or phrase, or book, into an English one, and vice versa). 

So, this ‘translation’ of human beings from imperfect Soul-hood to perfect Saint-hood is one vast, God-inspired and God-perfected process of ‘translating’ or ‘transforming’ us, from mere mortals – who can barely understand ourselves, or one another, let alone God – into Beings who can understand not only ourselves, nor just each other; but can even begin to understand our Creator Himself!

Fr. Francis Gardom

All Saints Day

Matthew 5,1-12

From Whitsun we have been reflecting on being the Church in the world and now All Saints Day brings the season of Pentecost to a climax with the witness of the thousands upon thousands of individuals who have been shining lights within the life of the Church for Christ’s kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven was not a vague end time proclamation that Jesus announced but an alternative domain to the way of the world that begins here and is raised to eternity. The conduct and examples of the “saints” are for us always a dramatic contrast with the standards of the religion-less world. Far from being simply pious and nice people doing good, the saints were acutely aware of the power of evil both in the world and also in themselves, and the destructiveness that evil brings, their attitude was summed up by St John [12,35-36], we are called to become sons of light, lest the darkness overtakes us and we do not know where we are going… They knew where they were going and were not sidetracked.

We are living today in an age where there is almost a total absence of the sense of the soul, little idea of the divine, and unwillingness to recognise the deadly power of evil that has reached pandemic proportions. Today the virtues of the Judeo-Christian culture have been rejected; the people of Christ and his kingdom will be bound to keep alive their sacred history and the memory of the heroes of faith.

The Gospel reading for the day is the remarkable summary at the heart of the Lord’s kingdom teaching on holiness called the “Beatitudes”. Blessed are the God fearing, who know their need, who have a gentle spirit, who thirst for goodness, are merciful and pure of heart are some o the characteristics of the kingdom. If this is thought to be far too difficult, then one only needs to see the scale of the enemy the kingdom people face. The cruelty of dictatorships, or the violence against the police, paramedics, fire and emergency services on the streets and hospitals among many things that witness to the challenge we face. The saints are our heroes who precede us, and, inspire us to raise our mediocre game and become participants with them in the kingdom of heaven.

A crucial part of the Christian mind is “remembrance” which we do at every gathering for the Eucharist and daily when we read Holy Scripture or recall the men and women, the young and old of every race culture and generation who in their lives revealed the light that shines in the darkest of places. We stand on the shoulders of these giants of holiness who withstood whatever the world threw at them. Such people as the very earliest saints like St Moses and St Anthony who came from North Africa as well as those from the Middle East and Europe were those whom the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he described as the “great cloud of witnesses who surround us “. For we are like athletes in a stadium being urged and encouraged by those who raced before us and now it is our turn to” run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The Law of Love

Matthew 22,34-40

Jesus was asked to name the greatest of the commandments and he responded by naming two, both found in the Old Testament. Jesus brought them together and made them of equal importance: love of God and love of neighbour.

Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily, c. 1130 (Andreas Wahra, CC BY-SA 3.0)

However often we hear the words of these two commandments, we are struck by the demands they place upon us. Jesus brings together the love of God and love of neighbour as something inseparable, like two sides of the one coin. We cannot have one without the other. Love of God whom we cannot see is, is false if it is not complimented by love of the people we rub shoulders with in our daily life. 

Our neighbour is not thrown in as an afterthought because it is through people around about that God makes contact with us on a daily basis.
Also, the scriptures constantly remind us of the message than ‘anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar’. Therefore, we cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not love our neighbour. 

Loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is a necessary element in giving our hearts and minds to God and that is where the challenge lies. It is wonderful in theory but sometimes difficult to put into practice.

In the Gospel story, Jesus challenges us to take a good look at the nooks and crannies of our lives that are sometimes sealed off from God, those parts of our lives which we are sometimes uncomfortable with. To profess that we love God while remaining indifferent to the plight of others is a contradiction. We all want love to be like a thorn-less rose that is smooth and velvet to the touch. However, in following Christ, we find that love involves sacrifice and also the shadow of the cross. Love is, waiting upon the aged, nursing the sick, patching up quarrels and taking time to listen to the broken hearted.

Very few expect to find love in weakness, powerlessness and suffering and yet that is the heart of Christ’s message to the world. From his birth in a stable as one who was homeless, to his death on the cross as a common criminal, Jesus always identified with the spiritually, physical and materially poor of this world. The Gospel which we proclaim is not just an ideal to be admired but a way of life to be lived if we are to walk humbly with our God. 

Heavenly Father look with pity and mercy on all who are in need this day. May your Spirit guide us always to walk in your ways with joy and peace. 
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Fr. Paul Andrew

Paying Caesar, paying God

Matthew 22,15-22

Previously, Jesus criticised the Pharisees in the parables of the tenants and the wedding feast. Today’s Gospel reading is the first of four disputes between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees conspired to trap Jesus through cunning argument and so posed the perfect question, “is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?”

Leaving aside the obvious, that wherever you go, people will do their upmost to avoid paying taxes. This was a contentious issue, simply because Rome had occupied and repressed Israel, especially in taxing the Jews. Indeed this subjection to the Roman authorities was a source of bitter resentment. The insult went deeper, in that the very coinage had the image of Caesar stamped on it with the words “Son of the divine Augustus”. To the people of God, this was blasphemy.

Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus, because they assumed that someone proclaiming the Kingdom of God, would surely not endorse such a tax. If Jesus was the Messiah, delivering Israel from its oppressors must be his priority. So if he supports the tax, then his followers will abandon him. But on the other hand if Jesus encourages people to defy the tax, he will face the consequences of persecution, humiliation, and death by crucifixion.

The Lord’s opponents thought they had Jesus “caught between a rock and a hard place”. But alas, Jesus fully aware of their deceit asks the Pharisees the name of the person whose face is represented on the coin. Caesar. His swift and stunning reply “pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God” completely disarmed his adversaries.

Perhaps it’s important to interpret this parable in the light of the whole story. This is not a comprehensive statement on the relationship between God and political authority. Taxes are gathered for the common good. We are expected to obey the just laws of society. Jesus is not afraid of political confrontation. Christians should and do get involved in politics, for example the historical abolition of the slave trade. What about unjust laws?

During the time of Nazi Germany, Christians were prosecuted and sent to the concentration camps for opposing the persecution of the Jews. The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt do no murder”. In modern times we have seen the liberalisation of attitudes toward abortion and euthanasia. Surely as orthodox Christians we need to take a stand and protect the sanctity of life. Jesus was fully aware that he is walking to his death, but it will be on his terms. He knows that ultimately the Kingdom of God will defeat the Emperor’s Roman Kingdom, and it will do so on a far more fundamental and cosmic level by defeating an even greater power, death itself.

Fr. Nathan Williams

A Gracious Invitation

Matthew 22,1-14

The king sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come (Matthew 22,1).

“I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” So runs the line in a dozen gangster movies – refuse at your peril is the subtext. Today’s Gospel is from that point of view a strange case of refusing a wonderful offer, an invitation to a royal wedding. There is a sense of course in which every wedding is a royal wedding, and indeed, in the Orthodox Church part of the ceremony includes placing crowns on the heads of bride and groom. And yet those who had been invited refused the invitation – one by one they all began to make excuses. Strange, isn’t it? All is prepared, the fatted calf has been killed, we can be sure that the wine will flow in abundance, and yet they don’t want to come. Would you refuse such an invitation? What is it all about?

Really, there is no mystery, and there is little doubt that the chief priests and Pharisees, to whom these words were addressed, would have got the message. These parables are allegories – the characters and the situations stand for something else, in this case the king is God the Father, the son is Jesus, the wedding feast is the kingdom, those invited are the Jews who have refused to listen to God’s messengers, in the first instance the prophets, and last of all Jesus himself. Finally, we are told, in his rage, the king sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Because of their disobedience and wilfulness, these folk came to a dreadful end. It is little wonder that the chief priests and the Pharisees hated Jesus and sought to destroy him, for they stood accused.

Jan van Eyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But there is a serious lesson in this for us as well. We too have been invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb. For us too the fatted calf has been killed, we too are invited to take the seats of honour. But although the invitation is there for us to accept, remember that it comes from a king, the supreme King, and kings expect certain things from their subjects in return . The king expects us to hear the message that Jesus brings, and to respond in faith and obedience. All these things I have done from my youth up, I hear you say, but we need a watchful faith, because we live in a society and at a time when the pressures on Christians to conform to the way of the world have never been greater, and we need to beware lest what we believe to be a true and loyal faith has been subverted so that it becomes little different from the way of life of our pagan neighbours. We all of us from time to time need a spiritual check up. When did you last have yours?

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Church is One and Holy

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 4

This is the fourth of five web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available on this site here, on the European website here as well as the Norwegian NCC blog.

The Church is one foundation in Christ

I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church, but regret that it nowhere exists” – William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44). The first part of his comment is of course a quote from the Nicene Creed, which, at least in the Anglican tradition, is recited Sunday by Sunday at the Eucharist. As though wishing that, by writing, it could make it real, the nineteenth century cleric Sabine Baring Gould could pen a hymn, now, sadly, often rewritten as to be virtually unrecognisable, because it offends over-sensitive twenty-first century ears, which included with no apparent irony the words “we are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity”. A fine sentiment but, one that begs many questions.

So, to revert, what do the words in the Creed “one” and “holy” mean? Does “one” mean organisationally one or doctrinally one, and why does it matter? To answer the last point first, we need to turn to the Scriptures. The early part of the Book of Genesis shows a united human race but one which did not accept its responsibility under God to be obedient, and a faithful steward of the Creation; hence the account of the Tower of Babel (chapter 11), where God caused many different languages to be spoken, as a means of putting humankind in its place, and thus allowing Him to reassert his sovereign will. But just as God ruptured the unity of the human race through the Tower of Babel, so He restored it at the first Christian Pentecost when according to Acts chapter 2 the many human languages present on that occasion became one spiritual language of the Gospel, a mark of the New Creation. And the Church itself is meant to be a living sign of that New Creation, in which, as the Lord himself had prayed (John 17) His followers might be one, not to be a self-regarding clique, but that others too might come to believe in him.

Jesus and his twelve disciples – Fresque from Cappadocia, 11th Century

But it goes even deeper than that, for it comes back to the nature of God himself, and the relationship of the Church to God. The Christian tradition has always held firmly to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Triune God, such belief being most elegantly expressed in the Athanasian Creed. In the mystery of the Trinity we see perfect unity, perfect fellowship; the Church, being the continuation, the extension, of the Incarnation through the ages, is therefore called to mirror the perfect unity that we see in the Godhead. The problem, of course, is that human nature gets in the way, and people, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not, but rather attempting to subvert,embark on ways of being Church that may obscure or indeed negate its divine character. Sadly, disunity, the unwillingness to wait on God, to submit the personal to the collective (strikingly referred to by Saint Paul as The Body), is often an easier option than unity. And we can trace this trait even to the early years of the Church, for it is a recurring theme in the writings of Saint Paul, met full-on with strong teaching about the responsibility that comes from being a follower of Christ, and his robust chastising of those who sow disharmony in the life of the Church; factions and discord in the Church, jostling for power, grievously harm its witness to a disbelieving world.

Who are the members of the Church of Christ?

The traditional answer would be all who have been baptised in the name of the Trinity. Like so many issues in Christian history, matters are not as simple as that! Many non-believers or non-practising Christians, if asked which body of Christians to their mind most faithfully lives out the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, would say “The Salvation Army”. Problem: they don’t practice Baptism, or for that matter celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Are they therefore not Christians? Another honoured group is the Quakers, the Society of Friends, but they do not baptise either. It gets worse! When Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses baptise, they use forms of words similar to, or identical with, the traditional formulas: does that bring them within the orbit of the Christian Church? The answer as far as these two organisations is concerned must be in the negative because their beliefs are far removed from traditional Christian understandings. The fact that a previous woman bishop of Utah, baptised as a Mormon, was ordained without re-baptism speaks volumes for the lack of understanding by those involved both of the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent message of the Tradition of the Church. What then of the Salvation Army and the Quakers? While as sacramental Christians we must regret that they do not baptise, we must surely acknowledge their integrity, and recognise that they are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, as demonstrated by their beliefs and ways of life, considered as a whole.

So, what of organisational unity? This cannot be considered separately from doctrinal unity, problematic though this is. The World Council of Churches, founded in 1948 in Amsterdam as “a fellowship of Churches which accept Jesus Christ our Lord as God and Saviour” has under God performed wonders in bringing into closer fellowship no less than 350 different Churches which accept that basic formula. But by not pronouncing on matters of doctrine and church order, it starkly highlights the seemingly intractable problem of organisational unity. Unless there is a shared understanding and acceptance of doctrine, such unity is unfeasible. The only Church which organisationally successfully encompasses the whole world is the Roman Catholic Church, which, wherever it is present, has a common doctrine and structure. Other Christian bodies may spread beyond national boundaries but, without a body of doctrine understood and interpreted in a common manner, risk fracture.

To name but two examples, this has happened in the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. The use of words on their own to demonstrate accord does not stand up to examination, it is only a common understanding of their meaning that can produce true unity. Although in recent years, the work of ARCIC, the joint Roman Catholic/Anglican Unity Commission, has gone relatively quiet, in earlier years there was much rejoicing over agreed joint Reports on matters such as the Eucharist, but the objections raised consequent upon their publication caused serious doubts as to whether there existed that common understanding. This underlines the importance of Tradition in the life of the Church, for it will guide us as to how in its history the Church has understood the faith handed down from the Apostles.

Unity with Holiness

The Church is called to be holy, a word meaning dedicated or consecrated to God, also carrying the idea of being separated from the ways of this world. As such it is meant to be a sign to the world of God’s love and also, in the way it conducts itself, to point to the coming of the Kingdom; it is not, as some mistakenly aver, the Kingdom itself. Holiness is fundamental to the Church’s self understanding, but it seems to finds more emphasis in the Orthodox tradition. The very fruitful discussions between the Orthodox and the Old Catholic Churches in the 1970s–80s, drew the following affirmation:

“The Church is holy, since Christ its Head is holy and gave himself for it “that he might sanctify it … that the church might be presented before him in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that it might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5.25-27). It adds the important rider, “The fact that members of the Church sin does not nullify the holiness of the Church.” (The Road to Unity, III/1)

As the continuation through history of the Incarnation, the Church in its life it must be animated by the example set by Jesus Christ, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul reminds the Galatians, to live in the Spirit will produce many fruits – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These qualities are not found in superabundance in the way in which the world operates (indeed, few outside the Church would understand), but will we find them in the Church? Certainly in the lives of many individual Christians – my guess is that while we are rightly reluctant to claim such qualities as our own, many of us will be able to point to others who bear the unmistakable marks of holiness; typically such people will claim no special status for themselves yet they are an inspiration to others who seek to fashion their lives after the example of their Lord.

But what then of the Church itself? Called to be in the world but not of the world, at least in the West the Church has grown complacent, with the view, often practised and sometimes put into words, that if people need the Church, they know where we are! And now the Church is paying the price, with even countries that were historically shaped by Christianity abandoning the faith. Rather than being dynamic, all too often the Church has been weighed down by secular models, by the burden of bureaucracy, by the need to maintain ancient and venerable buildings, by people who see Christian ministry not as service but as a career, and by aping the ways and passing fads of the surrounding secular culture. We need look no further that the words of Jesus himself, who, to paraphrase slightly, is quoted (Matthew 6) as saying you cannot serve God and this world.

While some have a particular vocation to withdraw from the world, the Church and its members are called to be in the world, to be the leaven in the lump, faithful to, Jesus Christ afresh wherever they are, indeed, in that rather frightening phrase, to be alter Christus, but especially in the dark places, way beyond our comfort zones, for in mystic fashion, the Incarnation has sanctified the whole Creation, the dark as much as the light.

Fr. Edward Bryant

 

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