A PLEA for unity, not only among Anglicans, but across the great historical divide between Churches, was put before the tenth General Synod at its inauguration on Tuesday.
In a sermon delivered in the presence of the Queen, the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, praised the Reformation, urged Christians not to remain “prisoners of the past”, and called for unity to begin with the “big Churches”, which are already seen as one by their persecutors.
“Nothing is more important than to fulfil Christ’s heart’s desire for unity,” he said. “In many parts of the world, people are killed and churches burned — not because they are Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostals, but because they are Christians. In their eyes we are one. Let us be one also in our eyes, and in the eyes of God.”
In a post-Christian world, this unity must start with “the big Churches . . . putting together that which unites them, which is vastly more important than what divides them”. The Anglican Church had a “special role” to play in achieving unity, he said. “It must now become more and more avia media in a dynamic sense, exercising an active function as a bridge between the Churches.”
Fr Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin priest and a distinguished theologian, has held his preaching position since 1980. His invitation to the service was, he suggested, “a sign that something of this kind is already happening”. Reconciliation is one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s three priorities.
While much of the commentary preceding the inauguration of the General Synod has looked at internal tensions over sexuality, Fr Cantalamessa’s sermon encompassed division that dated back much further.
He urged Christians to ensure that the fifth centenary of the Reformation was not “wasted by people remaining prisoners of the past, trying to establish people’s rights and wrongs”. The Reformation had brought “great theological and spiritual enrichment”, he said.
Instead of ignoring this, or “desiring to go back to the time before it”, he hoped that Churches would allow “all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are free from certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies”. Justification by faith, for example, “ought to be preached to the whole Church — and with more vigour than even before.”
He went on to invoke two men historically regarded as heretics by the RC Church: Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer. He was “convinced” that, were they alive today, they would preach justification by faith in the way that he understood it, “in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves . . . [which is] self-justification”.
Since the Reformation, times had changed dramatically. “The majority of the people around us live and die as if [Jesus] had never existed. How can we be unconcerned?”
Unity was also a dominant theme in the Queen’s address to the Synod, delivered at Church House after the service. Fr Cantalamessa’s presence would not have been possible “but for notable advances” since 1970, she said.
Among the other examples of ecumenical progress she cited was the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, and the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace.
The Synod would have to “grapple with the difficult issues confronting our Church and our world”, she said. “On some of these, there will be many different views.” She urged its members to draw on “that precious Anglican tradition of unity in fellowship”.
To laughter, she thanked Archbishop Welby for “setting today’s proceedings in a wide historical context”. He had spent much of his introduction to her address reflecting on “many twists and turns” in the relationship between the Church and State, and the part played by the Supreme Governor.
He recalled how, in 1710, Queen Anne had been reluctant to allow the Convocation of Canterbury to convene, such was her antipathy. Her minister had urged her to allow it, with the proviso that: “If they prove extravagant, they hurt but themselves, for we shall pack them off to their parishes.”
He noted that Church House, opened 75 years ago by the Queen’s parents, had been damaged by bombs within three months. The new Synod was meeting “at another moment of uncertainty and conflict”, he said, and would “pray earnestly for the leaders of nations as they grapple with problems so intractable that solutions are likely to be neither simple nor quick”.
The global security crisis was prominent in the Archbishop’s presidential address, in which he reminded the Synod that it met “in the shadow of Paris”. “We will not likely ever be forgiven if this Synod turns inwards, thinking only of ourselves and our own preoccupations, and neglect that all around us is a great struggle, described recently by Lord Alderdice as the ‘Third World War’,” he said.
As theology was “at the heart of this conflict”, people of faith were called to “overwhelm extremism, not by other extremes, but with hope and love”. It was time to shun an “inward-turning, self-indulgent frame of mind”, he said.
Full reports from the General Synod will be in next week’s paper.