Christian Unity

Short Sermon, Epiphany 2 (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) 2015, St Crispin's, Colwall

Rev 5.1-10; John 1.43-51

Today we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Most of us grew up at a time when that meant abandoning regular arrangements for worship in the neighbourhood. I remember moving occasions when we Anglicans took part in the Methodist annual Covenant service or listened to our local Roman Catholic priest in our pulpit. I still affirm the benefit of those exchanges, especially for people who have not yet experienced them. But I also want to plead for a deepening of our sense of the unity of the Christian Church which is based on St Paul’s image of the one Body of Christ, and also on St John’s Gospel (ch. 17), Jesus’ so-called High Priestly Prayer to his Father “that they may be one as we are one.”

May I suggest to you a focus for your prayers in this Week of Prayer? It came to me last year in the Italian region of Umbria. I stayed in a house in the Roman city of Nursia, or Norcia as it is called nowadays. At the top of the road was a monastic church in whose crypt was a house in which St Benedict was born in the fifth century. It was Benedict – now hailed as the patron saint of Europe – who wrote a simple, if lengthy, Rule for the lives of religious, of monks – quickly adopted by nuns too.

Benedict has had a profound influence on the shape of Western Christianity through his emphasis on education, the development of hospitals and so forth. But he made no claim to originality. He learned at the feet of some dedicated Christian teachers brought by the Pope from Syria. These gifted Christians led a life of prayer and attracted to them small groups of students or disciples: as these men aged, they were cared for by one or more disciples who then took on the role of teacher. Thus began the monastic movement which inspired Benedict to write his Rule. Within less than a century, there were Benedict-inspired groups throughout Western Europe. It was these groups that gave shape to a somewhat amorphous Western Church, establishing, for example, the common round of daily prayer, Bible readings and psalms which continues to shape the lives of Christian congregations and individuals to our own day (think sung Matins at All Saints or Evening Prayer in this chapel). If you look into it, you will discover that the Book of Common Prayer and our Common Worship resource are direct descendants of that vision of a united Church.

I hope that what I am leading up to is becoming obvious. In the richness of Anglican worship (and not only Anglican, of course) we are the heirs to a fortune left to us by Syrian Christians who accepted the Pope’s invitation to migrate and to exercise their ministry in a foreign land. Our many-times-great grandparents in the faith were born and trained in Syria and Iraq. The Church doesn’t do cousins (let alone many times great-cousins) – only brothers and sisters – so you will understand that it is our present-day Syrian and Iraqi brothers and sisters, to whom we owe not only our love, but also our gratitude, who are being driven from their homes, and who daily risk their lives and their livelihoods.

In our prayers in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us thank our God, who is father and mother of us all, for the richness of our inheritance. And let us pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters. And let us remember that, with all Christian people, what we have in common is far, far more important than the things that divide us.