St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany 3 (21.01.2018) Tony Dickinson

Today’s reading show us the beginning – well, almost: the end – well, very nearly: and something, or rather someone, in the middle holding the two together. There’s something else, too, linking all three readings, a common thread of celebration.

There’s the celebration of victory in our first reading, the celebration of a marriage in our Gospel, and, overlapping the two, our reading from Revelation begins with the hosts of heaven proclaiming the victory of God in words which are familiar to anyone who loves English choral music and segues into the angel’s invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb. It’s a rich and heady mix of echoes and resonances, and one which draws us in as we reach the mid-point of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Now, it has long been one of the regrets of my time in Terriers that the local Churches’ keeping of this Week of Prayer has faded as it has over the past two decades. That’s not the fault of any one group or congregation in particular. We, and St Wulstan’s, and Totteridge Baptist Church have all had particular problems in recent years – pastoral reorganisation, problems with the church building, recruiting and retaining ministers. These have caused us to focus on our own concerns. So have the congregations in the Marsh and Micklefield which make up the other half of Churches Together in East Wycombe. And there’s a gaping hole these days where St Andrew’s used to be. Then there’s the sad reality that as church leaders have had to run faster and faster to keep their own show on the road, they have had less and less freedom to spend time together in prayer and study – and in just getting to know each other. We still meet for a meal together at Christmas, but that’s about it.

That’s the negative and depressing side. But that is far from being the whole story. Over the past twenty years we have seen the Churches coming together in ways that would barely have been imaginable when I was growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the years of my childhood and adolescence there was still immense tension between the different denominations. A Protestant mob pelted the Catholic archbishop as he went in procession through the streets to his cathedral. At my secondary school, which was on the other side of Shaw Street from the Jesuits’ flagship grammar school on Merseyside, the boys were forbidden (on pain of a flogging) to venture outside the front entrance to the school on 12th July, when all the Orange Lodges in the city marched along the road that divided us. My father had attended the same school in the 1920s and in those days – about the time of Irish independence and the Irish Civil War – there were running battles between boys from the Collegiate and boys from St Francis Xavier on the trains and buses and trams that took them home after school. Things may not have been quite that bad “forty years on”, but we still lived in the atmosphere of low-level hostility that was caught by the Liverpool-Welsh playwright Alun Owen in his 1959 play “Progress to the Park”. The gulf between the religious tribes was a deep one.

It wasn’t, though, unbridgeable. One of my greatest friends in childhood was the Catholic boy who lived at the top of our road – though I never ventured into his church and it would have been considered a mortal sin for him to enter mine. Perhaps symbolically, although the two buildings were less than 200 yards from each other (that’s about halfway from here to the crossroads), they were on opposite sides of the main road. Move on twenty years to the legendary partnership between Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock and you begin to realise how far the Churches have moved towards each other. We may still be unable to share the Lord’s Supper around a common table, but we can pray together, as we did on our pilgrimage to Greece ten years ago, and we can work together – so that during Lent we shall be raising money for a local charity which was started twenty years ago by a group of young Catholic lay-people.

We have moved a long way and there is much to celebrate – and not only in terms of Protestant-Catholic relationships. The Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland have spent the last two decades renewing their links with the Lutheran Churches of northern Europe and with the Protestant Churches in France.

Lutherans and Catholics worldwide have issued an agreed declaration about justification by faith, which was one of the great divisive issues at the time of the Reformation 500 years ago. The commemorations marking that anniversary involved both traditions – even in Germany. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are talking together after nearly a millennium of sometimes bitter separation. Christians in the Middle East and North Africa are drawn together in what Pope Francis has called “the ecumenism of blood”, Copts and Chaldeans and Syriac Christians, sharing in the sufferings of their Lord and ours.

So, there is much for which to give thanks – and still more to achieve. All are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Will Christians behave as if it’s a wedding in “East Enders”, where A and B won’t attend if X or Y is invited? Will they refuse the blessing of Melchizedek, who brought out bread and wine to Abram, our shared father in faith, and blessed him in the name of God Most High? Will they turn up their noses at the wine of Christ’s presence? Or will they – will we? – come closer together as a sign of his victory over all the forces that seek to divide human beings from one another?

Half a century ago a teen-ager staying at Lee Abbey, the Christian retreat and conference centre in Devon, wrote these words: “We are the body of Christ, but the left hand still hammers nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing.” Christ feels that, as he felt the pain of the nails 2000 years ago, but he speaks now the same word that he spoke then: “Father, forgive”. It is in receiving his forgiveness and in allowing his love to transform the water of our everyday existence into the wine of life that we reveal his glory holding together all things and bringing us into closer unity. It is then that we are empowered to play our part in the transformation of the world, to “rejoice and exult” that the Lord God the Almighty reigns.

And now to God the Father, who first loved us…