Unity & the Anglican Communion: we belong together, whatever


Compass Rose, Canterbury Cathedral

I am here this morning with two hats on. Clearly I’m one of the resident clergy in this cathedral and preach regularly. But through the mysterious auspices of Churches Together I am here today as a pulpit swap for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. St John’s in the city centre, where I am also vicar, and the cathedral have been paired this year. So I am here, and Charles our Dean is in St John’s. I thought this was rather odd until the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury the other week, and then I thought perhaps unity within Anglicanism is not such a bad idea after all. Not that there are great disputes between these two great churches in this city, St John’s was after all founded by the monks of this abbey and so with a shared post I stand in quite a line of people who have embodied our shared mission in the heart of the city centre. I also live in a house on the site where Symon Gunton, one of my predecessors, lived and wrote his book on this Cathedral in the 17th century.

Just before the Primates’ meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about the Anglican Communion as being a family, he also used the image of a body with many organs and we heard the reading on which that is based this morning (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a). So unity, our sense of togetherness with others who share the name of Christ, is not a bolt-on optional extra. We don’t select it from a possible list of additional gadgets like we would with a new car. We belong together as any members of a family do, sharing our spiritual DNA and knowing that there is a connection that ties us whatever. Families of course can be dysfunctional, abusive and places where flourishing is stifled. When that happens we may need space and liberation, but there is always a tie that cannot be undone. And we know this deep down in our bones. Archbishop Justin knows this for himself and has spoken openly about his own family upbringing, his relationship with his father and how that brought great difficulties. I know it too. So I don’t say this lightly and without quite a lot of reflection. We can’t cut the ties completely, even if we want to or have to put a distance between us. This means we have to work it out. It can lead to tough conversations and others may need to help out when one group is being oppressed or the two see things so differently that it is hard for them to talk. Within the Anglican Communion the Archbishop can end up as referee.

The Anglican Communion is as diverse a body as we could create. This is because it covers all cultures in the world and they have very different experiences and are in different places on some of the big issues we face. There are people for whom persecution brings death, and martyrdom for them is not something they just remember with a history lesson in our calendar of saints and holy days. The martyrs are friends they know or knew and now do not see. There are injustices which make the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks or would see us hide in a cave. When our gospel reading talks about the liberation and release which the Lord’s favour brings, it has some very sharp edges (Luke 4:14-21). One of the things I used to love about Canterbury, when I lived there and was part of the Cathedral foundation, was just who it brought you into contact with. I remember being involved with the 1988 Lambeth Conference and leading the Southern African bishops into the opening service. While we were lining up in the crypt I asked one what such a gathering of bishops should be called. He replied with characteristic African humour that bishops were like manure; spread thinly they do good, but in a heap they can smell terribly.

That can be a problem with Christian gatherings. The differences are shared and unless there is a real listening and journeying to understand the other who is different, the smell of disagreement will be great. But it can also feed the growth of the plant. It can be the moment when there is a chance to view the world from a different place and begin to understand just why those we disagree with say what they do. We bother with this because we belong together. There are some serious differences in the Anglican Communion which are being faced at the moment and we will see how well ‘good disagreeing’, as it has been termed, will turn out. We know that change comes through challenge and sometimes stands have to be made. Any impasse can only pass when there is genuine listening and meeting, when the body recognizes it needs all its limbs, when each part knows its need of the others and their cries have to be taken seriously.

The body image is a good one. None of us are the sum total and perfect embodiment of the body of Christ. We are limbs, organs, bones and muscles, and possibly a bit more fat than we would like too. Somehow this all contributes to a dynamic body that lives and breathes hope and shares good news with those around it. If we can’t develop this understanding of togetherness and shared mission with those who belong to our own flavour of Christianity, then we have no hope of doing so with others who follow very different traditions. From this base we are equipped to expand our horizons to those who follow very different creeds and find the common ground. Often the result of these encounters is that we find we are strengthened in what we think and why we do; strengthened because it gets challenged and we have to work out why we think what we do. Challenge is good.

The passage in Luke’s Gospel continues from where the section we heard this morning stopped. They are impressed and ask him to say more. He is on home turf and they all remember him growing up. It’s hard for anyone to be taken seriously in their hometown, when there are people who saw you having a toddler tantrum and worse remember it. Jesus goes on to remind them that God doesn’t always choose whom they expect and even looks outside the tight group. They don’t respond well to this and things escalate very quickly; they even try to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:21-30). This is not sounding much like a caring and nurturing hometown. Perhaps Jesus would have understood those needing to get away from abusive families and stifling homes more than we realise. Perhaps it is not surprising that he says at another point when his family want to see him ‘who are my family? It is those who do the will of my Father’. On the cross, though, he remembers his mother and commends her to his friend also there. He knows family brings a tie that remains with us.

Christians, of whatever hue, belong to one another because we share in being the body of Christ. To tear apart is to dismember that body and that is not something we can do even if we want to. Unity is not about uniformity and we saw that with the Primates’ statement recognizing that a majority of them affirmed the traditional understanding of marriage being between one man and one woman. Clearly some did not and so the diversity that there is on this issue and others was recognized. But the commitment to remember that we belong together was still there. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in America, with ‘consequences’ set on it, spoke with great grace and magnanimity of the pain but also their need to be faithful to the experience of their people. He affirmed his commitment to the Communion but also to the prophetic witness he saw them as giving. Unity today does not mean that we all have to be the same, but it does mean that we belong together. The boundaries of that are complex.

Later this week we will celebrate Katherine of Aragon, whose life was marked by the conflicts of the Reformation and marital discord with King Henry VIII. She came from a time when uniformity was the definition of unity. We don’t. We have moved beyond that to something more subtle. Our unity is in Christ, not my vision of him or yours. That requires humility to be servant rather than master and to hope to learn from the stories shared of the sights on our travels of faith. May God give us grace to grow united in Christ with all whom he calls to share round his table and delight in the surprise at who is there. May his body, which is the Church, be united in faith and hope and love.


Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 24th January 2016


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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