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Homily at Lambeth Ecumenical Vespers Service-July 20, 1998

Posted on: July 22, 1998 3:12 PM
Related Categories: Ecumenical, Lambeth Conference 1998

Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy
President, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity


Your Grace, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I am most grateful to the Archbishop of Canterbury for graciously inviting me to preach at this Ecumenical Vespers service as the Lambeth Conference gets under way. I am honoured to be asked to address you. As President of the Pontifical Council which assists Pope John Paul II and the whole Catholic Church with the task of promoting the unity of all the disciples of the one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I take the invitation most seriously.

In what I make bold to say I cannot presume to speak for all the other ecumenical guests. However, I am sure that I can say on behalf of all how much we appreciate the opportunity to share this important moment in the life of the Anglican Communion as the second Christian millennium draws to a close. We will all be praying that the life in Christ of your churches, and their unity with one another, will be deepened through this Conference.

The last thirty years or so have seen our relationships renewed, our brotherhood and sisterhood rediscovered. Now a commitment to seek visible unity, enhanced contacts, dialogue and discussion are normal for most Christian Churches and communities. In particular, praying for unity, as we do here this evening, has become almost commonplace. This is all the fruit of God's grace for which we do not cease to give thanks. At the same time, as ecumenical commitment loses its novelty, there are new risks of which I will speak in a moment.

Our prayer for unity often returns to the priestly prayer of Jesus Christ in chapter 17 of Saint John's Gospel. Sometimes it may seem that its words are used almost like an ecumenical proof-text--when the going gets tough we turn to them to be reminded that here the New Testament speaks particularly clearly about unity. We need anchor-holds in storms, but the significance of John chapter 17 is greater than that.

Among the many reasons for seeking Christian unity the primary one is the desire to do Christ's will. Slowly, our Churches have been relearning this lesson, especially by reflecting on the prayer of Christ in verses 20-21: "I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you". When this prayer, which is our prayer too, is answered, there may indeed be greater efficiency, better husbandry of resources, or the elimination of competitiveness, perhaps solutions to other organisational concerns as well. But, crucially, we will have become more obedient to Christ's will for his Church.

It is clear that John's Gospel challenges us to seek unity of a particular and demanding kind. It is unity in the truth, a unity grounded in more faithful obedience to every aspect of the Gospel of Christ. Our oneness is to reflect the unity between Christ and his Father which was manifested in the Lord's obedience in all things, even unto death. He glorified his Father by finishing the work he was given to do (cf. Jn 17: 3-4). "I know him and I faithfully keep his word", he says Jn 8:55). "What I have spoken does not come from myself; no ... what I had to speak was commanded by the Father who sent me" Jn 12:49). To those who follow him he has made known everything he learned from his Father; they will be his "friends" if they do what he commands (cf. Jn 15: 14-15). "I have given them the teaching you gave to me" (Jn 17:8). Before praying for their unity, he asks the Father: "Consecrate them in the truth; your word is truth" (17:17). As the very first ARCIC statement on Authority put it, "The Church is a community which consciously seeks to submit to Jesus Christ" . The Lord gives his Spirit to create and perfect this koinonia .

If we are to reach a unity grounded in such deep faithfulness, there has to be continual conversion. The Second Vatican Council underlined this in its Decree on Ecumenism with those remarkable words: "There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart" . Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical, similarly, prefaced his consideration of the practice of ecumenism by reflecting on renewal and conversion . Indeed, having expressed the conviction that the Bishop of Rome's mission today is "particularly directed to recalling the need for full communion among Christ's disciples" , he asks everyone to join him in praying for his conversion indispensable if, like Peter, he is to serve his brethren . Truly to desire unity we have to pray for our conversion to Christ and his truth.

Why, then, mention risk, as I did earlier? For two reasons. The first comes if we lower our sights. Doubts are expressed about whether we shall ever reach the goal of full, visible unity. Should we not concentrate on shorter-term goals, greater understanding and cooperation, a peaceful coexistence (which, I believe, would itself prove illusory)? Three years ago Pope John Paul II said quite unambiguously that the Catholic Church continues to be irrevocably committed to the re-establishment of full, visible unity among all the baptised . If we believe the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic then mutual understanding and doctrinal convergence, vital as they are, cannot be sufficient.

The second threat is more insidious. It comes when prayer for unity and ecumenical engagement are compartmentalised, hermetically sealed off from other areas of Church life and decision-making. If these are just part of a series of concerns, perhaps left to the enthusiasts, the ecumenical imperative becomes subtly marginalised. Different approaches, important decisions, in other areas of the Church's life can conflict with it and may even undermine it. The commitment to unity is relativised if diversity and differences that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel are at the same time being embraced and exalted. It is put in question when pluralism in the Church comes to be regarded as a kind of 'postmodern' beatitude. It will be lost sight of altogether if radical obedience, and the necessity of costly ethical choices for faithful discipleship, are swept aside by a naive overemphasis on our innate goodness, underestimating the reality of sin in our lives and our world and also the power of Christ's redemption and the grace-filled possibility of conversion. Are we not experiencing in fact new and deep divisions among Christians as a result of contrasting approaches to human sexuality for instance? When such attitudes are in the ascendant, disunity between Christians will remain unresolved. Moreover, disunity becomes an increasingly grave matter within the still-separated Churches as well. Authoritative proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is diminished.

I believe this Conference is, to give considerable attention to The Virginia Report. It is concerned with how the Anglican Communion makes authoritative decisions which, in the final analysis, means how the Gospel is to be proclaimed authoritatively and faithfully. You have shared this report with your ecumenical partners. This is a sign of trust in us. It shows that we are joined in an imperfect but real degree of communion, as brothers and sisters in Christ, so that the lives of our Churches are increasingly bound up with each other. I hope it also represents an awareness of how important the renewal and strengthening of Anglican instruments of communion is for progress towards full communion between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church.

From the beginning of Anglican-Catholic dialogue Authority in the Church has had a prominent place in our discussions. In fact, it lies at the heart of how and why we have diverged. Great progress was made by the first ARCIC, and the present Commission may soon complete a further agreed statement. More and more we are coming to realise in all our theological dialogue just how important the question of authority is for real progress towards unity. We are constantly faced with fundamental questions that demand an answer. What are the means with which the Church of Christ has been endowed to ensure the Good News is proclaimed with authority? How will it pass on in its entirety what we ourselves have received (cf. 1 Cor 15:3), what was seen and heard (cf. 1 Jn 1:3)? How are Christians to respond to new questions and remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ? How is the authority of Christ appropriately exercised at different levels in the Church? And when we reach ecumenical agreement can our Churches recognise it authoritatively so as to be sure that the results will be taken into their life? Again and again, such questions bring us back to the Johannine vision of unity in loving, faithful obedience.

We are in dialogue because we know that brothers and sisters in Christ should be able to give united testimony to him. What happens in one Christian community affects others. The deepening of communion within any Christian Church is a gift to the others; its impairment diminishes us all. As you reflect on how Christian authority is exercised within the Anglican Communion, I pray that your deliberations may lead to a strengthening of those "restraints of truth and love", of which the 1920 Conference spoke. They are not a restraining of the Holy Spirit. Rather, they are his work, as he leads us to the complete truth by saying "only what he has learnt" Jn 16:13). The Spirit, again to use some words of ARCIC, "safeguards [the People of God's] faithfulness to the revelation of Jesus Christ". 

I want to express in Christian love the concern of the Catholic Church when new and conflicting interpretations of the Gospel result in fresh disagreements, especially where these touch ministry and strain ecclesial communion, above all at the Eucharist. The Virginia Report is surely right to argue that "At all times the theological praxis of the local church must be consistent with the truth of the gospel which belongs to the universal Church" ; and that the universal Church sometimes has "to say with firmness that a particular local practice or theory is incompatible with Christian faith" . In ARCIC's words, "A local Church cannot be truly faithful to Christ if it does not desire to foster universal communion, the embodiment of that unity for which Christ prayed" . Is not some form of universal authority the necessary corollary of communion at a universal level, even while Christians are on the way towards full communion? Indeed the Spirit does bestow a diversity of gifts but their purpose is that "we all come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God" (Eph 4:13).

As we go into a third Christian millennium the Risen Lord still calls us to go and make disciples of all the nations (cf. Mt 28:19). Even where the Church has long been present there are many who have not heard the Gospel preached to them and in their search for meaning have turned to other beliefs and to superstitions. The ecumenical movement has taught us not to be complacent any longer about the effects on mission and evangelisation of our disunity and conflicting voices. Our divisions may have contributed to the growth in society of a do-it-yourself, a la carte attitude towards what should be believed and which decisions are important. In obedience to Christ we have to address the world sympathetically, but with clarity and conviction, about the Good News of ever-lasting life in Jesus Christ. May each of us hear the urgency in the Lord's prayer for unity - "May they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me" (Jn 17:21).