Choral Evensong in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston–Micah 4:1-7, John 9:1-41

I bring you greetings from the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. I am delighted to be with you here in this cathedral church, to renew a friendship of more than thirty years with your Vicar General, and to make the acquaintance of Bishop Lopes, about whom I have heard so many fine things.

We are here during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is an ecumenical observance that is now more than 100 years old. Its origin can be traced to a Catholic Franciscan religious community, the Graymoor Friars of the Atonement, whose founder established the community while he was yet a priest in the Episcopal Church. Very early on, the Graymoor Friars discerned working toward church unity as their primary charism. One aspect of their apostolate is to operate the Centro Pro Unione in Rome, and it was my privilege to attend a retreat there in October 2016, part of which was hosted in that facility.

It’s not hard to develop a passion for reconciliation among Christian communities, because the case for it is so compelling. Only recently, I wrote to my own diocese: “The number of distinct ‘brand names’ of Christian bodies is staggering. It numbers in the tens of thousands. Given the manifest will of Jesus in his prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21), this reality ought to be scandalous beyond imagination. Yet, it isn’t. Instead, we have normalized a situation that we don’t see any hope of changing.”

There has certainly been substantial progress. Within my lifetime, Catholics and non-Catholics were discouraged from even entering one another’s church buildings, and now, here we are—at least one Anglican, although I suspect I’m not the only one here, and a community of Roman Catholics who worship in the Anglican tradition, full-throatedly singing the praises of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in this marvelous choral evensong.

Yet, that very progress, which sometimes feel like it came too easily, has led us to a place where we’ve come 80% of the way with 20% of the effort, and now we have only 20% of the way left to go, but with 80% of the effort required, and we don’t know that we have the energy within us. It feels daunting—indeed, at times, futile. It’s tempting to declare partial victory and leave the whole thing alone.

We can’t do that. Jesus doesn’t want us to do that. If I may be so bold, Our Lady of Walsingham doesn’t want us to do that! The imperative of full reconciliation means that we remain in each other’s faces, on one another’s radar screens. We keep talking. We keep praying. We don’t give up. With a veritable Churchillian resolve, we never give up. If the difficulties seem insurmountable, we keep on keeping on. We resist the temptation to paper over differences. We speak the truth as we understand it. We emphatically do not “agree to disagree.” We keep saying, “Yes, but …” We remain urgently patient, and patiently urgent. We persist. Because nothing is more important. Because the integrity of the gospel itself is at stake. We live and breathe a hermeneutic of ecumenism. Again, as I recently wrote to my own diocese: “A hermeneutic is a fundamental interpretive framework, the default lens through which we mentally process the stream of data on a particular subject. At the close of 2018’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my hope is that I, and anyone whom I might influence, will adopt a hermeneutic of ecumenism in what we say, in what we write, and in how we pray. This implies a default preference for ecumenism in our thinking and in our ecclesiastical discourse, the way we talk to one another. It means we train ourselves to unfailingly ask the question, What are the ecumenical implications if we do X or Y? And if doing X or Y will have an adverse ecumenical impact, we probably then decide not to do X or Y, even if, in our own internal life, it seems right and good. This is what it means to ‘seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions’ (BCP, p. 818).”

We have a stirring reading this evening from the Prophet Micah. He writes to an Israelite community in exile. They have hung up their harps and left Jerusalem to sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon. They didn’t see how they could possibly be who and what God intended them to be. But his words are words of encouragement:

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

and we may walk in his paths.”

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more;


I was immediately struck, when I read this, how, in this enduring era of major schism among Christian communities, dating back to 1054 with the East-West split, with a booster shot beginning 500 years ago in what is known as the Reformation—this long season of schism might fruitfully be seen to correspond to Israel’s period of exile: We cannot really be who and what God intends us to be. We lean forward into our reconciled future, grasping toward the vision of God’s holy mountain, confident that this is what God wills.

So, even as we are in a season that some have called an “ecumenical winter,” we await the inevitable coming of spring, in God’s good time. We walk this period of exile together, as pilgrims to God’s holy mountain, daily repenting, daily laboring to beat our polemical swords into plowshares of communion in the holy things of God. I experienced this as a sort of enacted parable, as I walked the ancient pilgrim route across northern Spain to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela year before last. As you might imagine, there aren’t many Anglican churches along the Camino—actually, none. On many occasions, I attended Mass in a cathedral or parish church or monastery chapel, with a lot of the singing, perhaps not surprisingly, in Latin, using either traditional plainsong tunes, or music in the Taizé tradition, and, as it happens, I’m pretty comfortable in liturgical Latin, so I substantially helped carry the singing at times. When it came time for the sharing of our Lord’s Body and Blood, of course, I remained in place, and gratefully received what turned out to be some very rich experiences of spiritual communion. Still, there was pain—pain at not being able to take it to the next level of visible sacramental fellowship.

That pain was put into perspective a little later in the journey, as I encountered a group of pilgrims from the Canadian prairie. I called them “Judith and Her Companions,” because there was one woman and four men. One of them, Judith’s brother, in fact, joked with me that they were “reverse Mormons.” Well, it turned out that the one making that joke was the Catholic bishop of Saskatoon, and Archbishop-elect of Regina. He and I talked shop for several miles over the course of three or four days. As it happens, he’s the Catholic co-chair of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCUM), and he and I have several friends and acquaintances in common, so … small world. It was a rather precious time of communion in the gospel, and of mutual support and encouragement in ministry. And it is precisely encounters like that one that fuel my passionate hermeneutic of ecumenism, because while I know that Archbishop Bolen and I will not in this world stand at the same altar and celebrate the eucharistic banquet together, my prayer remains that our successors may one day do so.

Now, circle back with me, if you will, to the conclusion of that passage from Micah:

I will assemble the lame

and gather those who have been driven away,

and those whom I have afflicted;

and the lame I will make the remnant.

The lame who have been driven away. The lame will make the remnant. The lame will be the ones who experience the holy mountain of reconciliation. The lame will be the ones who get to use those new plowshares that used to be swords.

And, holding that in mind, we get this from John’s gospel, from the familiar story of the man born blind that we usually encounter in Year A in the Lenten lectionary cycle at Mass, one of the cornerstone texts of the ancient catechumenate. After all the drama had died down and Jesus is debriefing with the main characters, he says:

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

Now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains. Blessed are the lame in Micah, and now, in John, apparently, blessed are the blind. I know these readings come simply from the office lectionary for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, but could there be a God thing going on with how they fall right during a time when we’re renewing our energy around unity? Could it be that ecumenism is the work of the lame and the blind? Could it be that the necessary ecumenical attitude is one in which we recognize and name our own brokenness, our own incompleteness, without one another?

It’s easy for churches that have a natural interest in things like sacramental integrity and historic church order to really want to work things out between one another, as I’m sure most Roman Catholics and Anglicans do. And it’s not like the sticking points between us are not very, very sticky. But what about, say, a community of snake handlers in West Virginia who can say without reservation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and baptize new members in trinitarian Name, and who may never have heard of the Definition of Chalcedon, but might not have any objection to it if you lay it out to them? How are we incomplete by not being in communion with them? Can we, lame and blind as we are, aspire to reach even that far? Can our preferential option for ecumenism include even them? If so, we will need to acknowledge that, without them, we, with whatever progress we make or don’t make among Roman Catholics and Anglicans, we will remain broken, incomplete, until they, and—who knows?—maybe even their snakes, are with us singing the eternal Sanctus at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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