William Reed Huntington Memorial Sermon
Grace Church, New York City
September 30th, 1998
I am honored to have been asked to preach on this occasion when we call to mind the ecumenical vision of William Reed Huntington, sixth rector of this church, which is symbolized by the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888. This document has become the foundation upon which all Anglican ventures in ecumenical relations with other Christian churches and ecclesial bodies have been grounded. As we consider later this evening these reflections, and those of respondents, perhaps we will together discern more fully the work of the Spirit in our ecumenical endeavors.
At the same time, it is important to note that I have been invited to preach, a task very different from giving an address or lecture. I say this because of the advance notice of my participation in this service, and the extravagant promise of what I would have to say. For me, preaching involves breaking the bread of the word as it presents itself to us in the Scripture that has been proclaimed in the liturgical assembly. And as the bread of the word is broken and shared, both the preacher and the members of the assembly are led to an encounter with the One who is both living bread and Word: our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Let us begin, therefore, with the Gospel reading which sets before us a portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer: The words are familiar, almost too familiar. They make their way annually into numerous services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and appear frequently on leaflets and posters giving notice of the same. But as I prayed with the text in preparation for this Liturgy, I discovered something obvious that I had not seen before. It is that the passage has little to do with ecclesiastical joinery, and everything to do with the world. Unity of faith, or more precisely sanctification in truth (John 17:19) is for the sake of the world: “So that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
And what is it that makes it possible for the world to believe that Christ is indeed the one who has been sent by God? It is quite simply the ability of those who follow Jesus, by the quality and transparency of the life they share, to break down the subtle and obvious walls of division which set members of the human family, and therefore God’s own children, one against the other — often, with tragic irony, in the name of God or the profession of a more pristine orthodoxy.
Some years ago, I spent an extended period of time in Jerusalem, the only city on earth called into being by God to be a sacramental sign of unity and peace. While there, I made frequent visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as it is known in the West, or the Church of the Resurrection as it is known in the East. Under either name it overarches the hill of Golgotha and the empty tomb: the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and therefore stands symbolically at the center of the Christian world. It is shared, or rather inhabited, by six different ecclesial communities in a somewhat uneasy truce known as the Status Quo.
Early one morning, before the break of day, having spent the night in the church, I was drawn out of my own prayer into the cacophony of clashing chants and liturgical languages as the various communities offered their worship through the one Christ in the power of the one Spirit to the “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” What was I experiencing, I asked myself? Was it the confusion of Babel re-enacted by way of liturgical anamnesis, or was it Pentecost again with each community proclaiming in their own language and liturgical/cultural tradition “the wonderful works of God?” What did the Holy One make of it all, and what did it say about there being “one bodyâ¦one faithâ¦one baptism?” Was this an instance of the Divine imagination and fullness, able to embrace and enfold disparities and seeming contradictions, or was I seeing the shadow side of incarnation wherein the historical traditions which convey our various apprehensions of the Good News become fortresses of our own singularity and allow us to pray with the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke, “God, I thank you that I am not like others?”
I do not have the answer. But in that moment, half way around the world, I found myself wondering if what I was experiencing in that sacred space was not, in more familiar and therefore more easily accepted forms, the truth of the disparities and contradictions with which we, here in the United States, live all too easily. Are we not all within one overarching mystery which is as real and present as that ancient church building in Jerusalem, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection? And what is the shadow side of our own particular traditions, or to put it in Pauline terms, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” which means that some of our singularities and seeming ecclesial virtues may, in actual fact, be impediments to the realization of God’s desire. What is genuinely of God, and what is the fruit of my all too human resistance to lose my life for the sake of the Gospel, which is, paradoxically the only way in which to find it? This is a question we must ask constantly as we progress along the ecumenical path.
In this regard, one of the great fruits of our ecumenical dialogues has been the self-examination and self-scrutiny which we, as Anglicans, have been obliged to undergo thanks to the hard questions that have been asked of us by our ecumenical partners. In particular, I think of our Roman Catholic partners’ call for clarity and consistency in our theological discourse, and our Lutheran partners’ insistence upon transparency of the Gospel in the ordering of our ecclesial life.
Consistency and transparency, however, point to something else, conversion of heart: the continual need for all of us to yield our corporate life and our several histories to the purifying fire of the Spirit of truth who makes known to us the mind of Christ; and who separates the wheat from the chaff, revealing to us the elements of our traditions which authentically convey the Gospel and mediate the life of the risen one.
While speaking of the Spirit of truth, it is important to note that the Spirit, according to Jesus’ own words in the Gospel of John, does not speak on the Spirit’s own authority but “will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Jesus also tells his disciples that he still has many things to say to them, but they cannot bear them now (John 16:12). It will be the work of the Spirit to unfold in the life of the community what Christ has yet to reveal. In other words, discernment of truth is an ongoing process of communal discovery articulated by the Spirit who reveals not simply truth but the risen Christ who is truth, in and through the life we share with one another in virtue of the one baptism.
One of the great apostles of Christian unity, AbbÃ© Paul Couturier, a French Roman Catholic priest who died in 1963, saw at the heart of ecumenical truth seeking the absolute necessity for deep and costly prayer. Prayer for the sanctification and purification of our several traditions will alone make it possible for us to find the point of convergence. Our ability to find this convergence has little to do with compromise and ambiguous statements of agreement, and everything to do with our availability, both corporate and personal, to the desire and imagination of God.
Prayer creates a capacity for hospitality and welcome, making room for the truth and reality of the other without defense; prayer enlarges our vision and overturns the idols of our own self-righteousness; prayer forms within us the very longing of Christ, “that all may be one,” and catches us up into God’s own project of breaking down all walls of division and making us, in all our singularity and uniqueness, into one new humanity in Christ (Ephesians 2:15). The ecumenical task, therefore, properly includes overcoming the various divisions and diminishments occasioned by the conscious and unacknowledged “isms” and phobias which allow us to say with impunity, “You are other, and, therefore, I have no need of you.”
How tragic it is that the One who sought to draw the whole world to himself by being lifted high upon the cross, has become for many a totem justifying hatred, murder and violence both psychic and physical. Judgement and condemnation, rather than mercy and compassion appear to be the animating energies of much that presents itself these day as true faith and right religion. In this context, we must ask the hard question: How much does our own lack of communion and willingness to embrace one another in the full reality of our baptismal brother and sisterhood contribute to the atmosphere of division and mistrust which envelop this fragile earth we call our home?
And here I am put in mind of an observation made by the present Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, in an address to Diodorus, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem: “It seems to me,” said the Pope, “that the question we must ask ourselves is not so much whether we can re-establish full communion, but rather whether we still have the right to remain separated?” Do we indeed have the right to travel our separate paths giving lip service to “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” when the life we live gives witness to division and contradiction? The answer clearly is, “No.”
In one of our eucharistic prayers we ask God, in reference to the Church, to “reveal its unity.” And in so doing we acknowledge that unity is not ours to create because it already exists in the mystery of God’s fullness, God’s catholicity. Ours, however, is the task of stripping away those things in our several traditions which occlude this unity which underlies not only the life of the Church, but the whole of creation as well.
Because we are creatures of incarnation and therefore history, the process of stripping bumps us up against all the givenness and specificity of our particular faith traditions which have enabled us to appropriate the Gospel, and asks us to discern in them what is authentic and enduring, and what may have once been essential, but is now in danger of becoming an idol of denominational singularity. This is the ecumenical task: to assist one another in an ongoing process of purification ordered to the unity God seeks to reveal to and through us as limbs of Christ’s risen body, the Church. Part of the mystery of incarnation is that we are for one another’s salvation, as the Desert Monastics of the fourth century understood so well ; and it is in dialogue, friendship, meals together, shared service and ministry, and in common prayer that we know this is true.
This brings me back to my time in Jerusalem, and to another experience. I had gone with some friends to Hebron to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. And as I stood before the cenotaph of Abraham, I became aware of a group of Moslems engaged in Koran study to my left, and a gathering of Jewish women praying on my right. Suddenly it occurred to me that here we were, the three siblings of Abraham, bound together in prayer, and yet so far from one another in the realm of conscious thought. For all three of us God is “the Compassionate One.” How long will it take us to live out of the full force of this binding truth? How can I ever forget, later in the same season, reading Morning Prayer in the Sinai Wilderness while a Moslem laborer, only a few yards off performed his morning salat, both of us greeting the dawn in common praise of the one God? Is he not also my brother?
“Ecumenism” and “economy” share the same root: oikonomia, which means management of the household, oversight of our life together as members of the human community. Ecumenism, therefore, is much larger than ecclesiastical concerns, which is why the Church must always listen to the world where God is always at work, shaping and reforming and conforming all to Christ.
In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, the gathering up of all things in Christ: for not only do we receive Christ, but we are taken up into Christ, made bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh for the sake of the world.
If, in truth, the sacraments effect what they signify, then the Eucharist brings into being the very unity of all things it proclaims. Many centuries ago Irenaeus observed that not only does the Eucharist bring us into unity with one another, but that “in sharing Christ’s body and blood, made from bread and wine which are fruits of the earth, we are brought into harmony with the whole of God’s creation. In that simple act of receiving the Eucharist, we participate in reconciling God with his world.”
May we who come to this table indeed be ministers of reconciliation and, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision, proclaimed in our first reading may the desert of our broken world rejoice and blossom with everlasting joy. Amen.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA