Many years ago, when I ministered at St Mary’s, one important part of my ministry was leading the Marriage Preparation Sessions. We invited all the couples who were getting married in the next few months at the church to meet on four successive Sunday evenings, to talk through various aspects of the marriage relationship and to look through the marriage ceremony.
It was a very fulfilling ministry, where I learnt a lot about changing contemporary attitudes to marriage; and it was also a joyful experience, particularly when I was able to take part, singing in the choir, in the marriage ceremonies of the couples I had helped to prepare.
We were a shared Anglican/Methodist Church, and that brought its own particular questions, especially with regard to couples where one or both partners had been divorced. Our Anglican priest wouldn’t remarry divorced people, though he’d do a blessing after civil marriage; the Methodist minister would perform a marriage (though he disapproved strongly of couples living together before the ceremony and told them so!) Between the two traditions, we were able to bring joy to a great many couples on their special day as they started married life together.
But my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses in a shared church also highlighted the many similarities between a couple getting married and different churches entering ecumenical partnerships.
There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security. As a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and unemotional way.
Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being united with God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us as we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we celebrate the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and pray it may become a visible reality in the world.
It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in 1908. I remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion; and I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he addressed a Churches Together Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church.
How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.
Local Ecumenical Partnerships, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and the Women’s World Day of Prayer have enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds. But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings, but ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few instances. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.
And recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, especially over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the prospect of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.
It is particularly sad this weekend, as we hear the statements released at the end of the meeting of Primates (archbishops who lead provinces) in the world-wide Anglican Communion, who have been meeting in Canterbury this last week. At the end of that meeting the Episcopal Church in the USA (TEC) was made the scapegoat for the disagreement between the churches of the Communion over whether faithful partnerships between people of the same gender could be approved by Christians or not. Because the TEC was the only church that has approved a same-sex marriage liturgy for use in church, it has been barred by a vote of the majority of the Primates from representing the Anglican Communion on Ecumenical Committees, and from voting on decisions on theology and policy within the Communion for the next three years.
Churches in other parts of the world which support the arrest and imprisonment of gay people, and which have broken Anglican discipline by starting new Anglican churches in other bishops’ provinces have not been disciplined. It seems that both gay Anglicans, who have suffered so badly in the past at the hands of their fellow Christians, along with the churches who support the full inclusion of LGBT people in church and family life, have been sacrificed for the sake of an appearance of family unity.
As in any family, as with any married couple, in a church community there will be things on which members think differently. In a strong family and a strong married couple, the love between the members will be stronger than any difference, and people will be valued for their individuality, rather than rejected. The Christian family, based as it should be on the love of God shown to us through Jesus Christ, should be most open of all to appreciate different ways of interpreting the Gospel message in different circumstances, and most determined of all not to make them into occasions to divide our communities.
As St Paul explains the passage from Corinthians we heard, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. I believe God has given different gifts to different parts of the Anglican Communion; but only if we live together as a united family, so we make them available to each other, can we appreciate those gifts. If we cast people who have certain gifts out of the family, because we are not yet ready to appreciate their gifts in our own context, we are missing out on God’s gifts.
There’s a book I read some time ago called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It’s about how Christians should treat people of other world faiths, but it has relevance, I think, for Christians who disagree on fundamental issues of belief and behaviour.
It takes it’s name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat them (the founders of the world faiths) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship,…. maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”
McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”
I think the leaders of the Anglican Communion need to hear that message this weekend.
And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True church unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained or married in our churches. That may differ from place to place. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world.
Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – and GAFCON and the TEC and middle of the road Anglicans – cross the road?
To take their different gifts to the heavenly marriage feast, where the water of our ordinary human relationships is turned into the wine of new life, and all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who live in Christ and serve the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us pray:
A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, from The Methodist Prayer Handbook 2013. Day 13.
God with us, Emmanuel;
you cross the chasm of time and space,
you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,
you span the waters of chaos,
you come to us in love.
help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,
help us to break down the barriers that divide,
help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.
Send us in love,
go with us.