Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Celebrating the World Council of Churches’ 59th birthday

This Thursday, the World Council of Churches will turn 59. Happy Birthday to it!

To coincide with this celebration, today the Macedon Anglicans and the Mount Macedon and Riddells Creek Uniting Church people worshipped together at the Church of the Resurrection in Macedon. Rev’d Brad Billings, the local Anglican priest, presided at the Eucharist, and I preached.

It was lovely to gather together, and after the pain of division at Bossey it was absolutely wonderful that we could share Eucharist together. (I’ve written before about how much it hurts to live with people for five months, to come to love them, and to be unable to gather round the table together.)

What everyone seems to be insisting on calling “the return match” will take place on the first Sunday in November, when I will preside at Eucharist and Brad will preach.

Today made me feel very happy about ecumenism. At Bossey, Konrad Raiser talked about the next stage of the ecumenical journey being less institutional and more local, and I think we’ve started that here.

And in case you’re interested (but don’t feel obligated) I’ve attached my sermon.

 Hebrews 11:29-12:2

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is writing to a tiny band of first-century Christians living on the fringes of the great Roman Empire, experiencing struggle and loneliness, mocked by the surrounding pagans, trying to persevere in their faith. In order to encourage them, he provides his readers with a summary of their history; a description of faith as it’s always been demonstrated by the people of God. He gives them a list of their heroic ancestors to show them that whatever they’re experiencing, they’re not alone.

In last week’s reading from this history we heard the story of our ancestor in the faith, Abraham. This week, we get more of the list, beginning with the Israelites who fled Egypt, and then Joshua’s generation. One interesting inclusion in the list is Rahab the prostitute, who’s probably the Rahab who also makes it into genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Apart from Sarah, she’s the only woman named in this chapter, and one commentator suggests that she’s there to shame the Hebrews into faith – if even a prostitute can show faith, how much more should these Christians be able to. I think that she’s there rather as a symbol of hospitality, a woman who showed outstanding courage in receiving the Israelite spies and hiding them from the king of Jericho, a woman of peace in a time of war – someone whose sex life has nothing to do with anything.After Rahab, we have the list of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel: four judges, one king and one prophet-priest. Commentators don’t really know why these particular six people are listed, although they agree that the choice probably wasn’t random. I would have replaced Barak with Deborah, since Barak only led Israel at the command of Deborah. And the story of Jephthah is not a pleasant one, since he kills his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord in response to a rash vow. But then, I’m not the author. One commentator suggests that these people might have been popular heroes of the time. Another suggests that they were deliberately chosen as a mixed bag, because hearing only of impeccable examples of faith might have discouraged the Hebrews rather than encouraging them.

After naming these people, the author then turns to the activities that our faithful ancestors undertook. At first, we get a list of triumphant, successful outcomes of faith. They “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”

Then we have a list of those whose faith apparently did not lead to a successful outcome, whose faith was demonstrated by faithfulness when time was hard: those who were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented, wandered in deserts and mountains, and lived in caves and holes in the ground.

Some of these stories come from the Maccabean period; others could come from any time in Israel’s history when guerrillas fought against the Greeks or the Romans or Herod the Great. The reference to people being sawn in two could have referred to Isaiah, who according to tradition died this way.

In between the list of the triumphs and the list of the sufferings we have something that includes both, women who received their dead by resurrection – probably referring to the two women whose sons were raised by Elijah and Elisha.The author gives two pictures of the life of faith; one full of triumph, the other of tragedy. I find that first list, which includes in its examples of success the conquering of kingdoms and being mighty in war, difficult. It isn’t my first image of what a life of faith looks like. One commentator writes: “To those who always draw a direct correlation between faith and hardship, the first portrait is not of faith but of compromise; why else would they fare so well.” I don’t consciously make a direct link between faith and hardship, but I do tend to lean that way. And I imagine that anyone who thinks that faith automatically leads to well-being would find the second list, with its description of suffering, as hard to swallow as I find the first list. The author doesn’t care. He doesn’t imply that one life of faith is superior to another. He just reports on what has always happened. For some faithful people everything goes well and they triumph; for others, faith is shown in their endurance. Both groups live lives of faith. The author offers both examples to the Hebrews, showing that whatever happens to them, they’re not alone. Whether they experience triumph or tragedy, others have been there before them.This is a vigorous list of great ancestors in the faith. And yet, the writer says, all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised. Not because there was any flaw in their faith, but because “God had provided something better”. That something better is, his readers know, Jesus. And the coming of this something better, Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, means that these heroically faithful ancestors are not, without us, made perfect. We’re all part of one long chain; an unbroken cord of faith that stretches from the beginning of time to the end; one created as faithful people, generation after generation, hold fast to each other and to faith. These valiant ancestors are not perfected without us, just as we are not perfected without them.

And so these exemplars, these heroically faithful ancestors, are now gathered around the Hebrews, and around us, as a crowd of witnesses. Suddenly we’re no longer in Israel’s history but at a Greco-Roman stadium. We’re on the race track; they’re cheering us on from the stands. Our ancestors in the faith are the previous runners in a relay race. They’ve finished their part but their race can’t come to an end without our finishing the final lap.

I want to talk this morning about a particular group of our ancestors in the faith, some members of that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. It’s providential that we, Anglicans and Uniting Church members, are worshipping together today, because in a few days the World Council of Churches, of which we’re all members, celebrates its 59th birthday. On the morning of Monday the 23rd of August 1948 the Council was born, as 147 churches declared: “Christ has made us his own, and He is not divided. In seeking Him we find one another. Here at Amsterdam we have committed ourselves afresh to Him, and have covenanted with one another in constituting this World Council of Churches. We intend to stay together.”

I was lucky enough to recently spend a semester at the Council’s Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, which has reinforced my commitment to ecumenism and made me a fervent fan of the World Council. So, to celebrate its birthday, I want to add a little to the history of the faith that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews has given us, and name some more heroic ancestors. And since today I’m a guest preacher in an Anglican Church, I want to name two outstanding Anglicans,

The first is William Temple, Archbishop of York from 1928 to 1942 and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to his death in 1944. He played an important ecumenical part from his early life in the Student Christian Movement, through his leadership of bodies that preceded the World Council of Churches including the World Conference on Faith and Order and the International Missionary Council. There is a wonderful story told by Bishop Berggrav of Oslo. He described living under guard in his cottage during the Second World War, with a local woman bringing him a bottle of milk every day. One day she slipped up the kitchen window before the guards saw her. Berggrav said: “she whispered to me in a hurry: ‘My husband listened to London yesterday evening, and he heard the Archbishop of Canterbury pray for you, bishop!’ Then the guards arrived and took her away, but what a difference with me! No longer left alone, but taken into the fellowship of Christian brethren, even in Great Britain. This moment is my deepest experience of ‘Ecumenism’ as a reality.”

The other is Dr George Bell, who was the Bishop of Chichester from 1929 until his death in 1958. Bishop Bell was one of the pioneers of the World Council of Churches, and acted as Chairman of its Central Committee. He was also an ally of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany, and passed messages from Bonhoeffer to the British Government about the plot against Hitler.[7] It’s interesting that after the war a secret Gestapo document was found, which stated that the influence of the ecumenical movement on German church life was so worrying that an agent should to be placed in the World Council of Churches in the Process of Formation, which was based in Geneva. The Nazis were scared of the ecumenical movement, and part of the credit for that must go to Bishop Bell.

These men were committed to ecumenism because they believed that a united church is God’s will. They were also aware that a divided church is one that cannot fully preach the gospel. Bishop Bell pointed out that while Christians are divided they’re in no sort of position “to suppress the evils of nationalism or to correct injustice in the society around them.” Archbishop Temple said that, “While we show ourselves to the world only as divided, we alienate men from [Christ]. Only as we unite to present Him to men as the One Lord of life, our life and theirs, can we be true witnesses to Him.” This is the rationale of ecumenism. Our unity is God’s will, it was Jesus’ prayer on the night before his death, and it is our witness to the reality of our faith.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” to us. One of those weights, one element of out sin, is our division. Unity, our ability to acknowledge in each other the signs of the true church, to recognise each other’s ministries and to celebrate the Eucharist together, is one of the stages along the way of the race we are running.In the Uniting Church we often talk about being in “an ecumenical winter”, in a time when the impulse of ecumenism seems dead, and churches are retreating back into denominationalism. It is easy to be discouraged. But we are surrounded by a great crowd of ecumenical witnesses, men and women who maintained ties across denominations as Christians in times of war and in the face of persecution. Encouraged by William Temple and George Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eivind Berggrav, let us continue to run the race set before us, looking to Jesus, who prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one.And let us celebrate what we have already achieved. Today, we will share the Eucharist together. This is no small gift. Thanks be to God.


August 19, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry


  1. That’s interesting… so the Anglicans don’t have any issues with you presiding for the ‘return match’? I’ve heard from some interns that the fact that they aren’t yet ordained has caused some ‘interesting’ ecumenical issues around such things. Sounds like you have some very cool neighbours in your local oikoumene.

    Comment by Caro | August 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. I asked Brad that, and he said that when the Anglican congregation visits us they’ll just follow our customs. If the UCA says I can preside, they won’t have a problem with me presiding in a Uniting Church.

    It might be different in an ecumenical service or if I was to preside at the Anglican church.

    But Brad and I also agreed that there was no need for me to start the service by saying, “By the way, I’m still a lay person”.

    Comment by Avril | August 20, 2007 | Reply

  3. Yes, lots of Anglicans are very pragmatic like that. I was able to preach and to preside at eucharist in Cooperating parishes in Gippsland a number of years before the Anglican church agreed to ordain women because they were in cooperation with the Uniting Church and I was ordained by the Uniting Church. They would not, however, call a woman minister to one of these parishes until after their diocese had agreed to ordain women.

    Comment by Judy Redman | August 21, 2007 | Reply

  4. They’ll just make sure the Bishop doesn’t find out… it *would* be an issue at Emmanuel, but again, Bishop.

    Comment by Heidi | August 23, 2007 | Reply

  5. It is interesting that you are talking ecumenically. I am an Anglican from Sydney, formerly from North Quensland born of a Presbyterian mother. My father was a former Roman catholic. I work as a lawyer in Sydney, in legal consultency and much of my work is in tying in the Holy Bible into the Australian Constitution. It is fascinating work. If what I am saying is correct, the true ecumenical institution in any community is the “court”. ( see Psalm 92 verse 13.) I have a special interest in Romsey because I have grandkids there, whom God greatly loves. The only problem is that Jesus Christ has been driven out of the Courts, and they have been turned into a den of theives. Where is that whip again? I want Him restored to His rightful place as central to the proper functioning of society. You appear to have the same goal.

    Comment by Peter Gargan | August 24, 2007 | Reply

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