Sermon By The Bishop Of Tuam, Killala And Achonry At The Church Of Ireland General Synod Eucharist, St Paul’s Church, Glenageary, 12th May 2016
The General Synod of the Church of Ireland will take place from Thursday 12th May to Saturday 14th May in Dún Laoghaire. The Synod Eucharist will take place in
St Paul’s Church, Glenageary, at 10.00am on Thursday and the preacher at the service will be The Rt Revd Patrick Rooke, Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry.
Bishop Rooke will preach from St John’s Gospel on the theme of ‘Generosity of spirit’ and will refer to the need to reach out to people affected by the refugee crisis and the progress made on Christian unity through ecumenical engagement. He will say: ‘Generosity of spirit demands compassion and courage – it is the hallmark of the strong, not the excuse of the weak.’ Bishop Rooke will conclude: ‘As members of General Synod and as individuals, it is incumbent upon us to put our best foot forward and refine our efforts, to practise what we preach, aware at all times of the grace and empowering love of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may all be one.’
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE SERMON
A verse from our Gospel reading: ‘That they may all be one.’ (John 17: 22). Meetings in Dublin can have historic outcomes and 100 years ago today, the visit of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith brought about an end to the 1916 Kilmainham executions. Meetings of the General Synod in Dublin too have had historic outcomes and the Church’s worship, ministry and practice is what it is today because of those deliberations and decisions.
So, on this historic centenary, we gather again to take counsel together. We meet with our guests, as representatives from the 12 dioceses, and how important this is –
that men and women of all ages, of all theological and political perspectives, of all abilities and interests, whether ordained or lay, mix and mingle as we attempt to carry out the work of running the Church of Ireland – so dear to all our hearts.
And isn’t this exactly what a church is meant to be? A unity, a coming together in fellowship and love, of an harmonious group of God’s people attempting to be his ambassadors in the world. ‘That they may all be one’ is undoubtedly fundamental to the Gospel message. John’s Gospel in particular is smattered with exhortations to love one another, to be one, to abide in God.
The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus has restored for us the rift between God and humankind. Hence we are to reflect that harmony in a positive and transforming way in our own lives and witness. But truth to tell, it is never quite like this and perhaps we wouldn’t want it to be.
We all know that any group of church people, particularly clergy, thrown together in one room can rarely agree on anything and an outward ‘oneness’ in truth, probably won’t last beyond the first contentious issue to confront Synod today. In our Epistle reading we were reminded of the constant, and often destructive, bickering between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Christ in his prayer for the disciples as recorded by St John in Chapter 17, insisted that it was in the rough and tumble of life that we must live out our Christianity. John’s persistence in writing about unity seems to allude to problems and difficulties that existed for the Christian community of his day in bringing it about. Indeed he is unique among the Gospel writers in highlighting the struggles of individuals, such as Thomas, in coming to terms with their newfound faith and its intrinsic implications.
And similar problems have confronted each generation of believers ever since. We live in the real world with real humanity, and we inevitably confront people with their perspective, their vulnerability, their preoccupations – and thank God for it. What then do we mean by the rather portentous phrase ‘the unity of the Church and its oneness under God’?
Indisputably there are two sides to this coin of unity. On one, there is the Christian imperative to reflect the unity of God and humankind, and on the other, the real human difficulty of making this a reality. Our task then, is to remember that unity is not uniformity; it is alright to disagree by disagreeing agreeably and then, to look beyond difference to discern Christ’s face in all humanity. It sounds so easy and yet it is one of the greatest challenges confronting the practising Christian.
This has been brought into sharp focus during the past few months in our response to the refugee crisis. As Christians we have been taught that the Church, to be the Church, must welcome the stranger – to be open to all and reject none. Yet is that honestly what we have done? Oh yes, we may make a show of welcoming the stranger to our services on a Sunday morning but we’ve got to go beyond this, to that further element of hospitality that occurs outside the walls of our church buildings. That happens in our hearts and brings about something much more radical.
Generosity of spirit must underpin all our actions or we are of no thing worth. Generosity of spirit demands reaching out to those who have become too used to rejection – the stranger, the refugee, the disabled, the traveller, the homeless, the gay man or woman. Generosity of spirit demands compassion and courage – it is the hallmark of the strong, not the excuse of the weak.
Generosity of spirit requires our response. In relation to refugees, our condemnation of racism and that we mobilise around the dispossessed. What practical support have you offered – or could you or your parish offer? If we are all to be one, as we have been commanded, then we must be prepared to do what we can, despite the machinations of governments and the prejudice of those who would seek to spread fear and laugh at our naivety.
We thank God that we are making some progress; lessons have been learnt in the ecumenical field where different denominations are no longer seen as strangers, but companions on the way. Christian unity is no longer understood as converting ‘the other’ to ‘our’ beliefs, but as respecting ‘the other’ for who and what they are. As the World Council of Churches’ document The Church: Towards a Common Vision puts it: ‘Legitimate diversity in the life of the communion is a gift from the Lord.’ Sadly, however, we still shun difference in too many instances.
The Church of Ireland’s response to The Church: Towards a Common Vision, that this Synod will be asked to adopt, states that one of the challenges we must embrace in our ever changing world is ‘yet more prophetic witness.’ Too often we veer away from any change, thinking first of ourselves, with little attempt to see beyond the narrow confines of our self–interest.
‘How might I be affected?’ rather than ‘how might this serve the greater good?’ Unity of purpose and spirit being placed way down our list of priorities. Yet, changes for the greater good often come about when someone has the courage and the vision to break the mould – so that the revolutionaries of one generation become the visionaries of another. Unity does not equate to maintaining the status quo, neither does it demand agreement – it should never be unity at any cost.
The Archbishop of Canterbury in addressing the recent meeting of the Primates stated that: ‘The idea is often put forward that unity and truth are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true.’ He said: ‘Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love.’ So, with a generosity of spirit, which is ‘an expression of respectful love’, we must seek the face of God in those around us and not least in the faces of those, whom we’d rather not see at all.
Generosity of spirit is called for in all our dealings, that we may, on the one hand, avoid the grievances which mar the image of God, while on the other, ensuring that we don’t silence voices which need to be heard. No one ever promised it would be an easy path to tread. As members of General Synod and as individuals, it is incumbent upon us to put our best foot forward and refine our efforts, to practise what we preach, aware at all times of the grace and empowering love of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may all be one. Amen.