Well, those were troubled days for my Church, the Church of England, as
well as for the fledgling body which was to become known as the Methodist Church The
Methodists were determined to bring life and joy to the church; the institutional church
seemed determined to keep them out! There is a church near Cambridge with an extraordinary
plaque commemorating an incumbent who lived two hundred years ago. It reads: 'Erected to
the memory of the Rev *** who served as vicar of this parish for thirty years, without the
slightest trace of enthusiasm!'
It is scarcely the kind of memorial I would want! The 'enthusiasts' of
course were the Methodists and he repressed them! Alas! Sometimes religion has that effect
on people- instead of liberating, it imprisons; instead of bringing life, it desiccates.
But Wesley's hymn resonates with us too, not merely with those of his
What conflicts have we passed!
Fighting without and fears within,
since we assembled last'.
No doubt in your meeting as at our General Synod you have had to resist
the tendency for maintenance to dominate mission and "safety first" to come
before the Kingdom of God. No doubt you have had extremely weighty and burdensome matters
on your minds, over the last few days. You will have had difficult decisions to make and I
am sure that you will have made them in conformity, insofar as we can discern it, with
Christs Gospel and with our eyes and minds set to follow Him as best we can. But
that doesnt make the decisions that you have had to have to make any easier or less
challenging. Along the way to the decisions, some people will, almost inevitably, have
been hurt or disappointed and are at risk of feeling marginalised or ignored. How we deal
with such a situation is a test for us, a test of the authenticity of our faith as
expressed in the Community that we forge.
As we stand on the verge of the 21st Century and look both
at the Church and the World in which we are called to serve, we might be tempted to a
certain degree of pessimism. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writing in his monumental
work The Autumn of the Middle Ages reminds us that "Every age yearns for a
more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing
present, more intense that yearning".
Well, if that were true of the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of
the Renaissance, it is also true for us at the turning of the Millennium. Ours, is a world
that is increasingly confusing but equally challenging. A world where old certainties seem
to have been displaced by new relativities and where corporate religion with its
authoritative command of truth and reality has no longer either the impact or even much in
the way of a visible place in our society.
And yet, has there ever been a time when there has been such a great
and visible hunger and thirst for the things of the Spirit? The body, mind, spirit
sections of our bookshops are full and the World-wide Web has given many spiritualities
and not a few heresies a new lease of life.
It is at times like these when we may well be tempted to echo the words
of St Brendan the Navigator, the Irish Saint who reputably crossed the Atlantic in a small
boat made of cowhide and wattle; "Oh, God, this sea is very big and my boat is very
But, to extend the nautical metaphor a little this is just the time
when we need to take our bearings before making the next part of the journey and I want to
remind us of St. Pauls description of Gods work for us in his Epistle to the
Ephesians. I have chosen as my text Chap 2: verses 4-10, but in order to follow the
Apostles argument at this point we need just to keep an eye on the verses before it.
Paul is often very good as describing what we might call the "human condition"
and in the first verses of Chapter he paints a pretty pessimistic view of the way that
human beings have gone. Its strong language and Paul would certainly not want to say
that human beings were entirely bad or wrong or misguided. Rather, he recognises and
describes that sense of distance and emptiness that we can all admit to have experienced
at some point in our lives. Alone, drifting and purposeless one is reminded of
"Oh Wedding Guest!/this soul has been /Alone, on a wide wide
So lonely twas that God himself scarce seemęd there to
And after Pauls beginning there is an almost sigh of relief. Paul
says: "but God is rich in mercy and because of his great love for us, he
brought us to life with Christ
" In the context of the trenchant analysis that
he has just given us of the human conditions this is a promise of profound joy. Notice I
said joy not complacency! But we would agree with John Stott that "Paul first
plumbs the depths of pessimism about man, and then rises to the heights of optimism about
And he is quite right to be so optimistic. Despite all humanitys
shortcomings God is eternally generous. Paul paints a picture of a God who is merciful,
purposeful and abounding in grace. Its a wonderful, grand vision of Gods
scheme for humanity worked out through Jesus Christ. It is big and bold, challenging and
yet comforting. It puts us in our place while not denigrating or belittling us. It is by
Gods grace that we are saved and that alone.
And in the face of that vision of God and his merciful gifts to us what
are we to say? Does it mean we have to do nothing? Does it mean that we have to become
totally passive and immobile?
Of course not. Paul may well be underlining that it is through
Gods gift that we are saved and not by our own efforts but he is certainly not
saying that we should descend into quietism and abandon any effort to engage with the
world and its challenger. Being saved by Christ, we need to be conformed to Christ. We
need to build a Church that engages the world on those issues which Christ showed to be
And if salvation is a gift from God, so too is unity. And that brings
me to ecology. Ecology is the term given to variety and diversity of living organisms
living together and contributing to one another's welfare by mutual interdependence.
This applies to churches too. I abandoned long ago a theology of unity
that assumes it means uniformity and sameness. Human nature cannot accept that and history
denies it. Indeed, the world of New Testament scholarship now accepts that diversity is a
key element is studying the origins of our faith. In other words, later differences in
church life were already implicit in the ecclesiology of the New Testament.
Of course, I am not saying that we should give up the quest for full,
visible unity. I am saying that if we mean by that our vision is of One, great
organisation with a uniformity of belief worshipping in the same way, the hope is
unachievable. Indeed, in all our great traditions we already accept legitimate expressions
of diversity. To take the example of the Anglican tradition we are very used to great
theological breadth and liturgical tastes to suit most people! As archbishop I have become
used to moving from the celebration, say, of a very florid Eucharist in the catholic
tradition, to a Low Church, evangelical, or charismatic meeting where there would be great
freedom of expression. I do not find this a great difficulty because we are held together
by a common understanding of faith and order which not only tolerates such diversity but
which accepts that we are all part of one family.
But how may this kind of ecological unity help us in our quest to be
recognisably in the eyes of the world 'one Church'?
It may encourage us to move in stages towards whatever final form of
unity God may have in store for us. And, obviously, the first stage should be to discover
the shape of apostolicity in each other. I think one of the greatest achievements of
theological conversations of ARCIC, and particularly the Niagara Report of the
International Lutheran/Anglican Conversations, was the recognition that we are able not
only to see Christ in one another, but on the basis of the grace so palpably given, to
affirm that our churches are apostolic churches - standing in continuity with apostolic
faith and faithful to the gospel. And to say this truly and sincerely is an exceedingly
The next step beyond that is, of course, to recognise one another's
ministries as authentic and apostolic ministries. And here we are torn between experience
and theology; between the theological and historic undergirding of ministries and the
actual experiences of churches in place and time. Humility requires us to accept gladly
evident signs of grace in the ministries of Churches with which we not yet in Communion. I
think of Dr.Donald English, one of the great leaders of British Methodism who was also a
good friend. Donald died sadly a few years ago. It is simply impossible for me to think of
him as a minister who was deficient in any respect. How can I say that he lacked anything
in ministerial orders because he was ordained a Methodist? And that kind of conclusion -
far from uncommon - illustrates some of the questions of Order we must attend to. While
experience informs our theology and makes us more aware of the diversity of the Spirit's
gifts, it can never replace the tough work required in bringing different understandings
together into a comprehensive and coherent theology of ministry. Nevertheless, there is a
stage beyond the recognition of authentic and grace-filled ministries in the
reconciliation of both Churches and Ministries in order that unity may be fully visible.
This staged approach is behind the formal Anglican-Methodist talks
recently started in the United Kingdom. You will appreciate that this has particular
poignancy in our circumstances because thirty years ago our two churches were within a
whisker of full unity which, alas, did not get the required majority in our General Synod.
It is my strong hope that over the next few years a solid foundation for unity between our
Churches will develop into a visible unity achieved by measurable stages. That, I believe
is the only responsible course of action. I also welcome developments between the
Episcopalian Church of the United States of America and the United Methodist Church in
this country and encourage this dialogue.
However, the use of the word 'ecological' in the context of unity
introduces naturally the concept of mission because ecology is about the well being of the
whole. Emil Brunner said so finely years ago: 'The Church exists by mission as a fire
exists by burning. When the church serves, it is most true to itself. When its first
commitment is to the Kingdom of God, it is most truly the Church of Jesus Christ!
I have observed on many visits to the overseas church that the best
demonstrations of unity have been in prophetic situations of witness when churches have
stood together for people and for the gospel. I think of South Africa when Methodist,
Catholic, Anglican and other churches have shared in bold and sometimes heroic acts of
witness. I think too of Sudan at the present moment or Northern Ireland or those countries
where the evil shadow of communism cast its 70-year-old blight on the human spirit. But
sadly I have also noted that when the common enemy has been overcome, the old divisions
between the churches have returned. Not deliberately and probably more due to
preoccupations with churchy affairs, with our committees for the management of our life.
I believe we must transcend the concern for the survival of the church
and start to focus our concern upon the Kingdom of God and its centrality to church and
society. I want to encourage the Lund principle of 'only do that separately which you
cannot do together'. Let us start doing our evangelism together. Let us minister to young
people together. Let us share social concern together. Let us do our thinking and
theological exploration together.
And, if your meeting is anything like the Lambeth Conference, ladies
and gentlemen, you are tackling the same social and personal issues that we discussed and
continue to discuss. Issues to do with personal freedom and its limits; sexuality and
homosexuality; abortion and euthanasia;family life and the roles of women and men in
advanced societies. Surely there is scope to do this kind of theological wrestling
This unity that we seek is not simply for the sake of unity but in the
service of the Gospel. We desire that "all should be One" that the world
shall believe. We are not in the business of ecclesiastical joinery for its own sake.
Rather, we are in the business of building a Church which, like God in our reading from
St. Pauls Epistle to the Ephesians is graceful, generous, merciful and conforms
every more deeply, to the person of Jesus Christ.
And this church to which we all belong is a colourful, noisy and
vibrant body which is on its way to being 'One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic' Church -
sharing in an ecology of being where we are called to recognise the reality and the
validity of one another as life forms of the Spirit. And, because all analogies in the end
break down, we acknowledge that ecology is not enough, the same Spirit welcomes all the
gifts he has given us in separation and calls us into that deeper unity which is our