'Unity is God's gift to the church' - WCC roundtable in Geneva
Tuesday 28th February 2012The Archbishop of Canterbury, in Geneva for a series of ecumenical and international development meetings, contributed to a roundtable discussion on the unity of the Christian church.
The meeting was held at the offices of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and was preceded by a Morning Prayer service at which the Archbishop delivered a homily on Romans 15:1-13. Listen to the homily here [10Mb, 10 mins] or read a transcript below.
At the roundtable, the Archbishop addressed assembled staff, visitors and governing body members of the WCC and other organisations in the Ecumenical Centre, saying: “Unity is neither a means nor an end. Unity is what God has given us in the church.”
The responsibility of Christians who receive the gift of unity, he continued, lies in “seeking a life in which no one is without the other.” This life, “constantly moving us forward into a further truth”, compels all who live within the love of God to ask the question: “Who is not yet here?”
In addition to other Anglican panellists, participants in the roundtable included representatives of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed confessions of faith. The discussion was moderated by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC.
Learn more about the roundtable at the WCC website.
Morning Prayer, Geneva – 28 February 2012
“Each of us must please our neighbour,” says St Paul. And when we first hear words like that, it’s easy to think that that is just the caricature of Christian life that so many people imagine – Christians constantly deferring to one another and saying “after you, after you” so that no-one ever goes through the door. More seriously, it sounds as if it is an example of what I was taught to call ‘co‑dependence’ – that is, I am always dependent on the good will of the other, whom I please; they are dependent on mine. A definition of unhealthy relationships.
Let’s assume that St Paul is not talking about unhealthy relationships, and not talking about that constant exercise in lethal good manners which prevents us going forward. Let’s assume that the second part of that sentence is what matters: “for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. Christ did not please himself.” Christ builds up the neighbour. The life of Christ in time and in eternity is a life which is poured out for the joy and the fulfilment of the neighbour – Christ’s neighbour, who is everyone and everything. And Christ’s own joy is in doing the will of his Father, and the will of his Father is the life and salvation of the world. Not quite co-dependence – and certainly not the paralysis of good manners. Christ does not please himself, he pleases the Father. He does the Father’s will. And in doing the Father’s will, he makes joy for himself and for his neighbour – joy for himself in the service of the Father, and joy for the whole of Creation in the outpouring of his love.
So the first thing this text suggests to us is that we, in not seeking to please ourselves, are recognising that our joy is in the joy of the neighbour and their joy is in our joy.
So in our service to one another, in not seeking to please ourselves, what we are trying to discern is what it is that frustrates or destroys the joy of the neighbour. What is it that holds them back from the full enjoyment of their humanity before God? Our service of the neighbour is the service that seeks to do away with what frustrates the joy of the neighbour before God, and thus builds them up in the fullness of their humanity. Our service to one another as Christians, and our service to one another as Christian communities, thus involves a real act of intelligence and discernment.
The kind of intelligence that, looking at the neighbour, sees something of what stops them being the human beings God has created them to be; what stops them being the communities God longs them to be; what stops them entering into the fullness of the joy of their Lord, something very different from just serving a preference of the neighbour or the convenience of the neighbour. Very often when other people serve us in the name of Christ, we don’t recognise it because it’s not quite what we ordered in the restaurant. And yet it may be the service we need, because someone has discerned what stops us growing into fullness.
So the second thing the text might teach us is the need for an intelligent service of one another and the world. An alertness to what it is in our neighbour that holds back their full humanity. An alertness to the world around that constantly keeps our eyes open to what it is that frustrates the joy of human communion.
As Christians, we are not serving the world in order to solve problems, but to bring joy. We are serving God’s future, that will for the joy and fulfilment of all upon which the whole world, human and non human, rests. And if we can approach one another as individuals and as Christian communities with that in mind, we may perhaps understand why we are also told to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you - welcoming each other’s service because it is for our joy.
St Paul spells out a little of what this means as he goes on in that passage. “Christ became a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Christ serves the Jewish people, fulfilling the promises made to them. They expand in joy, in the fullness of what God has called them to be, and that expansion of their joy becomes joy for their gentile neighbours. That constant exchange, that passing from hand to hand, of the promise of joy – that is how God relates with the world, that is how Christians relate with one another, that is how Christians relate with the entire cosmos.
“But you who are strong, ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves”. We look at the neighbour and we see their weakness. We see their need of joy and a full humanity. We ask God to help us fulfil that need. And just in case we should suppose that we are indeed always the strong, St Paul rapidly and typically turns it around saying: each of us must please our neighbour because we are all both strong and weak. And as we seek to serve the weakness of the neighbour, we recognise the weakness in ourselves, the inhumanity in ourselves, the lack of joy and fulfilment in ourselves, for which we humbly, welcomingly, ask the service of the neighbour.
In our fellowship as Christians, in our fellowship as Christian communities, in our fellowship within God’s world, may that be the tone, the style in which we come to one another – grateful, humble, strong and confident, and not afraid to open our hands to ask; alert and awake to the real need, in the Christian neighbour, the non Christian neighbour, the neighbourhood of our entire universe, knowing that God has poured out his life in Christ for our joy. But that joy becomes the currency, the exchange, of our life as believers, our entire life in God’s creation, abounding in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2012