For the past week I have been in the Holy Land on the Second International Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests. This is our twenty-first birthday year, a time of coming of age perhaps. But the Conference brings together parts of the Society that have not existed for so many years as the Society in Europe. The Society was founded back in 1994 when women were first ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. There was seen to be a need to establish a group that would provide support for priestly ministry, for men and women from the catholic tradition in Anglicanism. That is simply what SCP seeks to do, to support women and men in each of the three orders of ministry, to encourage vocations from people who share a catholic understanding of the church, the sacraments and ministry, and to commit ourselves to playing our part in God’s mission to the world.
The first International Conference took place three years ago in Rome. This time we have been in the Holy Land, priests from Australia, Europe and North America, focusing our visits here on the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our theological reflector was Fr Russ McDougall, CSC, the Rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. He was fantastic in leading us in our reflections during our time in Jerusalem and encouraging us to think creatively and critically through the scriptures.
Jerusalem is always an amazing city to be in. There is no where like it on the face of the earth, a truly unique place in which Jews, Christians and Muslims have to co-exist, often uncomfortably, sometimes violently, in a complicated set of circumstances and locations. Within the church the same coexistence has to develop. Western, Latin Christians, alongside Oriental Christians; ancient denominations such as the Coptic Church alongside Protestant Christians; places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seem to exist in a not alway easy situation of compromise and accommodation. It is as messy as the church is messy; Jerusalem is as messy as the world is messy. It is as though this city of peace becomes the focus for so much global political and religious intolerance and yet essential co-operation.
After four days in Jerusalem we left for a further three in Galilee. Is it the air, is it the sense of space, is it being able to see some distance, is it the water and the hills? Maybe it is the combination of all of these but certainly being alongside the Sea of Galilee is a different and a welcome experience. You can feel people relax; they love Jerusalem but Galilee is another place.
For me, having been to the Holy Land on numerous occasions (but each of those occasions has been special and different) two things have stood out for me. Today, Sunday, we worshipped with the local congregation at Christchurch, Nazareth. Fr Nael Abu Rahmoun is the priest at the church and with enormous generosity he welcomed us. We were not the only group of visitors there but the arrival of so many clergy in their dog-collars, women and men, was something novel for him. The worship was fantastic. We sang in Arabic and English, the sound created was like a mini day of Pentecost, the Peace was shared with exuberance as we realised that we are all brothers and sisters within the Anglican Communion and that there is so much that unites us, much more than could ever divide us.
Fr Russ, in talking to us, had said how important the witness of the Anglican Communion was to the rest of the Christian world. He paid tribute to our commitment to staying together even though there is much that could separate us and he encouraged us to play our part in that. Both this Conference and the experience of worshipping at Christchurch have once more reinforced in me the value of the Communion.
The other experience for me was at Mensa Christi, otherwise known as the Church of Peter’s Primacy. It is a beautiful location on the edge of the lake. We all gathered right at the water’s edge and heard the first part of the reading associated with that site – John 21.1-14. We then processed in silence to the statue of Jesus and Peter and concluded the reading with verses 15-19.
Our local guide, Rami, talked through what he had heard. We all knew the reading well but he brought out something new for me from what was so familiar. He was talking about verse 7
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.
He made the point that this reference to Peter being naked was not so much about what he was or wasn’t wearing, though he would have been stripped down for work and, as Rami said, Jesus would have expected that, but the Evangelist makes mention of the fact for a deeper reason.
Peter’s nakedness was about being exposed before Jesus. Just as when we have been found out, discovered, for something that we have said or done of which we are ashamed and we blush with embarrassment, so it was with Peter. The last time he saw Jesus, he was denying him, and the Lord had looked across and Pater had seen him look and ran out from the courtyard where he had been warming himself against a charcoal fire.
Now another fire was lit, but not for warming but for feeding. Peter’s sin was exposed and he felt naked before the Lord.
William Blake in his poem ‘Infant Sorrow’ expresses something similar about human vulnerability
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud.
Coming to the Holy Land has exposed us to the contradictions and complications of the place, to the talk of peace and the lack of peace, to the unity and disunity within our own Communion, to what is scripture, reason and tradition, to the here and beyond. But it has also exposed us to ourselves and to God, ‘helpless, naked, piping loud.’
On that shoreline, watching the water lap, it was powerfully the place where Jesus stood and Peter ran ashore, the place where the fire was lit and breakfast was served, the place in which ministry began in which Peter, conflicted, naked, frail Peter, the fault-lined rock on which the church would be built, accepted the commission, the three-fold commission to feed the sheep, in which each of us baptised Christians, ordained deacons, priests and bishops, play our part.
I need, we all need, I believe, that moment of nakedness before God, when the carapace is stripped away and there is nothing left that we can hide behind, where we too are ‘helpless, naked, piping loud.’ For Peter, momentarily, it was a shocking place to be but he immediately got over his embarrassment at being seen for who he was, leapt from the boat and went to his Lord. This has been a wonderful Conference, but for those two experiences, in worship and at the lakeside I will long be giving thanks.
Lord, there is nothing I can hide behind,
you know me and see me, naked, helpless before you.
Yet, you love me
and I love you.
Wherever you meet me,
by the lakeside,
at the altar,
may I always know
that covers my nakedness
and clothes me with joy.