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Sermon at Vespers in Westminster Cathedral during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Thursday 22nd January 2009

The service was the last event attended by Cardinal Murphy O'Connor as one of the four co-presidents of Churches Together in England.

Click link on the right to listen to the Archbishop's sermon [7Mb]

A transcript follows:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago (John 10.14—16) that unity happens when people are listening to his voice.  'They will listen to my voice', he says, 'and there will be only one flock and one shepherd.'  And so the implication seems to be that where is there not one flock and one shepherd we're not listening to his voice.  Unity comes when all the people of God are all listening to and recognizing the voice of Jesus Christ together. And that means that the heart of our search for unity is very simply the search for that silence where we are able together to hear the voice of Jesus.

As we come together as Christians, we open our hearts and our minds so that we may listen for Jesus.  We try to listen for Jesus in one another, to hear what Jesus Christ is saying to us through the mouth of a stranger, somebody with another loyalty, another theology.  We seek together, in silence, to hear the word of God, in Scripture, in the voice of God's people throughout the ages. And we pray that when we are at last silent enough, free enough, patient enough, loving enough, we shall hear his voice.  Then, and only then, there will be one flock and one shepherd.

The search for unity is so often a very talkative business.  We like to talk about the things that interest us, divide us, enthuse us and at times (Christians being Christians) we quite like to talk one another into exhaustion.  There are some kinds of ecumenical dialogues (far be it from me to give any examples) where talking one another into exhaustion feels a little bit like the agenda.  But tonight, by God's grace, we're here together to listen:  to listen to one another, to listen for the voice of Jesus.  We're also here to be reminded that the Good Shepherd, as he raises up good pastors in his church, raises up and gifts those people who are able to make others listen because they themselves listen for the voice of Jesus.

As we give thanks to God for the wonderful ministry among us of Cardinal Cormac, that surely is what we are celebrating:  a pastor who, because he listens to the voice of Jesus, is able to let it echo in his ministry.   Cormac has been a great servant of the unity of the Church, largely because of that great gift of listening to Jesus, of helping others listen, and of making the many ecumenical conversations in which he has been involved a great deal more than competitive noise.

A good shepherd echoes the voice of Jesus because a good shepherd has quite simply been listening to him, patiently and silently.  Listen long enough to people, as you all know, and you begin to pick up some of the accent and the inflections of the people you're listening to.  (When I spend long enough back home in Wales I discover my Swansea Valley accent returning.)  All of us I think have similar experiences:  we pick up the distinctive sound of those in whose company we are.  And the lesson is not a complicated one.  If we are going to pick up and transmit the voice of Jesus we have to spend time in his company so that his accent and tone of voice become ours.

We listen to the Gospel and what is the accent that we hear, what is the tone that we pick up? It's a voice which is devastatingly critical of the self-deceit of so many kinds of religion, devastatingly critical of self- righteousness and self-satisfaction.  It's a voice that is even capable of sounding with anger at the sight of the suffering of God's children.  It's a voice that breaks through any number of barriers and obstacles, to speak a word of love to the guilty or the lost. It's a voice that on the cross cries out in unimaginable suffering to God the Father and falls silent after a great cry.  And it's the voice that is instantly recognizable to the disciples on Easter Day when it utters the word, 'Peace.' 'Peace be with you', the first greeting of the risen Christ.

And so, as we seek to listen, those are the tones, the accents, that we pick up, that we try to train our own voices to echo.  Or rather, if we listen hard enough – silently enough, patiently enough, and lovingly enough – that is what will echo in the chamber of our hearts and so be heard in our own voices. 

Without that there is no reconciliation.  Because if it is true that only the Word of God himself can bring final peace to our terrors, our wars and our rivalries, it's only when we are silently waiting upon that Word, that voice, that God can break through and make a difference.

May God give us all the silence and the patience to listen. May the Father teach us all to speak in the accent of his Son, and to utter in his Son's name those words that will break down barriers.  May we learn again and again to listen together, to listen to each other; and then by God's grace and gift there will be 'one flock and one shepherd'.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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