Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 18th-25th January 2003

17 Jan 2003

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 18th-25th January 2003 Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor to preach Homily at Evensong in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin on Sunday 19 January 2003

Most Reverend Anthony Farquhar, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor preached the homily at Evensong in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 19th January 2003, as part of the celebrations of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2003. Bishop  Farquhar has been Auxiliary Bishop in the diocese of Down and Connor since 1983 and is a member of numerous ecumenical bodies.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from the 18th-25th January 2003 and the theme this year is “We have this treasure in Clay Jars (2 Cor 4:7)”.

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The enthusiasm of the Sower of the Seed in the Gospel parable has always both surprised and intrigued me. I suppose that in these days of highly sophisticated agricultural machinery, subsidies and perhaps even basic payments for landowners are dependent on a very high level of focussed accuracy in planting crops. There is, however, something splendidly over-generous in the manner in which the sower hurls the seed in all directions. With reckless abandon it finds it way to various outlets – some of it on to pathways; some on to ground that first might on the surface appear fertile but beneath the surface is filled with stones; some on to soil where there are strangling thorn trees; some on to perfectly productive land. I am sure that no consultant in cost-effectiveness nor expert in time-management would tolerate such excesses today.

Over the past decades the seed of ecumenism has fallen on an equally wide range of soils.

Firstly we know that some can fall on the edge of the pathways. Scripture scholars tell us that these paths do not refer to the roads around the field but to the paths that had been beaten down through the field, even after the seed had been sown and before the plough had begun to do its work.

We all know only too well the paths that have been beaten down by so-called tradition. “We have always done it that way, so why should we ever consider looking at another?” So many have trodden that path that all the ground becomes impacted, hard, hostile, infertile, unproductive, so that eventually that area of pathway lacks openness to growth, to change, to life, to freshness.

And even within each single one of us there may be well-beaten paths that bring a security that comes from an unchanging and closed tradition. Security of that type can bring with it a fear of the new, a fear of otherness. It can also bring with it a beaten-down compound of boredom, monotony and apathy, with absolutely no possibility of being enriched or of making a contribution to growth. In the agricultural methods of New Testament times, the seed might land there and eventually that hard ground might even be ploughed. But by that time it would be too late, for the seed would already have been removed by birds, the agents of the Evil One.

Secondly some of the seed was sown on ground that looked good on top but not far beneath the surface lay stones and rock. The seed flourished and sprang up at once but had nowhere to take root and so was soon withered up.

The older ones amongst us can remember those earlier heady days of ecumenism. There was an excitement as inspiring documents came from Meetings and Councils, Vatican and World. They brought with them a sense of vision and expectation. Such ecumenical enthusiasm was almost becoming fashionable in many parts of the world and, in some parts at least, of our own country. The energy of those front-runners was sustained by the feeling of being ahead of the pack. Christian unity must surely come some day just around the corner. And they would be there when it would come about, not as mere spectators but as active participants. This was definitely the place to be. Yes, there will always be those who turn up for finals while those who shivered through the cold and the rain from the earlier rounds to the semi-final cannot even acquire a ticket. “Let us finish today for we want to see the end-result of Christian unity today before nightfall”.

But then they discovered that instant solutions were not available. So they expressed their frustration at the delay; firstly by telling those in their own religious denominational traditions what they should be doing and when; secondly by telling those of other religious denominational traditions what they should be doing and when; and finally by telling God what He should be doing and even dictating to Him what His timetable should be. Not for them the more measured and humbler forward- planning of that life-long dedicated ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who foretells that one day we will waken up, open our eyes and be amazed at what God has achieved over-night.

Yes indeed, some of those short-term devotees of ecumenical fashion have gone to pastures new. Statements may be made from the Four Main Churches but do we not know that there is a wider Christian picture now? There may be Pan-Christian ecumenical meetings but do we not know that in Ireland there is a multi-faith pluralist culture now? Not for a moment do I suggest that we should ignore the wider Christian picture or the wider inter-faith scenario. These are indeed all-important areas which require dedicated dialogue, understanding and prayer. But those who use them as escape routes from their original ecumenical involvement will no doubt ultimately find further escape routes from them. Yes some seed sprang up on rocky soil but did not take root and withered.

Thirdly, some seed fell among thorns but it was choked by the worries of the world and the lure of riches. Certainly I do not think that there is a financial empire to be built on the remains of ecumenical seed – at least I have never stumbled across such a pot of gold – but ecumenical growth can be caught up in a web of this-world’s making.

We in the North know only too well the damage that can be caused through an excessive overlap between adherence to divided religious traditions and party political divisions – an overlap from which you, at least in our eyes, have been spared.

Certainly, I would be amongst the first to promote cross-community reconciliation projects, but at the same time we must make sure that we do not allow ecumenism to become the tool of political reconciliation in the future, as divided religious traditions – so widely and for all sorts of historical and socio-economic reasons – became the tools of political groupings in the past. The seed of ecumenism that comes from the Christ-prayer, “That all may be one”, must not allow itself to be choked on the thorns of solutions to short-term transient political problems.

Pathways, stony ground, ground choked with thorns? This has not been very productive so far.

But some seed fell on fertile ground.

We all know of many who have shown long-lasting dedicated commitment to the ecumenical cause. Many are in front of me today. Many others are and will be gathered together in prayer in this city and throughout the world – particularly, but not by any means exclusively – in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In the language of the parable, they have not only heard the ecumenical message but have understood it – not in the sense of mere intellectual comprehension– but more courageously in the sense of standing under and shouldering the responsibilities and commitments in prayer and action that follow from it.

Many of them too were inspired in the early stages, were enthusiastic with the other enthusiasts, but remained loyal to the cause as others walked away. They are still loyally working and praying towards Christian unity. The Pontifical University of Maynooth recently acknowledged just three of the clerical ones who did that, Archbishop Donald Caird, Reverend Edmund Mawhinney,and Reverend Ray Davey, giving the citation for the last of whom was for me an enormous personalecumenical privilege. These three were clerics but so too there are many others, lay and clerical alike, to whom the same tribute could be paid.

On the international ecumenical level, I am involved in two of the Vatican’s Dialogues and Commissions and I have the privilege of working with those who are committed to the ideal of visible Christian unity and wish to break down the barriers that have been erected throughcenturies of division and mistrust.

At the local level, there are so many who have maintained their ecumenical fidelity, even after they have been personally hurt or bereaved by various acts of violence against, not just a family member of their own denominational tradition, but also against all they have previously stood for ecumenically.

These are the people who have provided the fertile soil, open to the seed of ecumenism, and made themselves available to allow it to grow and to flourish.

So those are the four types of soil on which the seed of ecumenism has been sown. There may be those who would claim that the profligate sower of the seed in the parable could have targeted his areas of sowing more effectively but let us never forget the end of the story where the harvest is yielded – anything up to a hundredfold.

And just one last point. It is an understatement to say that I have never been keen on gardening. I have three reasons for that, (a) because probably I am too lazy, (b) because I have never been able to distinguish properly between weeds and flowers, and (c) over the years I have mastered the art of using the second excuse as a cover-up for the first.

The thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, following upon the parable of the Sower continues with the parable of the Darnel and the Wheat.

The labourers were quick off the mark. As soon as they spotted this weedy darnel they wanted it torn out and destroyed but the owner had a different plan of action. Rather they should wait until both weed and wheat had grown and then it would be easier to separate and destroy the weed.

Could we take this recommendation into the ecumenical fields of today? Perhaps in our attempts to practise Gospel and Kingdom values we could be more open to allowing lots of growth.

Perhaps some day the King himself will show us that what we thought at a distance was a weed in our neighbour’s farm turns out, on closer examination, to be quite an attractive flower. In any case, it is for the Landowner King to decide.

+Anthony Farquhar
Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor