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Healing our Divisions

3rd Sunday after Epiphany BCP

22 January 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

On Tuesday I went to a lovely 70th birthday party for a piano teacher friend, who has occasionally given me lessons, over the many years I have known him. We met at the Canford Summer School, where Peter still teaches. He arranged a kind of musical soiree (at St. John's, Waterloo) - with the birthday boy playing a simple Mozart piece, and thereafter accompanying an oboist, a clarinettist, a fine bass, a gifted violinist, plus a short movement from Elgar's Piano Quintet, and three of Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder. There was time for a glass or two of champagne and cake after the music making, during which I met a lovely lady called Unity who is an artist. What a fabulous name (the first Unity I have ever met) and what a wonderful person.

Unity Spencer is a hugely energetic vibrant and engaging lady and we talked, in the too brief time we had, mostly about Quakerism and her association with the St. Martin's Lane Meeting House. The significance of her name, and meeting her on the eve of the start of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, only occurred to me later in the week. Now it seems she was a little godsend, and I look forward to reacquainting myself with a tradition I sampled only in a surface way, as a student on a parish retreat at Charney Manor near old house owned by the Society of Friends. I certainly felt a spiritual rapport with Unity, and I hope we will meet again, and that it might open the possibility of drinking more deeply the spiritual gifts of the Friends.

There is a lot we are unable to do on a structural level to bring Christian Unity closer, and, heady years of high hopes have been followed by frustrating fragmentation, not only between, but amongst and within so many Christian traditions, not least our own. But all of us can follow up links and connections with friends of different traditions and learn from them, and they from us. Cardinal Kaspar who is the senior Catholic representative for Ecumenism, was at a conference ten days ago in Durham. The various theologians and church representatives looked at an area of fresh energy around the idea of what they called "Receptive Ecumenism". The Catholic sponsors of the meeting suggested that the primary question for each community should be "What can we learn, with integrity, from these others?" Rather than "What must they first learn from us?"

Working as Ecumenical Adviser in the Stepney Area of this Diocese allowed me the wonderful privilege of meeting various representatives of many denominations - though I met no Quakers. That is maybe why I was so enchanted to meet Unity Spencer this week. It turned out her older sister too had enjoyed the glories of the Canford Summer Music School, and it was her sister who was the link with the birthday boy, Peter. It also turned out that both women were daughters of the artist Sir Stanley Spencer, who as a young man painted a picture called 'The Centurion's Servant' which is currently on display at the Tate Modern. In his painting, today's gospel story is brought up to date, as Spencer sets the scene in the maid's bedroom in his attic, a room which he too never entered. The servant is portrayed as a young man who looks like the artist himself. Apparently Stanley Spencer heard strange voices coming from the room, which he later discovered was only the maid talking through the wall to another servant. The biblical story is related to his own experiences, which included kneeling in prayer at church, and Cookham villagers praying (as if in church) around the bed of a dying man. The prayer book today gives us two miracles - told in rapid time by St. Matthew, and chosen to enforce the theme of Jesus' identity - making him manifest. Jesus heals by touching the leper, and then by speaking a word on behalf of the servant. The narrative about the leper is borrowed from St. Mark's version of the same story, and is reduced to bare essentials…devoid of the strong emotions mentioned in Mark. This is followed again by a similarly brief, and more concentrated account than in Luke, of the healing of the centurion's servant (or maybe even his son). A gentile soldier, probably stationed in Capernaum, the centurion may have been in the service of Herod Antipas as a leader of mercenary troops, or he might have been a customs official or the equivalent of a policeman. He is clearly more concerned about his household than himself, and pleads on behalf of a desperately sick man. Jesus' response, (suggested by the syntax) might better have been translated as a question: 'should I come and heal him?' The centurion's reply is these days adapted and used in the Catholic liturgy immediately before receiving communion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." The centurion's faith in the power of Jesus' word to be effective casts Jesus as messiah in the same light as God himself. The soldier may have been thinking of Psalm 107:20… 'he sent his word, and healed them'. There is a directness, an honesty, a humility and sheer confidence which is a mark of true faith. Even Jesus was amazed. By contrast Jesus then proclaims doom over the reluctant Jews.

There are only two occasions when the gospels tell us that Jesus marvelled, or was amazed - astonished. Both times are related to faith. Mark 6:6 tells us 'he was amazed at their LACK of faith' which prevented him from performing any miracles among his own people at Nazara. And then today the faith of the centurion amazed the Lord: 'Not even in Israel have I found such faith'. In our own lives, I wonder what there is to amaze, to astonish Jesus? Our abiding faith, or, in spite of all appearances, our unbelief? I guess we regularly settle somewhere between the two…lacking the risk of faith to welcome the word God speaks to us, and which heals.

Sadly, in spite of huge progress on the ground, there is equally not much evidence at an institutional level of the sort of faith required to bring full and visible unity in the Christian Church…I can hardly imagine a gospel account of our own times recording astonishment from Jesus at where we have got to. Speak the word, and we shall be healed of our divisions. Or, taking a cue from Unity Spencer and the silence of Quakerism - listen, hear the word, and we shall be healed. Either way, we need faith that amazes and astonishes both the world and God himself.
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