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Into the New Millennium

Posted on: March 18, 2000 4:26 PM
Related Categories: Ireland

A Church of Ireland Conference

[Armagh, 18 March 2000] Exactly eleven weeks ago, our world celebrated the beginning of the year 2000 AD. That event was marked in many ways and many contexts, but its true significance surely lies in the letters 'AD', Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. That brief phrase reminds us of something the New Testament underlines time and again - that the story of Jesus is, indeed, the 'hinge' of history. The calendar we have inherited boldly declares that the crucified, risen and reigning Christ is the only King whose reign we measure across the centuries and into the future.

And it is on the future that beckons us that I want to focus this morning: What kind of world - and indeed what kind of Church - are we striving for? And as we look towards that horizon, perhaps we should keep in mind Dan Quayle's quixotic observation, "Projections are difficult, especially when they concern the future!"

I want to consider the way ahead for this Church, alongside the world-wide Christian community, by exploring some key themes: Confidence, Mission, Unity, and Glory.

First then, the Confidence of the Church in an Age of Change.

The pace of change in our world has accelerated dramatically. Political, economic, and social upheaval sweep the globe. Some aspects, like the fall of totalitarian Communism and Apartheid, are to be applauded. But sweeping away the old and discredited does not necessarily bring an earthly Paradise in its train. Violence and poverty, hatred and division - all part of the difficult history of many lands, including this one - do not vanish overnight. But nor do religion and the search for a deeper spirituality. There is no sign of the demise of religion in the world at large. In Western Europe, even where there is evidence of a decline in formal religious observance, that does not imply wholesale abandonment of belief in the religious and spiritual significance of life. Some are, of course, hostile or indifferent, but I discern a continuing deep respect these days for the Churches when the faith is practised with sincerity.

If I am right in painting a picture of a society not necessarily antagonistic to faith but in many cases merely distant from the claims of organised religion, what does this have to say to us about the 'way ahead' as we enter this new Millennium?

First, that change is not to be feared - especially when we begin with a right understanding of God. Confidence without God is merely whistling in the dark, a wistful dream for a better tomorrow. A confident faith is not a facile optimism, but one nurtured in a theological vision of the awesome power of God.

And the contribution of churches to the quest for peace in Northern Ireland arises from your commitment to that hopeful vision of God. The challenge of holding fast to that Christian bias in favour of the positive is a real one here and now. Many will feel the hope born of the Good Friday agreement is severely challenged by recent developments. Some shoulders perhaps are beginning to droop again: the burden of past disappointments, and of present doubts and fears, can be hard to bear. But surely the Christian message of Good Friday itself is not finally one of failure but of victory. As Good Friday approaches again here, people around the world will be praying that the vision of hope to which that historic agreement gave shape will become a reality for all the people of Ireland. Archbishop Robin Eames has said, "Hope must not be allowed to die." And the churches can give a lead in demonstrating that the Good Friday Agreement can work! The Promised Land of a lasting peace and dignity and room for all is, surely, something to strive for in spite of setbacks. In these testing moments, we must remain confident that God is with us.

You see, the Church is not in the business of keeping going for its own sake, but in bearing witness to God's 'Amen' to humankind in Jesus Christ. Christ crucified; Christ risen from the dead; Christ ascended in glory. And that is why Christians are incorrigibly hopeful people - or, at least, why we should be. Faithful followers of Jesus Christ find faith, hope and love piercing the uncertainty and fragility of life and changing the way we see the future.

Karl Rahner, that great Roman Catholic theologian and ecumenist, wrote of God's love for humanity:

If the Church were to develop into a merely humanitarian concern, it would be betraying its responsibility, because its task is to proclaim to human beings the ultimate seriousness and incomprehensible dignity of this love for human beings.

Love expressed, neither through words alone, nor in bursts of special activity, but in consistent self-giving taken to the ultimate. W.H. Vanstone's magnificent hymn, and one of my favourites, says it so well:

Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell us of what God's love must be.

This love is the bedrock of faith, the inspiration of Christianity, and the ground of our confidence in God.

And it is this confidence in God that must permeate and envision our thinking. The claims of the Gospel must infuse the forward-looking work of our Church. Take, for example, your Church Army's newest initiative, the 'Wheels Ministry' trailer - designed specifically to take the Good News of Jesus Christ out to the highways and byways of Ireland. To meet people, young and not-so-young, precisely where they are. What a powerful witness! This very kind of optimism attests to a Church that has grasped hold of something of the greatness of God, suggesting that confidence is not just a desirable goal for the future, but is something actively expressed in the present.

If confidence is my first word, then mission must be my second: the Mission of the Church in an Age of Challenge.

As I noted in my homily at the Cathedral last evening, the Church of Ireland is particularly renowned for your long heritage of mission. And it is a heritage that does not exist solely in the distant past, but one that continues to thrive as we look to the future. I was heartened, for example, to learn of the conference on mission held in November of last year, aptly titled, 'We Have a Gospel'. Yes, we do all have a Gospel to proclaim, and it is both our joy and our great privilege to do so!

But as we proclaim the timeless Gospel of Christ, Anglicans everywhere need to pay more attention to the particular spiritual needs of our own day. As we all know, the two primary tasks of the Church are worship and witness. The Church lives both to extol the majesty and greatness of God and to proclaim his love both in word and action. Let me say three things about the links between mission and evangelism.

First, churches in mission are caring churches. Let us remember that the message of the Gospel and Gospel action are one! As I have emphasised throughout my time in this office, mission and evangelism are a seamless robe: mission must keep evangelism as a focus, and evangelism must concern itself with matters of justice and human welfare.

In our efforts to be Christ's apostles and disciples, we can be proud of the great charities and mission agencies that have close connections with the Church. We can be proud of organisations like the Church Army and the Mother's Union, who are responsible for such important work amongst those in the most deprived sections of society. May I take this opportunity to express particular appreciation to Christine Eames for all of her tireless efforts as she stands down as President of the world-wide Mother's Union. But alongside the work of these bodies, there are also countless projects that are part of the mainstream life of parish churches, not to mention the specialised ministries to prisons, hospitals, the armed forces, schools and industry.

While not minimising the current work going on, let me urge all churches to see social action and outreach as a natural extension of their Mission. As Philip Johanson, Chief Secretary of the Church Army, said recently, "Faith is personal but was never meant to be private." Yes, of course. It is the extent to which the local congregation can look outside of itself to the needs of others that gives the Church its authenticity in many people's eyes.

Thus, may I encourage you to make the link between church life and the wider community. Some years ago, we did a survey in the diocese of Canterbury and found that among the five or so indices which growing churches share, the impact of their life on the wider community was very significant. They were seen as 'relevant' - a word we should not scorn.

Second, churches in mission are concerned for the young.

Last year I organised a youth event called 'Time of Our Lives', which turned out to be a huge success. It brought together several thousand young people from our dioceses in a weekend celebration of faith. A number said to me how good it was to have their concerns heard at that weekend and to feel valued rather than merely tolerated. It reminded me yet again of the idealism, faith and hope of young people. It also reminded me that young people are not indifferent to spiritual things. Far from it. Many have a deep hunger for something more than material satisfaction. Such longings sometimes show themselves in a concern for the environment, or a commitment to Third World Issues or in care for the poor.

Yet, it is disturbing that so many young people have little expectation that they will find a fulfilling role within the life of the institutional Church. In a significant report issued by our General Synod a few years ago, we were told that two-thirds of all Anglican Churches had next-to-no ministry to young people. When you consider that, for the vast majority of us, our lives are shaped and influenced in our childhood and teen-age years, this lamentable neglect of the spiritual development of young people is one of the most urgent challenges to our churches.

We need to make a new pledge to our young people. We need to be heard saying: "You matter to us because you matter to God. We need to work in a new partnership with you so that both young and old will be enriched together. We need your enthusiasm, joy and energy. We, perhaps, may contribute of our experience and knowledge. But from now on, we seek to learn to walk the way of Christ together."

It is a long-overdue covenant and the practical implications demand that we make some hard choices - including choices about priorities for resources. It will also demand new kinds of collaboration. But the effects on the life of the Church as a whole will be significant. Christianity began as a young people's revolution. Jesus embraced the young and said, "of such is the kingdom of heaven." And we dare do no less. The benefits, of course, will be great. As I look at English churches, I see that those that welcome and nurture people of all ages are the ones that are growing. When I was in Durham as a minister, that was my own experience. With dedication and the hard work of many people, our church life was transformed by an influx of young people. It can be done, and it must be done if we are taking the Gospel imperative seriously.

Third, churches in mission seek to integrate ministry and worship. I said earlier that the Church exists for worship and witness. And the two must relate! We need to have both social programmes that minister to our communities, and liturgies and worship that connect with the people we serve.

Of course, I recognise that for some people the timeless rhythms and cadences of our traditional services are themselves healing and re-creational. We should never underestimate the importance of security and familiarity in this changing world. But for many in our communities, the bridge between our outreach and social care and our worship is a very rickety structure, indeed. For some, even to enter a church building is a formidable challenge. It is unfamiliar territory and even a little frightening. The connection, which we who are soaked in the liturgy of the Church can readily make, simply is not there for them. And we don't always help them to make it.

It was D. H. Lawrence who said that worship is about humanity "in its wholeness, wholly attending." We must find ways of enabling people to feel at ease and to bring their wholeness before God. Dry, over-wordy services, ill-prepared and poorly-executed, in churches which are uncomfortable, unwelcoming, and generally starchy in feel, will only strengthen the barriers. This is not an argument about 'old' v. 'new', or Matins v. Holy Communion. This is about opening up the possibilities of offering a whole reality of our experience to God in common worship.

Let me make a plea for imagination in our worship and liturgies. In that wonderful novel by Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda Lucinda Laplastrier thinks to herself of Mr Smith, "You dull man! You would murder God with your lack of imagination!" The former Bishop of Bristol, John Tinsley, used to urge Christians in his diocese to "tell it slant". The phrase comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson who, in her day, encouraged the Church to find ways of expressing the Christian message that may resonate afresh with modern people. John Tinsley was especially keen on the use of poetry, drama and music as servants of the Gospel.

The Confidence of the Church in an Age of Change; the Mission of the Church in an Age of Challenge; and now I want to speak about The Unity of the Church in an Age of Fragmentation.

It is incumbent upon us to articulate the great vision of unity (which should never be confused with uniformity) and interdependence that is God's vision for his creation. This is a vision in which the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. It is a vision that cherishes diversity while not glossing over the damage done by distrust and division. It is a vision in which all things are important: from the delicate balance of the world's ecosystems to individual relationships between peoples. Above all, it is God's vision, which the Christian Church has traditionally cherished and explored in its theology of the life of the Holy Trinity.

Now, you don't need an Englishman to come to Ireland to talk to you about the Trinity. It is a fundamental image of the Celtic spiritual tradition. As one recent writer has said in a book on ancient Celtic mission:

The Being of God was central to their preaching. In place of the confused multitude of gods they spoke of the communal unity of the Trinity, the Alone who is not alone, the social individual. The perichoresis, the mutual interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity, is symbolised for them in the convolutions of the Celtic knot.

I believe that the Churches are called to reflect and to model this divine relationship amongst and within themselves. Indeed, the Church has to address issues of unity and diversity because both have major implications for our life and witness in the world. That is what it is for us to be faithful to the injunction in John 17, where Jesus prayed that "all should be one ... that the world may believe." I also believe that if we are to make sense of and solve the scandalous divisions within the Body of Christ, we must hold before ourselves this positive, larger and - perhaps - more awesome vision of the dynamic interplay between unity and diversity in the whole of the cosmos.

But let me say two things about my own journey in ecumenical conversations, particularly with Roman Catholic Christians. First, I have discovered how much we have in common. Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Protestants share a common history, traditions and theology. Jurgen Moltmann once said: "The nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together." And I see Christ in Christians who do not belong to my church. I have been changed on that journey - and I believe for the better.

Second, although there are differences and those differences are still significant, humility and generosity must mark our journey with other Christians in our common witness to the world. Humility, because no tradition can claim to possess the fullness of God's revelation. In our separation God has blessed us with his grace, and I need humility to accept the insights and theologies of others. And, generosity, because that is the nature of God. If we are going to move into the fullness of unity which is God's will, then we must have the generosity of the Gospel to accept those whom some of our predecessors may have rejected.

Robin Boyd, former director of the Irish School of Ecumenics, has been quoted as saying this about the religious and political situation in this land:

In Ireland today, pilgrimage together is the only hope for Christians and churches, the only road which leads out of the sad present to the future where Christ awaits his pilgrim people. Every other activity rings hollow, and amounts only to the self-preservation or extension of the tribe, whichever tribe that happens to be.

Indeed, all Christians, all churches are on a pilgrimage together, seeking to witness to the gift of unity that is already ours. Unity is about turning to Christ: conversion to Christ, and to each other, in Christ. Theological dialogues and commissions dealing with the 'nuts and bolts' of relationships between and within churches are important, but every so often it is important to lift our eyes from the page and glimpse the real end of this common journey. Only in so doing can we be really sure that we are being faithful to God's will. The whole task of ecumenical dialogue is to set down and explore issues of difference within the context of the larger unity that I have been describing - the very unity that God is calling us to manifest in our own Church life. I believe that if we were better at holding on to the greater vision, then the imperative to move forward creatively to remove barriers and heal rifts would become even more urgent.

Having spoken about Confidence, Mission, and Unity, let me conclude by reflecting for a few moments on Glory: The Glory of God in an Age of Shadow.

Now, when I say 'shadow' in this context, I am talking about that tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet' to which Paul refers in that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face." We live in an Age of Shadow because it has not yet been revealed to us what the future will hold. And so we live with a catalogue of worries, fears, and concerns - about war, sickness, poverty, violence… The list goes on. And we live with the pervasive need to make a difference in our world.

But as Christians, we also live in hope. On Jan 1st, I decided to read and meditate each day of this year 2000 on Ephesians 1:3-14. I commend such a daily discipline to you, although you may well decide on another passage. I deliberately leave the Greek text open on my prayer stall in the Lambeth Palace chapel. As I have done so, I have become excited by Paul's vision of God. It is a passage that starts with God's blessings and ends in God's glory. It speaks so eloquently of God's "purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time," and it reminds us each of "the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it." It is the kind of statement that stands in stark contrast to the assessments of some commentators about the way our world is going.

Paul's majestic vision of the outworking of God's purposes is truly breathtaking! And it is that kind of vision which will bring the Kingdom from the shadows. It is that kind of glory that reminds us of our noble task as bishops, priests, deacons and lay people. N. P. Williams reminded clergy in the 1930's that they were not intended to be the equivalent of 'restaurant car' attendants, supplying adventitious comforts to make the journey into the next world less tedious, but rather were to be 'warriors' and 'captains of the hosts of the Lord'. And that, truly, is what we are called to be: people whose have seen the glory of the Lord, and whose devotion witnesses to it.

Glory. Glory in our worship; glory in our churches, glory in our witness; glory in our suffering. And glory truly springs from suffering when we capture the vision of God and begin to see new possibilities and hope.

Recently I have profited from reading Ben Okri's poem, "Mental Fight", a part of which he read in St. Paul's in the English National Service on Jan 2nd. The poem challenges us:

Have all thoughts, possibilities, ideas,
Philosophies been exhausted?
Has Christianity found its fullest
Fruition in great Cathedral, charities,
Schisms, wars, orthodoxies,
And sundry creeds?
I do not believe that Christianity
Has yet yielded ailing humanity
Its best fruits. Unrealised remain
Her fullest possibilities.

The sense of expectation and hope which fills that poem needs to infiltrate our life as the pilgrim people of God. Of course, in one sense, Christianity's fullest possibilities will only be realised in God's own time. Yet we are called, in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves, to be the messengers of that vision. And that applies here in Ireland, amidst the desperation of Mozambique and Madagascar, or anywhere when hopelessness threatens to take over. For we believe in the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.