The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has only begun today but I feel that it has been going on for a while already! The last two Sundays have seen me not in Southwark (some would sign with irony in their voice ‘How unusual!’) but in the two cathedrals with which we have links – Bergen and Rouen.
Last week I was with the people of Bergen to make our good friend Jacob Frode Knudsen, who has recently retired from full time ministry, the first Honorary Ecumenical Canon of Southwark. This week I’ve been in Rouen with a group from Southwark to reaffirm the commitment that we have with the people there.
It was 1994 that the then Vice Provost, Canon Roy White and the Administrator of Rouen Cathedral, Pere Jean Larche, made the agreement between our two communities. To be honest, during those twenty years there have been a couple of occasions when the Chapter at Southwark has said, ‘Why do we bother; shall we continue?’. Those have been moments when the energy has just seemed to disappear from the link or the priest at the Cathedral has seemed to be less than interested. But I have always argued that those are the precise moments when we have to continue with these links. The good times, when there is energy and activity around, are fantastic of course and you really feel as though you are getting somewhere. The other times are not so encouraging but, as with the desert experience in the spiritual journey that we all make, those are the moments when persistence brings us to the pool of living water.
The ecumenical project, begun after the First World War and given such a sense of direction after the Second, is not a matter of choice but a response to the prayer of Jesus, that ‘they all be one.’ (John 17.21) Those who do not engage in the response to that prayer, the active response which means engaging with disappointment as well as success (and sometimes we can be unclear what success means), are less than faithful to the Lord and missing out on something that is so enriching.
This morning in Rouen was wonderful. Pere Christophe Potel, the current Dean of the Cathedral, is a generous, gifted priest. Part of his teenage years was spent with his family in Manchester and so he brings great skills in the use of English but also understands a little of the peculiar position of the Church of England! I was invited to preach during the main Mass and that was a real joy for me. But just as joyous was to kiss the altar as we went in, to be vested as a priest, to stand with him at the altar for the Lord’s Prayer. Some of those may seem to be small things but nothing is ever too small to be received with joy and gratitude. The pastor of the local Protestant Church was there as well, Pastor Zoltan, and he too was honoured in the liturgy.
In Bergen, of course, things could be different. We will be renewing our relationship with them this year after fifteen years of committed friendship. Our relationship can be different because of the Porvoo Agreement whereby we recognise each other’s ministries and are consequently in commiunion. So in the Mass there, as well as preaching and instituting our dear friend Jacob Frode as a Canon, I concelebrated the Mass with the Dean, Jan Otto Myrseth and we could all share the one bread and the one cup. I cannot wait for the day when I can do the same at Rouen – but we are not there yet.
Members of our congregation were asking after the Mass today why we just can’t share in communion. My answer was that by not doing so we stay with the pain and it is the pain that keeps us moving forwards, sometimes very slowly, sometimes with more energy. I want that day to come as much as the next person but we have decided that communion is the consummation of the relationship, the destination on the journey and not a watering hole in the deserts on the way. That makes it hard, but it makes it honest.
Next Saturday at Southwark we will be bringing the Week of Prayer to its conclusion by making a prayer walk between some of the churches in our neighbourhood. I will be walking as well, visiting the churches and praying with the people there. We do it each year, different churches but the same journey. ‘Isn’t it boring, doing the same thing each year?’ you may ask. Superficially maybe but the deep down answer is no. We will keep walking until the journey is complete and we will only know when it is when we can finally walk together to the altar and receive the food that will sustain us on the kingdom journey from that point onwards.
may we be one
as you and the Father are one,
and may we be sustained on the journey we make