Giles Fraser: Sermon at Westminster Cathedral

23 01 2011

From Thinking Anglicans:

The task of preaching for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity presents a very particular sort of challenge – especially for an Anglican priest and especially in this building where, last Saturday, a number of former Anglican Bishops were ordained into what is now to be called the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham.

For some, this venture describes a unique form of unity, a way of folding aspects of the Anglican tradition into the broader Roman Catholic family. For those who have always dreamed of coming together with Rome, the Ordinariate is a generous answer by the Holy Father to generations of prayer and longing from Catholic Anglicans desperate to be recognised as a part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church as Roman Catholicism has traditionally understood it. During his sermon on Saturday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols referred to the Ordinariate as a contribution “to the wider goal of visible unity between our two churches.”

Now I don’t suppose it will be a surprise to anyone to hear that there are some – and indeed in both churches – who do not see it like this at all. For from the Anglican perspective, this new invitation to swim the Tiber can sometimes have a slightly predatory feel; in corporate terms, a little like a take over bid in some broader power play of church politics. And if Anglicans do feel a little like this, I wonder if things really are all that rosy in the ecumenical garden.

But sometimes it’s when things look at their most bleak that the real opportunity presents itself. Why, for instance, does so much of the Christian tradition seem to be nurtured by trips into the desert? Why the continual reference – here in both our readings tonight – to forty days in the wilderness? Because, I suggest, it is in the desert that one can begin to get one’s priorities sorted out. In the desert, we discover what is most important. And that may be just as true of the ecumenical desert that some people now fear is upon us.

I happened to be chatting to the editor of The Tablet yesterday. And she told me something I found terribly interesting. When in the desert, she said, one needs to watch where the birds are flying to, for eventually they will fly towards water, that is, towards the very source of life itself. This got me thinking. For perhaps it is only in the desert that we, as Christians, can rediscover what really holds us together: our common commitment to the source of life itself and our need to share this life with others. And indeed, it is not so much the birds that we need to follow, but that divine dove, the Holy Spirit, that is God’s call to each one of us to seek out the waters of life – both for ourselves and for our world.

During the Pope’s visit last September he spoke at Lambeth Palace of our country’s “deep and widespread hunger for spiritual nourishment.” This, he rightly emphasized, is where we find common cause. Here is our deeper source of unity. For those of us who can’t really understand the Ordinariate or are anxious about its purpose, this is something very much worth holding on to.

It would, of course, be wrong for us simply to ignore many of the big issues that divide us. Like the majority of people in the Church of England, I believe strongly that the ordination of women as bishops, priests and deacons is a part of God’s will for his whole church. And yes, although we cannot set this and other differences aside, what we still need to remember is that, as a church, we are called to respond to the needs of the world – a world that, as the Pope properly reminded us, continually cries out for spiritual nourishment. This is where we stand together, as one. What binds us is that common life that is brought to fruition in the waters of baptism and presided over by the Holy Spirit. And if we can remind ourselves of this, then the desert can become a place of hope and indeed a place of transformation. Amen.