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Vol I No. 1
PBS News & Events

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — Address and Vigil service

by William J. Martin

The sisters of the Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland were invited by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity to produce the liturgical material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year.

The link below may be used to access the Audio of a webcast from the 2nd of three Vigils held over the course of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in this case held jointly (online)  by the congregations of The Grosvenor Chapel Mayfair and the (Jesuit) Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street.

The Choral Music to he heard includes Psalm 85:7-13, to the chant by Herbert Howells; Behold, O God our defender by  John Scott; Salvator mundi, salva nos byHerbert Howells, Ubi caritas et amor by Maurice Duruflé ; The Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov; Hear my prayer, O Lord  ( Z 15) by Henry Purcell; The concluding Organ voluntary: Interlude, op 42, no 2, Serge Ollive is played by Mark Dwyer.

To hear the audio please click on this link:

(The Vigil service follows the liturgy proposed by the Grandchamp Sisters and is in a form of contemporary English)

THE ADDRESS

By

The Revd. Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff

“Gathered together from different nations and races and communions,

have we not come to realize our oneness in Christ? …

It is not His will that the influences set forth by Him shall cease this night.

Rather shall they course out through us to the very ends of the earth”

Such were the stirring words of John Mott, the American evangelist, long serving head of the YMCA and Nobel Peace Prize laureate,  in his closing address at the conclusion of the World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910. An historic event which,  though itself mainly convening Protestant missionaries,  is often seen as inaugurating the modern quest for the visible unity of all Christians.

In the words of the Conference’s Commission afterwards:

While we may differ from one another in our conception of what unity involves and requires, we agree in believing that our Lord intended that we should be one in a visible fellowship … The Church in western lands will reap a glorious reward from its missionary labours if the Church in the mission field points the way to a healing of its divisions and to the attainment of that unity for which our Lord prayed.[2]

The global witness of Christians as a reality in most of the world that serves well to frame the challenge of recovering full unity. We see Christian communities today in every continent bearing witness to the Gospel and the last century has been the time of greatest growth, just as it has been too, sadly, the time of the greatest number of martyrs as well.

All of this speaks to a powerful fact, which is that for all our differences this witness has in itself an essential unity – a unity that is rooted in the Gospel imperative even though there is too the painful reality of dissonance which comes from the fact of our Christian divisions.

Anthem : HOWELL – O Saviour of the World   SALVATOR Mundi

This points to something important to dwell upon: namely, that the unity of the Church is not primarily a unity ultimately to be attained by voluntary association of members among themselves, rather, in its essence, it is a unity that is given, because it has its origin in God himself,  in his triune being of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It was this unity that was itself actualized among us in Jesus Christ and made efficacious in the Holy Spirit. The entire New Testament message is thus eloquent of this unity of origin[3]. And it was consciousness of this unity –ultimately rooted in the logos of which we are reminded in the Prologue of St John’s Gospel that was central to the constituting of the Church. Indeed unity became an essential element or mark of the Church’s self-understanding as we are reminded every time we recite the Nicene Creed affirming our commitment to “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”.  We should remind ourselves that most Christians do assent and affirm that Creed.

Nonetheless, the New Testament also makes clear that Jesus Christ was interpreted in a variety of ways so there is a sense in which one can speak, for example, of the Pauline Christ, the Synoptic Christ, the Johannine Christ and be challenged by this as the cautionary words from Epistle to the Corinthians have just reminded us.

Over time the church had to expend much effort in grappling with how best to understand the reality of who and what Jesus Christ was and with the differing approaches to Christology that emerged, causing one theologian (Don Cupitt) to speak of “one Jesus, but many Christs” even if this is to overstate things, given that the Messianic figure of Christ must in the end be one.

From the earliest times of church history diversities in both theological interpretation and practical Christian living emerged, with various churches forming of distinctive character that was defined in many different ways. There were those understood as expressions of intellectual heritage (such as Helenic) and those defined by place and region, such as the Churches in Judaea, Galilee, Galatia, Macedonia, Asia, and that phenomenon of diversity continues down to the present day (as in the case of one group of Baptists that came to be known, evidently, as the “Corrugated Baptists” since their first church had a corrugated roof.)

In the early centuries of the Church there arose deeper divisions too that came to be seen as formal heresies and schisms,  followed later by the gradual estrangement between East and West, which reached a climax in the schism of 1054.

The Western Church in the Middle Ages sought to build and then retain unity through a rather centralized power structure, yet it too had its struggles not least with Pope anti-Popes, Then came the vast upheaval of the Reformation which left new divisions along with national and regional churches, and specific identities of such as Lutheran, Anglican or Reformed.

But whatever the fragmentation evidenced in the later history of the Church there has always remained that given-ness in unity of origin to be recalled. There has always been the widely shared reality which individual believers know by faith and experience,  through our baptismal and eucharistic life, and the pattern of repentance and renewal on the path of sanctification as pilgrims on the Way of Christ. Thus, does that unity of origin persist among all of us who call ourselves Christians. While ,in addition, we are united too by our looking forward together to the shared eschatological horizon that is the ultimate goal of our shared quest to be found in the telos of life’s end, and in that sure and certain hope of life in the world to come, which we all share.

So too do we all rightly pray for redemption from the evil of our divisions, and do so in the hope that “others may join us”. Once again, there is at least an implicit unity consequent in the grounding of all such prayers,  not merely in our own wills and private intentions,  but rather in the overarching prayer that in the end God’s will, “Thy will”  be done.

Anthem: Adoramus te — Ludovico Grossi da Viadana (1564-1645)

At the outset I spoke of the witness down the centuries of the martyr – a phenomenon more numerous in our own time sadly than ever before. And there is much to dwell upon here, for the very concept itself has a hinterland that goes far beyond the narrow and later connotation of someone willing to face death for their faith.

First, it was “precisely as martyr, or rather the martyr, that the earliest Christians first recognized and understood the person and mission of Jesus, the same Jesus who commands his followers to “love each other as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).

This “martyrological perspective”  might seem at first glance to add little beyond the common recognition that “self-sacrifice,” as contrasted with equal-regard or mutuality, is at the heart of the Christian concept of love, yet it surely has the potential to strengthen our solidarity by deepening our sense of unity in that cause and the experience of those suffering for Christ. Furthermore, while it is true that self-sacrifice is central to what martyrdom is all about, martyrdom has in fact always meant more even than the ultimate self-sacrifice.

Originally the word martyr identified  one who had first-hand experience, that is to say , was an “eye-witness” of Jesus, in particular of Jesus after his resurrection. It then quite quickly came to be applied to those who publicly testified to the truths of the Christian Gospel and witnessed above all to the name of Jesus and full reality of who he was, and not just to the facts of Jesus’ earthly life. Sadly, for all too many in the first centuries, that witness did entail torture and death, and this led to the term coming to designate more narrowly only those who suffered and died as a consequence of their testimony.

But the core idea of “witness” to and for the truth remains central to the concept of martyrdom, and it can rather fruitfully be understood in its wider, original sense as the evangelical witness to the person, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ, which must be basic also to any adequate account of Christian love – the love of which Christ himself was the supreme example.

This procession of thought, brings out  very clearly how such an understanding is ultimately tied to Christology and our understanding of Christ, for in Jesus, as divine martyr, the shape of divine love is disclosed, and thereby the normative model for human love is disclosed as well.   In this sense, Christian love is fundamentally declarative: it has something to say and to show about what is the case in a deep and indeed ultimate sense.

Then again, this declarative aspect of Christian love further invites an exploration of its relation to friendship. After all, may we not say, that among the chief works of Christian love, understood martyrologically, is the creation of friends, which is to say, a community united in common witness to the truth about God as revealed in Jesus Christ?

Is this not indeed the very stuff and challenge of the Spiritual friendship we have, in only recent days, celebrated in commemorating the life and witness of Aelred of Rievaulx who is famous for his treatment of this very theme.

Anthem: Ubi Caritas et amor

The reality of the crucifixion serves to remind us however that the distinctively Christian agapeistic love will always occasion and be challenged by responses ranging from indifference to opposition. Indeed, there is an ironic sense in which friendship is in some degree defined in its relation to both the concepts of the stranger and even enemy insofar as it seems to presuppose them. Thus Stanley Hauerwas has even gone so far as to say that  “the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies.”[7] In saying this he means that there has to be entailed a rightful antipathy to those forms of “disenchanted” social life that our ever more aggressively secular contemporary society seeks increasingly to impose – and by means of its moral, political, and economic theories to embed.  Is not the faux liberalism an embodiment of this, when it protests a putative neutrality between competing visions of human flourishing, while actually advancing the insidious falsehood that there is really nothing at stake in the moral convictions to which Christians (and others) are called to witness?  Such a world view cannot rightly ever be a friend to Christianity.

This helps bring out the ways in which, within a martyrological perspective,  friendship can be seen as the context in which Christian love may be put severely to the test. A challenge which may come in the form not only of choice between universal and preferential modes of love, but between rival and incompatible forms of friendship –as we see perhaps not only in secular and nihilist challengers,  but, tellingly, in our own denominational differences too.

All this reminds us that we stand, as Christians in this world, forever within the tension between the way things are and the way that they should be, between the way the world is and the way the world should be: as redeemed in Christ.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, dwelt powerfully upon this point and the importance therefore of eschatology in Christian life and thought as when he wrote that:

“As institution the church is in this world the sacrament of the body of Christ, of the Kingdom of God, and the world to come.”

Yet.

“…The Body of Christ is not and can never be of this world. ‘This world’ condemned Christ, the bearer of new life, to death and by doing this it has condemned itself to death. The new life, which shone forth from the grave, is the life of the ‘new eon,’ of the age, which in terms of this world is still ‘to come.’ The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, by inaugurating a new eon, announced the end of this world, for as no one can partake of the ‘new life’ without dying in the baptismal death, no one can have Christ as his life unless he has died and is constantly dying to this world: ‘for ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).”

In consequence there is therefore, a challenge both to and for all Christians, as we live in and engage our wider world,  as he goes on to say:

“The most perfect Christian community – be it completely separated from the evils of this world – as a community is still of this world, living its life, depending on it. It is only by passing into the new eon, by an anticipation – in faith, hope and love – of the world to come, that a community can partake of the Body of Christ, and indeed manifest itself as the Body of Christ.”

And he adds that

“Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, are now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable them to remain alive in the world of today …

But on a more positive note he concludes:

“In everything that I preach, or teach, or write, I want this answer…to shine through …

It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the ‘other,’ the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it…. (Journals, p. 24)

“This is the essence of Christianity as Eschatology. The Kingdom of God is the goal of history, and the Kingdom of God is already now among us, within us.  (Journals, p. 234).

This perspective is one ultimately of precisely the Christian hope, with the important corollary that it can pose a question and challenge in which all can share whether of faith or not when it asks “What would a redeemed world be like” and how can we even here and now in a finite and limited way help to achieve it ?

Thus in conclusion we come also to the counterbalancing insight of another Russian Orthodox Priest, Fr. George Florovsky, who observed that we live in the Church here and now and need to remember that as such we have the unique resources of the content of our faith to bring to bear for

“Tradition is a witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings . . . To accept and understand Tradition, we must live within the Church, and we must be conscious of the life-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy Ghost in it. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is primarily the principle of growth and regeneration….Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words”

(Fr. George Florovsky)

Thus is the tension formed within which we are called to live, as witnesses of Christ to the world inviting all to share in the fulness of martyrological love in the quest to realise a redeemed world.

This shared vision and goal must call us all to a visible unity in the end, not only as Christians sharing a common creed and faith, but as that which is a given, which  has its origin in God himself,  in his triune being of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thus do we abide in God amidst the tensions of this world, looking always to its becoming redeemed in Christ – a goal for which we must work here as we await in faith the assurance that we will enjoy it,  fully realised in the World to Come……

Amen.

Anthem The Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov

The Prayers are followed by the Kyrie from th Missa Brevis by Palestrina and

The Anthem:  Hear my prayer, O Lord  ( Z 15) by Henry Purcell;