Homily is Greek for a crowd. Sermon is Latin for a speech. In modern English both words now mean the same, an explanation of the Bible, plus the relating of the Bible to everyday life.
Today we are in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Instead of preaching a sermon I’m indulging in a lament, which is why I didn’t begin with prayer or with, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
Lament? How unEnglish! In England it’s the stiff upper lip. Not so the Scots. When they grieve they get a piper to play a lament on his bagpipes, Flowers of the Forest being a well known one. Not so the OT Jews. For them a lament was an art form in its own right (just as a sermon can be an art form). The OT is full of laments. For example:
King Saul and his son Jonathon were killed in battle. David composes a lament, “How are the mighty fallen. They were lovely in their lives. In death they were not divided. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions” (2 Samuel 1, 19 ff).
Some psalms lament the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exile of most citizens. Psalm 137, for example, is a lament of heart wrenching homesickness. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Zion. As for our harps we hanged them up on the willow trees that grew there. They that carried us away captive asked us, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
There’s a whole book called Lamentations, named in honour of the prophet Jeremiah. It too is about the destrucion of Jerusalem in 586 BC. “How doth the city sit solitary, she that was full of people. Is it nothing to do with you all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (1,12).
In the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I lament the CofE and its practice with regard to unity.
In North Africa in the cross over between the fouth century and the fifth century there worked a great bishop, writer, preacher and theologian. He wrote his autobiography. It is now a well known classic available in many editions and translations. Perhaps some of you possess a copy. It’s called the Confessions of St Augustine. He tells how as a young man he used to pray “Lord give me chastity—but not yet.” Augustine neatly sums up the Anglican position about reappoachment, “Lord give us unity—but not yet.”
Anglicans make the right noises, offer the right prayers. In 1920 the Lambeth Conference of Bishops issued an appeal for unity to all Christian people. Between 1921 and 1926 there were five unofficial but serious talks in Belgium between Anglican and Catholic scholars. Every Archbishop of Canterbury since Geoffrey Fisher has visited the Pope, some of them several times. Pope Paul VI described Anglicans as “our sister church.” Pope John Paul II visited Archbishop Robert Runcie in Canterbury Cathedral, Bells pealed, crowds lined the streets, the Prince of Wales was in attendance. The two men knelt side by side to pray for unity. They wrote a document urging all Anglicans and Catholics to work to this goal. The Pope was received in Buckingham Palace by the Queen. Pope Benedict XVI paid a state visit to the Queen in Edinburgh. Bagpipes celebrated, crowds lined the streets. The Pope went on to visit Archbishop Rowan Williams at Lambeth. The two men knelt side by side before the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. There has even been a cricket match in England between clergy from the Vatican and clergy from the CofE.
The Anglican Communion has a kind of embassy at the Vatican, the only denomination to do so. It’s called the Anglican Centre and its director is a kind of nuncio. There have been the ARCIC talks, Anglican Roman Catholic International Consultations, which have been meeting over several decades in several countries. They have published statements of great agreement, freely available for all to read.
Oh yes, the right noises. Lord give us unity. But simultaneously the whole Anglican Communion has been taking active, formal and official steps to ensure that the Archbishop of Canterbury can not be reconciled to the Bishop of Rome, to ensure that Anglicans and Catholics can never reunite. Simultaneously the Anglican Communion has been ensuring unity—but never never.
But life is like a two sided coin. The reverse of lamentation is jubilation. If today I’m sad for the Anglican Communion, I jubilate for us. Pope Benedict cut through pious self deception. He decided, “There are some Anglicans who really and truly do want unity with us. We must embrace them.”
So here we are, united but not absorbed, a fruit of ecumenical endeavour and prayer. We retain our identity and culture but we are fully and visibly in communion with the first Bishop of Christendom, the univeral Primate of the universal Church.
If I did not begin with a text from the Bible, I certainly end with one. From the Psalms, where it’s a common refrain, “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is gracious: and His mercy endureth for ever.”