About 15 years ago I was part of a delegation to the World Council of Churches that took place in Africa. On Sunday we were all supposed to go to the cathedral together. However Jesus is not always exclusively to be found in cathedrals. Sometimes he is found in the smaller, humbler churches in villages on the outside of the city. And so I felt on this Sunday. So I went for a long walk and I found a small church on the outside of the city. The priest was standing at the door and greeted me. “Welcome, Father! It is five minutes before the mass. Will you preach?”
(This talk was given at Fatima on a True Life in God Pilgrimage consisting of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostal Christians)
I prefer more notice, but if you believe in the Holy Spirit you have to say ‘yes’.
I embraced him warmly and replied
“Yes. But tell me, what are your present pastoral problems? What is worrying you the most at the moment?”
“Oh”, he said, “that’s easy. I’ll tell you. My deepest problem, Father, bring all your experience to the issue please, is ancestor worship.”
‘Ancestor worship’? I had never preached a sermon on ancestor worship. It was not thought to be a problem in Europe. So I prayed to the Holy Spirit for help and I preached what I felt was a slightly clumsy sermon on the difference between our good ancestors and our bad ancestors.
I said: “Not all our ancestors were good people or offer a good influence. But as Christians we know the connections in the spirit are more important and more powerful than the connections of the flesh or genetic inheritance. So each of us has a range of what we can call ‘good ancestors’ in the Holy Spirit – and we know them as the Communion of Saints”.
In fact this question about the influence of ancestors is not one confined to Africa. I remembered reading about the approach a protestant missionary had taken in China. He discovered that the Catholic practice of offering masses for the dead was surprisingly effective for breaking malign patterns in peoples’ lives that were attributed to the influence of sin running down the generations.
But for that moment, the reminder that the prayers of the saints in heaven are more powerful on our behalf than the influence of relatives who shared some of our DNA on earth who may not be in heaven, was a way of turning peoples’ attention to their identity as Christians taking benign precedence over their less benign biological familial ties and influences.
But this question itself wouldn’t leave me. It remained in my head. Often this prodding presence is a sign that the Holy Spirit hasn’t finished with you. There is still work to be done.
So having returned to England, I found the question continued to bother me and demand a deeper answer… what was there about ‘ancestor worship’ I had missed?
A few days later the patterns of thought rearranged themselves in my head. It became clear to me why this was my problem as well. It wasn’t just in Africa that people were tempted to allow their ancestors too much influence to bad effect. The Church did it here as well.
Every time the churches come together we rehearse the conflicts of our ancestors. So even today the shadow of Luther and Henry VIII touch our Mass. Even today the rape of Constantinople by the western crusaders from Venice during the Fourth Crusade touches the relationship between Orthodox and Catholics. Almost all our theological divisions have been devised by ancestors who were cross with each other. So one of the questions we face today, is ‘to what extent do we continue to replay the conflicts of our ancestors divided hearts. To what extent do we have the freedom to begin a theological quest for unity fresh today; free from the pride, the anger, the politicized ambitions , the misunderstandings of our ancestors. We should be accountable only to the Holy Trinity. And our relationship with the Communion of Saints should be to ask them to pray for us.
We should not practice bad family therapy by continuing to repeat the dynamics of a broken church. And in that sense the True Life in God Messages set us free from ancestor worship and that very tired dead-end agenda.
But I have been asked to talk from an Anglican perspective. But my sense is that I come not so much as an Anglican to say things that an Anglican would say, but instead to represent the accountability of the Anglican Church to God.
For it doesn’t matter quite so much how we see God, as how He sees us. But for a moment let me say a few things about Anglicanism since they won’t be generally known.
We are not Protestants. We are reformed Catholics; in fact we had the beginnings our Vatican II in the year 1542!
It was then when we invited the Pope to give us advice rather than orders, it was then when we had our liturgy in the vernacular; and it was then, when like the Orthodox, we had married priests- which have just come to the Roman Catholic Church through the Pope’s initiative with the Ordinariate, of course.
But the Anglican Church is like a political coalition. It reflects much of the complexity of European division and history. It contains a Catholic element which is as Catholic as any Roman Catholic. We believe in the Mass, our liturgies contain prayers fro an epiclesis which invokes the Holy Spirit for the transubstantiation of the elements; the Pope has a profound place of respect and affection in our hearts. We are (or were until the year 2015) in the apostolic succession of priesthood and bishops.
But there is also a part in the Church which is effectively in spirit, Protestant and Evangelical, and another part which is Pentecostal. And it would be wonderful if I could come to you and say we have taken these diverse elements of Christianity and fused them together in love in one Church. But we have not. We are as full of pride and fear and egoism as any other Christians.
One thing that I am very aware of Anglican history, is that we have two very powerful renewal movements; well three,- the third has just begun.
The first one was an Evangelical one in the 18th century. An Anglican priest called John Wesley invited the whole nation to repent and to search a path of purity. The authorities locked him out of the churches. So he preached in the graveyards, he preached in the hills. The Holy Spirit blessed his mission so much that a new church was born. It became the ‘Methodist Church’; and it was a direct consequence of the Church of England closing its heart to the Holy Spirit.
A hundred years later the Lord gave us another chance. This time it was a Catholic revival. It was led by a priest called John Newman. Again it was about the pursuit of holiness and rooting the Church into the apostolic tradition. Again the Church closed its doors to him. So he left and became a Roman Catholic cardinal.
Today there is a new renewal movement. It is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement. And the Church is just in the middle of making up its mind whether or not it will accept the graces of the Holy Spirit. We are waiting to find out.
But I think the signs are not very good, because the Anglican Church is married to the spirit of the age. It is very impressed, like the whole of the European society, with the notion of progress – and it thinks that perhaps things will get better just because time passes and we get cleverer with the internet.
But meanwhile the kind of progress we are looking for, a progress of conversion and of holiness, is not taking place.
Actually progress, of course, is a myth. Much though I love my Iphone and technological cleverness, what we have culturally is decadence. Where can we look for progress in the Church? Let me offer a small anecdote about progress in the Church.
When Vassula Ryden came to England in 2008, she was faced, as she often is by some sceptical priests. Sometimes their scepticism led to a lack of politeness. In a meeting of Anglican and Catholic priests in Chichester Cathedral where she was introducing the clergy to the True Life in God Messages, one of them stood up and objected:
“Who do you think you are? Our theologians have been trying to progress these ecumenical issues for a thousand years.”
Vassula replied: “How far have they got?”
He looked cross, and then as he struggled for an answer, even more cross. She said something which has stayed with me to this day:
“If you would allow God to change your heart then your theological questions will change their nature as well, and you will find that what had previously been theologically impossible, would become much more manageable”.
We have failed to make any real progress with the ecumenical questions over the years. Our committees move at a snail`s pace. They don’t achieve very much. Occasionally they manage more than just being polite to each other. When Christians gather together out of duty, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which mercifully comes only once a year, they make a huge effort to recognize that the others are even there and try to be polite – but little more. Sometimes they succeed! And then they can rest for another year.
But in fact, if the human heart, if the heart of the Christian is changed, it becomes more ambitious. It’s not enough to be polite to your ‘beloved’. You want to share love with them. And the body of Christ is the body of our Beloved, to be locked in a prison of formal politeness, is both a tragedy and a betrayal of the Holy Spirit.
It is in this context of spiritual and ecumenical stagnation that True Life in God comes to us with the promise that it will both change hearts as well as changing the dynamics that atrophy the impulse of the Holy Spirit to mend the body of Christ.
It also addresses some of the theological questions that present themselves in every serious ecumenical dialogue.
Let us start for a moment by recognizing that in the Book of Genesis our sin begins by dividing ourselves from God, and division is what continues to take place from that moment onwards. The division that we experience between us and God is replicated between us and other people. But God comes in Christ to heal that division. And when Christ comes the division is healed. But it depends on how much ‘in Christ’ we are. If only a little bit of us is ‘in Christ’, only a little bit us is healed.
In my rather obscure imagination, I find myself using the analogy of the sugar lump. We can be like a sugar lump with a perverse will. If you place a sugar lump in a cup of tea – remember I’m English – then the moment it touches the tea, the tea is sucked up and taken up into the whole sugar lump.
But the perverse sugar lump refuses to allow the tea access, maybe just a little bit of a corner, because it knows it will melt into the tea and no longer be able to look in the mirror and call itself ‘sugar lump’, because it’s going to dissolve into the tea and sweeten it.
And in a way that is true also in our relationship with Christ. What should happen is when we touch him He should flood into our whole being. But we have places where we do not allow him access – where our pride bars and locks the door, or sometimes our fear, or sometimes our apathy, because we know if we open the door to this part of our life that He would change it.
So in the Church we find, of course, a divided Church, because the marks of sin are still on us. And interestingly enough it is almost as if the divided Church takes the form of the divided Trinity.
If I speak to you of the divided Trinity you should be horrified, for God is three and entirely one, and we are supposed to reflect God, but in our sin we reflect him in a fragmented way.
It is as if, -if you had a mirror which you dropped and it shattered into a hundred pieces on the floor. You may have taken the time and the trouble, if it was a very beautiful mirror, to gather all the pieces and put it back into one whole. But that the picture it gives is very distorted, for it’s a broken mirror.
The Church is like a broken mirror. But the way in which is broken is to effect a division of the nature of the Trinity. You might say some of the old traditional Churches represent the character of the Father. They bring to the world the sense of his power, his authority, his transcendence.
Some of the Protestant Churches reflect the character of the Son. They bring the intimacy, the companionship of God who becomes Man.
You might also said that some of the Churches reflect the Holy Spirit. They bring the fire of the presence of God, the spiritual gifts in their energy.
But what a shame that we have a Church which lives and reflects a divided Trinity.
What would the Church be like if it reflected the transcendence of the Father, the intimacy of the Son, the power of the Holy Spirit?
I will tell you. I’m looking at it – it is the Church brought together in True Life in God.
The whole Church, united in humility and longing for a deeper renewal and a deeper obedience.
In and through the Messages the Church is mended and we experience the whole of the Trinity, brought together in love, reflected in the unity of our traditions. And perhaps like me, whenever you go home after a pilgrimage, one looks with a certain amount of sadness at returning to a Church which reflects only part of the mirror, when we have known the joy of meeting God in the fullness of love and the fullness of the Holy Trinity.
To be simplistic for a moment – because I was advised before I spoke to “Keep it simple Father”- you might look at the Orthodox Church and say that one of its marks is an aspiration for holiness and apostolic faith; you might look at the Roman Catholic Church and say that one of its marks is unity. When the Pope speaks, he speaks on behalf of 1.2 billion people. When you look at the Evangelical Churches, one of their marks is evangelism. But what good is a Church that does not evangelize, but only has unity? Holiness and fidelity to the Apostolic witness is important but there must be evangelism too. Only by drawing together the marks of the divided churches, will the Church become as it ought to be. This is what True Life in God calls the Church to.
It is astonishing that people find this offensive and difficult.
It is almost as if you were invited to go and eat every day in a restaurant; you see a group of people, but the first group only have the hors d’oeuvre, shrimps forever.
And another group of people only have the main course. It’s filling, but secretly they long for crème brûlé and other sweet deserts.
And another group of people – they just live off meringue in the desert menu. Meringue is nice, but they miss the shrimps and crudites the hors d’oeuvre offers.
Why would you go into a restaurant and live off one part of the menu. God is so much more generous than that. He gives Himself to us as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit.
So what is stopping the Church receiving this gift of renewal and unity? We are in Fátima, so you will all have done your reading before you came here. And you would know both from the story of Fátima and from the Messages, that Our Lady calls the Church and the world to repentance.
The Church refused this call to repentance and the Second World War took place as a consequence- just as she warned that it would.
She came again to the children of Garabandal iin the early 1960’s. Always the same call: deeper repentance, more sincere prayer and the loving of her Son more deeply/
So being in Fátima we realize too that the Church can only find progress, not through its own inventiveness, or even its ecumenical theologians, but through repentance and a change of heart.
One of the most extraordinary things about reading the Messages is the effect they have on you as you read them. There is a tangible sense of cleansing. It’s almost like experiencing your heart being placed in a washing machine. When you read and pray the Messages they have a profound effect on your heart and your soul which can be felt. It’s very powerful experience.
The Messages help in a number of ways. They do solve a few theological problems which we need. They tell us about the primacy of Peter. They tell us about the importance of Our Lady. They remind us of the power of the Mass; and by the way, they tell us we must join around the altar as one Church and not to wait for the theologian to go on having endless committees, because we want to be One before the fifth millennium!
And although it has taken me sometime to really appreciate this, I think one of the most important things I can do for God is to make the Messages available to my friends. Of course they look at me as though I were more eccentric than I really am. And I think I have to make a confession to you. I’ve been a little too careful over the years, a little too hesitant. I was waiting for the right moment to introduce people to the Messages but I think I am discovering instead that God has gone before me. He’s prepared certain people to have their hearts opened, but I won’t know who they are unless I am enormously liberal in my distribution of the Messages.
And when people ask me why I am so enthused by True Life in God, I tell them not only about the experience of the whole Church, about the charism of the reconciled Trinity, about the miracles of healing and reconciliation that take place, but I ask them what they have that is better? And they look at me and fall silent, because there is nothing that is more effective in the life of the Church today than True Life in God and the Messages.
I do have something extra of my own to say about Russia which Father Eugene despite his thorough and excellent paper, did not address.
In the early 1980’s I used to smuggle Bibles into the Soviet Union, along with theology books, and medicine for believers who were sick and had no access to medical care because they were dissidents. I was caught by the authorities on one occasion. I had a nasty interrogation at the hands of the KGB. They threatened me with 20 years in the Gulag unless I gave them the names and addresses of all the Christians I had planned to visit and make contact with.
That is when I perfected my image of a bumbling, forgetful priest who could hardly remembered were he put his keys, let alone complicated names and addresses, in order to persuade them I was only a misguided tourist. So they took a ring from my finger and they accused me of being a bullion smuggler. They said I had smuggled it in since I had not declared it on a customs form. And when I said ‘but it is only a ring- with a tiny amount of gold in it’, they replied: “Do your customs officers in the UK say to the heroin smugglers ‘but it’s only a few ounces? No, of course not”, they said, “you are going to prison as a smuggler – unless you give us the names…
And the Lord came to my help – it’s a good story but rather too long for this occasion; but if I had known then that they had less than a decade left before their regime would collapse in chaos, I would have been able to look at them and say: “Your days are up, your regime is nearly finished but mine –the one I represent, is going on forever.
I could never have believed in a million years, that Russia would fall in 1989. But Our Lady foretold it, and it’s in the Messages, it happened. The Lord also says that he is going to bring a new Pentecost to the Church. Our Lady’s prophesied it, and is in the messages; it will happen. As Fr. Eugene said, one day we will wake up and the Lord will have united his Church. That’s true, but in the meantime He looks to us to cooperate, – that’s our job, that’s our calling. It is His purpose which He makes crystal clear in the Message of True Life in God. We are here to put it into practice and allow Him to work his purposes through us.