Faith Matters

Doing things together should be second nature to us

The purpose behind this week is to make the unity of a society of believers driven on by the love of Christ clear. Picture by ICC/Simon Mills
Rev John McDowell

PART of my Christmas reading was the biography of Clement Attlee, by the Belfastman John Bew. Attlee's post war government was responsible for creating arguably a new social order in the United Kingdom, which included free education to university level, the establishment of the National Health Service and the building up of a National Insurance Fund to be used for non- means tested supplementary benefits.

His government was also responsible for contributing to the creation the United Nations and NATO, institutions which did so much to preserve security during the cold war years and beyond. However, Bew records Attlee's acknowledgement that his government had been much less successful in its policy decisions in places where political problems were tied up with matters of ethnicity and religion - factors which they barely understood - in Israel, India and, of course, Ireland.

However, St Paul reminds us that there is an identity greater than every other and which transcends every other way of being in the world. It is an identity to which all people, societies, institutions, ethnicity and religion are relative. That is the reality which the Gospel writers call the Kingdom of God. It is an identity which was created by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, into which we were initiated at our baptism and which we have grown into through acts of faith, love and hope. It is a new creation which is in one sense mystical but in another is intensely practical for those who identify with it. It is the most permanent and concrete entity that has ever will ever exist.

In my view, the principal purpose of ecumenical endeavour is to highlight the reality of that new identity and the society which it creates. It transcends every other allegiance and tests and purifies every other loyalty - denominational, national and political. In a noble and protracted experiment that new society tried to give itself political and institutional expression in the form of Christendom. And while Christendom has largely passed away something of its spirit is deeply embedded in western society. Just as in his life Jesus of Nazareth was able to rush events to a conclusion on a world scale, so the body of the Risen Lord similarly has profoundly affected the post resurrection world in every sphere.

We need to encourage those who are involved in the vocation of politics to have in mind the values of the kingdom of God, and to convince them that an agreement or a constitution will be durable insofar as it approximates to the values of that kingdom, adjusted to human weakness and to our particular circumstances. We must convince them that political and civic society have a place for grace too.

The principal purpose behind a week such as this is to make the unity of a society of believers driven on by the love of Christ as clear as it can possibly be. I believe that we all strive towards `visible unity', but we now understand that to mean something other than institutional unity. Visible unity is at its most rudimentary level a unity that can be seen. It involves doing things together in a way that people can see. Doing things together should be second nature to us, instead of being an exercise in ecclesiastical politics.

The greatest task we have is together to proclaim the message of reconciliation of humankind to the Father in Jesus Christ. But it is interesting that St Paul makes the distinction between the message of reconciliation and the ministry of reconciliation. It is likely that the distinction grew out of his own experience. No sooner had he proclaimed the message in one place and moved on to do so elsewhere than people forgot or undermined the message and he found himself having to either go back or at the very least to write to the churches he had founded in a renewed ministry of reconciliation.

Politics is particularly complicated on an island with a history such as ours. We are not politicians (except insofar as every person in a democracy is a politician) and, in a year when we commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther, we might especially pay attention to his insistence that the public sphere is also an area in which God is active through His chosen instruments - those who have a vocation as public representatives. The job description of a politician in the modern world is impossible to fulfil, yet God still calls men and women to that vocation and calls us in ours to pray for them and to encourage them.

Last week saw the passing of Ken Whittaker, one of the most influential voices and presences in modern Ireland, a man of faith and of an independent mind. We could do with more of those. It was because his heart bled for the literal hollowing out of Ireland through emigration that he concentrated all his intellect, gifts and patriotism to finding a practical solution to Ireland's problems in the modern world.

He is probably best known as the author of Economic Development, the policy document that sketched out how Ireland might move from being the "poorest of the rich", as Time magazine once called it, to being a modern open society. We in the Churches are still struggling to work out where we fit into the pluralist Ireland that was adumbrated in that document.

Economic Development contains one quotation from a churchman, Bishop William Philbin, who was then Bishop of Clonfert, but who I remember well from my younger days in Belfast as Bishop of Down and Connor: "Our version of history has tended to make us think of freedom as an end in itself - like marriage in a fairy story-as the solution of all ills. Freedom is useful in proportion to the use we make of it. We seem to have relaxed our patriotic energies just at a time when there was most need to mobilise them. Although our enterprise in purely spiritual fields has never been greater, we have shown little initiative or organisational ability in agriculture and industry and commerce. There is here the widest and most varied field for the play of the vital force that our religion contains."

Much has changed in the intervening 60 years but there is a great deal of truth in the sentiment that there remains a wide and varied part for us to play in the civic life of this island. But that vital force of Christianity which William Philbin referred to is embodied not in any single Christian tradition but in the lives of all of those whose have a part in His new creation. We cannot do it apart. We must do it together.

:: Taken from a sermon for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017 by Rt Rev John McDowell at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh. Rev McDowell is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher and President of the Irish Council of Churches.

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Faith Matters