On Wednesday 20 January, Bishop John Sherrington joined the prayer service for Christian Unity at the Coptic Cathedral in Stevenage. This was his last official public engagement as Auxiliary Bishop with pastoral responsibility for Hertfordshire and as Chair of Churches Together in the county.
In his reflection, Bishop Sherrington invited those in attendance ‘to incline our ear to the Lord and listen with the heart to his Will’, as they prayed together for Christian unity.
He said: ‘It is good that we pray together this week. It is good that we work together to serve those who are in need. It is good that we reflect and try to overcome historical differences which divide us on points of theology, understanding and attitude.’
He noted however that more is required of Christians: ‘It would be easier to settle for good and neighbourly relationships but we are called to go further and that needs fervent prayer which arises from hearts that are open and humble before the Holy Spirit and one another.’
Comparing the ecumenical relations to a pilgrimage, he added: ‘On our ecumenical pilgrimage, the progress can be difficult but this should intensify our prayer and humble trust in the Holy Spirit rather than give up on the journey or forget the end-point of our longings.’
Speaking of how Christians might ‘proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the world’, he said, the ‘witness of Christians will be salt and light to the world’, and invited those gathered to ‘renew your commitment to the goal of visible unity and service of the Lord’.
After the episcopal ordinations of the two new Auxiliary Bishops on 25 January, Bishop Sherrington assumes pastoral responsibility for the North London deaneries.
The week of prayer for Christian unity was also marked at Westminster Cathedral with a visit from the Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir who sang at Mass on Saturday 16 January and St Paul’s Cathedral Choir at Evensong on 20 January. The Westminster Cathedral Choir in turn is due to sing at Solemn Vespers this evening at St Paul’s Cathedral.
‘Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.’
These words from the prophet Isaiah invite an attitude of humble listening, of being open like the Blessed Virgin Mary who opened her ear to the words of the Angel Gabriel and her heart to the desire of God. This openness and humble receptivity enabled God’s will to be fulfilled and his Son to be conceived in her through the power of the Holy Spirit. We too are invited to incline our ear to the Lord and listen with the heart to his Will.
His Will which we hear today speaks to us and says ‘That they may be One.’ St John reveals to us the desire of God that they may be one:
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ (Jn 19:20-23)
It is good that we pray together this week. It is good that we work together to serve those who are in need. It is good that we reflect and try to overcome historical differences which divide us on points of theology, understanding and attitude. But it is not sufficient. More deeply we must believe that we wish to fulfil the desire of the Lord that ‘they may be one’ and that this is only fulfilled when there is a visible unity between our churches and ecclesial communities. It would be easier to settle for good and neighbourly relationships but we are called to go further and that needs fervent prayer which arises from hearts that are open and humble before the Holy Spirit and one another.
We may all think we know what this unity would look like but we do not know. Only God knows his Will and ultimate purposes. Yet we know that the unity will be related to the Holy Trinity since the Church and the Trinity are intimately related. God is Three yet One. Three persons, one God. Three persons who live in love and relationship and bring forth new life. The future visible unity of the Church may hold unity in diversity but relate all to love, relationship and life. In this way people will see that it is God to whom the Church points and which makes him known. As we pray and strive towards this day, the journey is more important for us than the ending. As we hear in the parable of the sower who goes out to sow the seed, the harvest whether thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or hundredfold, is a mystery and comes in God’s time after the seed has grown and sprung from its hidden beginnings in the ground, becomes more visible and bears fruit. Likewise our efforts bear fruit, immediately or in the longer term, but each step contributes to the journey and the final harvest.
As any pilgrim knows, when you head out on pilgrimage, the hurdles come in the most unexpected places and at the most inconvenient times. The blister on a foot can halt the journey until it heals. Impatience and frustration will follow as one wishes to press ahead but no progress will be made until this particular sore is healed. On our ecumenical pilgrimage, the progress can be difficult but this should intensify our prayer and humble trust in the Holy Spirit rather than give up on the journey or forget the end-point of our longings.
The Beatitudes which we have just heard remind us of the blessings of God which are bestowed upon those who follow his Way. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life who reveals in his life and death the spirit and meaning of the Beatitudes. Like the suffering servant of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks, his death will be vindicated and he will rise from the dead on the third day. The resurrection renews our hope.
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy we are called to model our lives on the person of Christ and live the attitudes of the Beatitudes on a daily basis. This calling invites us to live humbly trusting in God, mourning for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East as well as for all who suffer violence, recognising that gentleness and love overcome evil, hungering and thirsting for justice, showing mercy to those in need, steadfastly following the Lord, building peace and understanding that the Cross is not an end but a beginning of new life. Behold, God makes all things new when his gospel, the song of the Lord, is proclaimed to the ends of the earth.
The witness of Christians will be salt and light to the world. As Churches together in Hertfordshire, I invite you to renew your commitment to the goal of visible unity and service of the Lord. I would like to thank you for the blessings which I have received working amongst you during these four and a half years in the county and more recently as Chair of CTH.
Following the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.’