The preface to Sally Vicker’s novel ‘Instances of the Number Three’ begins like this:
‘It is said there were ancient schools of thought which held that the number 3 is unstable. If the reasons for this belief were ever known they are lost in time. A three-legged stool refutes the claim, as – less prosaically – we are told does the Christian trinity.’
I am always amazed by the power of 3 and this past weekend that we have been spending in Rouen and encouraged me in that thinking. For over twenty years Southwark Cathedral has been formally linked with the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen. For almost fifteen years we have also been formally linked with the Cathedral of St Olav in Bergen. The former is a link with a Roman Catholic community, the latter with a Norwegian Lutheran. The links are very important to us and they have their local manifestations in the friendships that we have with St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark and the Norwegian Church – the Seamen’s Mission – in Rotherhithe.
But what really binds the three cathedrals together is something older and more durable than the written agreements that we have signed and that is the person of St Olave (or Olav, or Olaf). We have been in Rouen because this weekend saw the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Olav in Rouen Cathedral. The triangulation is that the King had been in London, saving the city from the marauding Danes and most memorably by destroying London Bridge alongside which stood the Priory of St Mary Overie – now Southwark Cathedral. From London, Olav went across to Rouen. That was, of course, a city at the heart of the Norman territories and the Normans were, as I understand the history, cousins of the Norsemen, the Vikings. So in that family setting Olav was baptised and from there returned to his kingdom and made that a Christian nation.
When the relationship between our three cathedrals was forged it was not with thoughts of the relationship which already existed through St Olav, that became apparent only later, but it is one of those wonderful ways in which you see the hand of the triune God upon our working and our relationships.
So it is good being here and celebrating our history. Though the church of St Olave in the Borough (the area around Southwark Cathedral) is no longer there, there is a reminder of it on the corner of St Olaf House on Tooley Street, a building that is now part of London Bridge Hospital. There in the stone work of that beautiful Art Deco building is the depiction of the sainted king. And in our schools foundation the name and patronage of St Olave survives. Both the boys school, now in Orpington, and our girls’ school on the Old Kent Road share a dedication to the saint and there are many Old Olavians around.
So the triangulation is a real joy and so has been the chance to be in Rouen this past weekend for the celebrations. But it does make you ask the bigger questions of where ecumenism is going. Is Vicker’s right in the comment about instability? Has all the great work for unity in the 20th century run out of steam and instability set in? Well, of course there are more than three involved in ecumenism, although one can boil it down to catholic, protestant and orthodox as the principal forms of church involved in the debates about what a unified church looks like.
The prayer of Jesus in John 17.20-21 is always in our mind
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’
The real force in that part of Jesus’ prayer for me is in those words ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ The disunity of the church is a scandal, it always has been and, while it persists, it always will be and I believe it is a serious challenge to us in mission. People look at us as a divided family and they want more from the church than that. What we disagree about looks insignificant, petty and rooted too far back in history to be relevant to people today. Yet for those of us in the church the issues that keep us separated are real and live and important. In many ways they help to define who we are, our self understanding, something of our essential nature. This has to be wrong. But what will a real response to Jesus’ prayer look like? Will it look like the restoration of one, organic church, if one ever really existed in our ancient and early history; a church with one clear leadership and one agreed doctrine and one fully recognised ministry? I’m not sure and I’m not sure that that would be good – would it really express the breadth of our experience of God?
Recently Pope Francis speaking about Christian unity said that the holiness of the church is to ‘recognise the image of God in one another.’ If we can do that then we are on the way to more visible unity because we will be revealing the one face of the Triune God who we have know in Jesus Christ.
Back in Southwark we are getting ready for the start of this year’s ROBES Project. This is the cold weather shelter that is run in North Southwark, Rotherhithe and parts of North Lambeth. It is a fantastic project and made more so because so many denominations of Christians are working together to make it happen. This is real work for unity and in it we are ‘recognising the image of God in one another’ and most especially in the women and men who are our guests. As in Matthew 25 we are serving the needs of the vulnerable and marginalised and recognising the face of Jesus in the midst.
Weekends like the one we have been enjoying in Rouen are important – they bring us together and for our own triangulation of Southwark-Rouen-Bergen this is positive and important. But whilst we mustn’t forget the prayer of Jesus we must also look for more ways of revealing the image of God that we bear, together, as Christians and showing that one, united, loving, serving face to the world
‘that the world may believe that you have sent me.’
Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
(from the Roman Catholic Order for the Mass)