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Church of Ireland General Synod

Tuesday 11th May 2004

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Church of Ireland General Synod in St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh.

Armagh is not the only city with two cathedrals facing each other from two hills. If you go to Kampala, you'll see exactly the same phenomenon – the great Anglican cathedral at Namirembe and the Roman Catholic cathedral on the other side of the city, looking across at each other a bit suspiciously. Yet in Kampala the presence of those two great buildings affirms not only the separation of two Christian communities but their common origins. For the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in Uganda began their work at about the same time – and began with one of the most dramatic and heartrending records of martyrdom in the whole of missionary history. Several dozen new Christians, mostly young pageboys from the royal court, were butchered by the King with every refinement of cruelty; Catholics and Protestants alike witnessed to their faith in the most extreme circumstances, dying with joy and courage. Some of the Anglican martyrs went to be burned alive singing the hymn, 'Daily, daily, sing the praises Of the city God has made'; and the story is that the night after their deaths, a young man made his way in secret to the devastated and grieving CMS evangelist, Mackay, and asked for baptism because he wanted to know how to die like that.

When Pope Paul visited Uganda in 1964 to pronounce the canonisation of the Catholic martyrs, he generously paid tribute to those Protestants who had shared their fate, recognising that the whole Church is built up by such witness not just one part of it. And so it is that when you look at the two cathedrals in Kampala, you sense not only the division but the common roots of faith today. Catholic or Protestant, it all began in a moment when the cross of Christ was made contemporary in the witness of these young men, young in years and in faith, but mature in commitment. Beneath the tension of the two great institutions (and it has been acute and violent at times in the history of Uganda), lies one fact, the cross, the death of Christ alive and at work in the death and life of the martyrs.

The two buildings here in Armagh likewise remind us of a single origin, the mission of Patrick. We do not have here a dramatic story of martyrdom, like the Ugandan record; but we do look to one foundational witness. To put it more vividly, all Irish Christian communities were kindled from the one Easter fire that Patrick lit on the Hill of Slane. Sometimes, in the face of all that has happened in this country, people will say, 'We must forget the past and look forward', and I know why this is said and how important it is. But there is a past that matters and that we mustn't forget – the moment we share, the moment of beginning: the Easter fire at Slane, the young Ugandans singing; the cross and the resurrection.

As we meet here at Armagh on this great occasion, we might well try looking into the depth of the past rather than the recent past, looking towards the Easter fire. We're here to celebrate, among other things, a new Book of Common Prayer, a new attempt to give us as Anglicans a shared language for our worship; and good worship always takes us back to the Easter fire, to the single act of God in Christ which makes us believers and which makes us one. When we pray a 'common prayer', we acknowledge that what God has done for each of us he has done for all: we never pray as individuals, and the company of those we pray with is greater and more surprising than we could have imagined. And when we begin to hear the echo of this great polyphony of response to God's action in someone who is a stranger, whose very existence seems to threaten us and whose language we cannot at first understand, we see hope. What did the Protestant and Catholic martyrs of Uganda think as they looked at each other on the way to their deaths? Did they think – and did their missionary teachers think – that the walls of division were not as immovable as they had thought? That there was after all one crucified Christ, one Easter fire, at the root of all their lives? It is as if in the heart of a weary and deadly combat, your enemy suddenly and unexpectedly spoke to you, using words you had learned as a child, words you thought were your own intimate property.

And out of such moments trust is born – a trust exemplified by the shared witness of the two archbishops of this ancient see, Robin Eames and Sean Brady. Archbishop Brady, in a powerful and challenging speech in London last week, spoke of Northern Ireland as cursed by distrust and pleaded for all involved, on all sides, to make those extra gestures that will make trust possible. But the deepest learning of trust comes when we recognise the past we share, the story that is not yours or mine but ours and God's – the cross and the Easter fire, the martyrs' blood and the kindling of love. Across the valleys of alienation, two communities can begin then to see in each other the image of the one Lord – not the distorted image of their own fears and failures.

For years now, as Archbishop Brady has again reminded us, this has been the gift that the churches have sought to bring to Northern Ireland; and he is right to say, in spite of the way in which the conflict has so often been presented in the media, that without the brave witness of the churches and their leaders the conflict would have been immeasurably worse. Archbishop Robin has been tireless in this work, and the courage of his risk-taking for the common witness of the gospel has been a beacon for countless others; as he celebrates forty years of priestly ministry, we celebrate with him a history of true and costly priesthood in Christ's name, a steady faithfulness of mediation and interpretation, of patiently helping people listen to each other.

It is because Robin knows how to make people feel that they are taken seriously that he has so often been charged by the Anglican Communion with its most thankless jobs; and it is appropriate that I should express the Communion's gratitude to this Province for its generosity in sharing his ministry with all of us. He is currently guiding the work of a Commission which, as you will know, is seeking to find what degree of communion we as Anglicans can share when actions and attitudes across the world differ so sharply. We are praying that the experience here of mediation and the building of trust will bear fruit for our whole Church, as we struggle to find ways of honouring both the reality of the Body of Christ and the demands of fidelity to the Bible and the heritage of belief. Please pray for Archbishop Robin and for the Commission, that ways may be found other in the midst of conflict for us to recognise in each other a language that we share, and to understand each other a little better.

Real trust comes when we see in one another something of the history we share with God as well as with each other, when we see the other in their relation with the One who is their saviour and ours. But this is also where the challenge to be converted to trust becomes a real question to each of us. As we discover that we stand together before the one Lord, there is a significant change in the question we ask. We may begin by asking, 'Why do they not trust us?' – a question about the other and their failure or sin; but inexorably the searchlight comes round to us, so that we begin to ask, 'Why are we not seen as trustworthy?' Growing in trust involves the repentant willingness to look at our own history and search for the things that intensify fear in others or that have generated hurt in others. It is not to deny our own hurts and fears – and I know how terrible those hurts are for so many in this part of Northern Ireland alone. But if we want to ask others to repent and search their past, we must do the same, and try to understand how we are seen and why we are hated or feared. It is a challenge addressed to us all, and it is the hardest word that Christ can speak to us. We so long to be only the innocent victim; we so shrink from seeing that in differing degrees we are all involved both in receiving and in causing suffering. From the relations of individuals to the conflicts in the Holy Land, such acknowledgement is the deepest level of conversion; yet without it we are all still trapped. It is one of the things that the churches here have learned to say with conviction and power, and the Church elsewhere must be grateful for this hard-won wisdom. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of our enemies, we begin to stand where they stand, to acquire compassionate understanding. Things are changed when we see from within another's experience.

Put like that, this brings us close to some of the central convictions of our faith. In a situation where God is feared and mistrusted by human beings, God becomes human – to share the world of those who were his enemies and to risk what they risk, temptation, rejection, death. It is as if God says, 'I see the God you see, the God who is distant and hostile or unpredictable; and the only way I can show you the truth is by living in your midst a human life of such reconciled trust that you will see God afresh and love him.' Our God has shown himself trustworthy by standing with us in life and suffering and death.

Now if even the innocent and holy God must deal with false and hostile perception, must win our trust by sharing our life, how much more is this true for us human creatures, whose sins and fears have helped to generate those hostile perceptions? Scripture tells us that God does not stand on his innocence, so to speak, but humbly accepts the consequence of our unjust perception, since the only way of changing anything is to make the sacrifice that is needed for trust to be created by walking with us and seeing with our eyes. So it is, in a lesser way, in the relation of one group of sinful people with another: we must at some point let go of the safety of being completely 'innocent' and simply deal with the consequences of being seen by another as an enemy, as someone who threatens. We must walk with each other, each trying to see what the other sees. If we can say it without being too daring, we have to undertake a kind of 'incarnation' in each other's lives and experiences. We have to let the fear and suspicion that another is going through be felt in our own hearts and minds; we have to let the world appear to us as it appears to them, and to sense and share the risks they believe they face. In some degree, this is the foundation for any human act of reconciliation; for Christians, it is made possible in a much more intense and transforming way precisely because rival groups of Christians are still rooted in the one divine action, in the incarnation and the cross and the Easter miracle, and baptised into one Body where the fear of one is the fear of all, the diminishment of one is an injury to all and the fulfilment of one is the joy of all. God has immersed himself in the strange condition of humanity so that we shall learn to trust and hear him – but also so that we may all come to live by exchange, by entry into one another's suffering and one another's healing.

Time and again we are returned to risk, it seems – the risks that church leaders here have repeatedly taken by the mere fact of standing together, the risks they have taken in speaking in defence of each other's communities at times of violent hostility and ingrained suspicion, and in denouncing the mafia-like behaviour of those groups that terrorise so many communities today, the risks of working unseen to keep open communications with paramilitaries and others committed to violence in order to make possible just a little more negotiation and flexibility – a point well made in the House of Lords two weeks ago by my colleague and your countryman, Bishop George Cassidy. But the very life of our Christian community is rooted in the courageous facing of suffering so that life may be brought to birth – once again, the little sparks flying from the one great blaze of Christ's offering and triumph. And when we nerve ourselves for this, for the risks that bring life, we proclaim what Christ has done more powerfully than any words can do. On that terrible night at the royal court of the Baganda in June 1886, a man came to ask how he could learn how to face death like that. Every act of costly witness for Christ's sake, even the slightest, the most prosaic and local, may prompt some small echo of that question.

One story, then, at the roots of it all, the one hill of Golgotha reflected in the two hills of Armagh or Kampala; a story of the divine power which alone can equip us to become strangers to ourselves in penitence and faith as we seek to become brothers and sisters to those we have considered strangers. So we echo the prophet's call, 'Tell the nations what he has done!...Israel's holy God is great, and he lives among his people' – and the apostle's promise, 'The God of peace will be with you'; as we give God thanks for showing his glory as Christ finishes his work in cross and resurrection. May his glory be shown among us in this Synod, in the whole life of our Church and our Communion, so that the world may believe.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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