‘On the Way to Be One’ – Signs and Surprises

The elegant simplicity of the Swiss Church in Central London was a fitting venue for exploring a spirituality of communion; in the context of today’s world, the afternoon of 11th November expressed a common search to be credible witnesses to Christianity together. Brilliantly chaired by Conleth Burns, a young law student from Northern Ireland, the time was well used and exceptionally fruitful.

On-the-way-to-be-one1In his introduction, Dr Callan Slipper spoke of the “infinite yearning” that lies at the root of every human heart, “to love and to be loved”; unity – modelled on the Trinity – being a “living out of our deepest desires”. His talk explained how ecumenism is so much more far reaching than healing the divisions among Christians, since living in Communion is how we bring God to the world, as Jesus prayed.

To illustrate how this unity is being lived out in practice, there were examples of Christians of various churches reaching out to others. David Burke shared his experience of working as a street pastor along with members of thirteen different churches. His testimony showed that communion was practised as much between the members of the different churches as it was with those they were seeking to help on the night-time streets. A comment made to David about the work of the Street Pastors was “it’s as if the world has been waiting for this sort of witness”.

Via video Peter Grimheden of the Swedish Lutheran Church spoke of the witness given by the Focolare in Stockholm where he lives with others who are Catholic. He also provided a striking reminder of the momentous signing of the accord between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches in October 2016. It was clearly a very moving moment for those like Peter, who had been in Lund to witness this demonstration of the deep unity that exists between members of different churches, even if full communion is not yet a reality.

Kirsty Thorpe and Martin Smith are ministers in the URC and are part of a small, ecumenical group which meets regularly to share the ‘Word of Life’, with its commentary on a specific verse from the Bible and suggestions as to how to put it into practice.  They told the story of an asylum seeker from Pakistan who had come to their group and of their ongoing journey to prevent her from being deported back to a dangerous situation.

The afternoon continued with short presentations by four panellists who shared their insights as to how to arrive at the witness for which the world is waiting. Martin Lind, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Britain, said what it was for him to have welcomed Pope Francis to the cathedral of Lund last year and suggested that we need to look for the signs of apostolicity in one another’s churches, but “first we must accept each other”. Bishop John Sherrington, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, pointed out that there are many more things we could do together, and that work needs to be done on the theology of symbolic gesture, which provides “signposts” along the way. Jane Litchmore-Grant of the Church of God of Prophecy recounted how in coming from Jamaica to Britain she had understood God’s plan in her life, adding that our gathering that day was “part of God’s plan for us all”. Bishop Christopher Chessun, the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, opened by stating that “we cannot afford the luxury of division”, going on to note that “the Church’s history has been one of losing unity” and to underline the importance of spiritual ecumenism which was restoring this in a very deep way. The unity among the panellists was striking, each one distinct in their history but together in Christ with their love, trust, humility and shared vision.

On-the-way-to-be-one-2A musical interlude of Bach played exquisitely on the cello by Anna Frazer expressed the harmony and beauty of the goal of ‘Being One’.  This was followed by a question and answer session. The final question was: “To achieve unity, there has to be sacrifice, compromise: what does the panel think needs to be sacrificed or compromised in order to reach unity?” The answers were simple:

“We have to sacrifice our unwillingness to accept the other as they are”

“In the search for truth, we need to sacrifice our pride.”

“We have to let go of whatever it is we hold most dear.”

“We need to stop talking, but listen.”

Summing up the afternoon, Dr Slipper said he had been surprised by what had emerged during the afternoon. For example, he had not expected the panellist from the Black Pentecostal tradition to be the one to speak about the Eucharist and nor had he imagined that a focus on the Communion of Saints (in reference to it being Remembrance Day) would have come into relief. Many commented on the strong presence of the Holy Spirit whose special gifts of joy and wisdom were so much in evidence. It had indeed been an afternoon of communion, that which is “our core DNA”. We were all given a clear ‘call to action’ in Dr Slipper’s concluding remarks. “Communion is both the way we follow and the goal we hope to achieve. We are on the way of living out communion that will bring us to be one living communion. The goal is already present in the process.”