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The Unity of the Spirit

An address by Fr John Slater

12 October 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

As many of you will be aware, on Wednesday of this coming week our archbishop has a meeting with the Primates of the different provinces of the Anglican Communion. He has summoned them to Lambeth to discuss the deep divisions which have emerged over different attitudes to sexual ethics. Some of the bishops have threatened to leave the Communion if it does not take what they call ‘a biblical view’ of these matters. As the archbishop himself has said, it would be a pity to divide over an issue about which Jesus himself says not one word in the Gospels.

But what is ‘a biblical view’? I suppose they mean a narrowly fundamentalist interpretation of the scriptures, but Anglicans have not, on the whole, interpreted scripture in a such a way. Since the writings of Richard Hooker at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Anglicans have chosen to interpret scripture in the light of the Church’s tradition and in the light of human reason.

Today’s Gospel is a marvellous example of how Jesus was clearly not a fundamentalist himself in his own interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. There is a lot in the Old Testament Law about the importance of doing no work on the Sabbath day. But here is Jesus breaking the Sabbath in order to heal a sick man. Elsewhere, he comments that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Faced by the law of the Sabbath and the needs of the sick man, Jesus makes a judgement about the priorities of the situation. I suspect that the bishops meeting in Lambeth this week will be faced by the challenge of making a similar judgement.

There has been one lone voice among the African bishops who has dared to speak out with a different voice from most of his colleagues. The Archbishop of Cape Town has asked that the American bishops be allowed to make their own decisions about a second order issue like sexual ethics. He points out that perhaps the African bishops should have different priorities which might include dealing with poverty and famine in Africa, trade restrictions on African food exports by the United States, the arms trade, and the widespread problems posed by AIDS.

The Anglican Communion is not so much a single Church but rather a federation of autonomous provinces. Presumably the provinces can tolerate differences in secondary issues so long as there is agreement about essentials. Those essentials were defined in the middle of the nineteenth century in what is called the Lambeth Quadrilateral - four marks of the Church which Anglicans see as essential building blocks on the road the Church unity. These four essentials are first the Old and New Testaments, secondly the three creeds - the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, thirdly the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and lastly the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

When we can agree on so much it does seem strange to threaten division over so little. But of course, the debate highlights how differently Christians can interpret the scriptures. The Bible has been the subject of scholarly study for over two hundred years; and while some Christians are happy to see the different biblical texts put into their historic context with different nuances and meaning, others prefer to believe the texts literally. This is a very hard circle to square.

If only the bishops meeting at Lambeth this week would begin their debate with a celebration of the Eucharist using our readings for this Sunday. St Paul writes to the first generation of Christians believers - and what does he want them to achieve? Unity!

I therefore the prisoner of the Lord beseech you,
that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith
ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness,
with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love;
endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the
bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit,
even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and
Father of all, who is above all, and through all,
and in you all.

Words for us all to think about in the week ahead.
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