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Homily for Opening Eucharist: The Archbishop of Canterbury

Posted on: March 27, 2000 5:15 PM
Related Categories: Primates Meeting, primates-2000

Primates' Meeting March 2000 - Release 6

Thursday 23rd March 2000

It is good to be here in Oporto and to be with you for our meeting together. It is of course the first time we have all met since Lambeth, and we have a great deal to do in these few days; and we will inevitably be conscious of the high degree of interest and expectation around the Communion.

Whilst not at all denying the importance of those concerns, I hope we can think and work together as colleagues. If we are to exercise leadership together, we must be free to meet one another, to engage in genuine dialogue without feeling we must always be looking over our shoulders at those who may be listening outside the walls!

You may, like me, have been struck afresh by the starkness of that story which Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. It is very different from many of the parables in Luke's Gospel, which tend to focus our minds on the great generosity of God's love. But in Chapter 16, Jesus seems to have moved on in his teaching. Here he is offering a sharp contrast between that gracious love, and how things are when we ignore the basic divine law.

Let me draw out some elements.

It shows first of all Jesus's great skill as a teacher. Here is the stuff of great story telling - two men from the same nation, one very rich and the other very poor. Two worlds and two instantly recognisable worlds from the viewpoint of Jesus's hearers. They were used to beggars outside rich men's palaces. But here is a curious detail - only the poor man gets a name! 'Lazarus' meaning 'God helps'. How he must have wondered at times! Is God helping me? Me, with my running sores and deformed limbs? Yet, he is the only character in any of the parables of Jesus who is given a name!

The rich man, by contrast, has no name. 'Dives', simply means rich. He is defined by his riches - once they are gone he is gone.

The parable is all about 'distance' and two kinds of distance are in focus. A distance through circumstances; money that divides. And a distance through destiny - salvation that divides.

So two different worlds are sketched; one of riches and plenty and the other of poverty and hunger. The two men share a common humanity but never meet. Even though only a few yards, possibly, separated them, they might as well have been on two different planets. And they both die - at possibly the same time. It is said of Lazarus that he 'died' - not even burial is mentioned. The rich unnamed rich man got a wonderful sending of for a warmer climate!

But, of course, the spiritual distance which has always haunted their relationship only becomes apparent when it is too late to remedy the problem. And so the final part of the story is a discussion of how the bridge can be built between two worlds which seem to have no common ground. The answer is to point out that the common ground does exist. The Law and the Prophets are the bedrock and the signpost. The common ground was there all the time.

Now, I am not claiming for one moment that this parable fits our condition as we meet, although our final day with Clare Short will surely bring home to us the frightening poverty of the world in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.

But it is that word 'distance' I want to comment on, briefly. With that in mind, the passage has an extraordinary relevance for us as Primates as we seek to offer our Communion a vision for our common journey at a time when more and more people fear that what they thought was the common ground of our faith is becoming more treacherous by the mile.

So I want to ask, as much of myself as of you:

  1. How may we cross the distance that suspicion sets up? It is easy for us to make judgements upon others from our own world, where we feel comfortable and sure of ourselves. But are we sure that our ground is firm? Do we need to ask God rather more urgently for the gift of humility, to be able to question our own position at least as passionately as we question others?
  2. How may we cross the distance imposed by diversity? We have grown up as a Communion firmly believing that diversity is a good thing; and I want to affirm the richness which I have encountered throughout my years as Archbishop. But we do not want, do we, to allow that diversity to become an unbridgeable gulf between us? We live in a world which has, ironically, given the revolution in information technology, a tendency towards fragmentation. Indeed, the fragmentation is fed by the extraordinary mass of communication which enters our lives, which few of us have the capacity to sort out in terms of authenticity and authority. In this context, we must work ever harder to maintain and strengthen our unity.
  3. What about the distance imposed by our cultural backgrounds? How may we draw closer together, to listen with the ears of the Spirit to the people of whom we are a little suspicious?

Distances which separate peoples and brothers and sisters. And our role, as Christians, is to close them; to draw people together by recognising Christ in one another and by confronting one another in love and truth. In my closing sermon at the Lambeth Conference, I reminded bishops of our role as bridge-builders. The Communion has developed so rapidly. We have so much to offer the world, so much to celebrate; but we also need the humility to recognise that we too must wrestle with the changes in the world, and that involves 'growing pains'. We need not fear diversity, provided it does not become exclusivity and against the truths of the gospel. Our differences can be enriching provided we have the capacity to see beyond them to the common truths we espouse. Otherwise difference becomes distance, and distance gets greater and greater until we become invisible to one another. Like the two men in the parable - unknown to one another.

Let this Conference of Primates reveal us as leaders. Some years ago Viscount George Tonypandy, a lovely Christian Welsh man told me of the Welsh saying: 'Bid ben bid bont' which, he told me (and Rowan will correct if he was wrong!) means 'He who would be a leader must be a bridge'.

The next seven days will test our leadership ability and assess our aptitude for bridge building!