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Paul, Apollos and Cephas

I was exactly on time, which meant that in effect I was late, since I was standing in Gardenia Avenue in front of St Joseph’s church but it was mysteriously locked and in darkness.  I tried the Church Hall, where I fell in with some Line Dancing.  It has been a week of music and movement, at last Thursday’s PCC, we became entwined with an invigorating Zumba evening.  Somewhat puzzled, I knocked on the vicarage door.   Father John safely negotiated me around the dancers to a room around the back where indeed there was the ecumenical prayer meeting that I announced last week; except it wasn’t.   There had been a slip up somewhere and our hosts had forgotten all about it.  Someone I knew came up and whispered to me at the door saying, “They have forgotten; they are adoring something.”  And so they were.  We were welcomed into a time of silence where a group of parishioners led by a Priest were reverencing the Host, set in the Monstrance on an altar and which after a time was silently, reverently, carefully and prayerfully taken back to the lighted Tabernacle in the church.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was first kept in 1908 by a group of High Anglican Churchmen who were especially interested in fostering closer relations between Canterbury and Rome.  The week begins on the 18th January with the feast of “The Confession of St. Peter”, sometimes known as the “Chair of St Peter at Rome”, to remind us of both Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and of the chair or cathedra on which a Bishop sits and teaches.  The week ends with the feast commemorating the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus.  These two great and rather different church leaders bracket a week or strictly speaking an “Octave” of prayer.  In the beginning, those Anglican churchmen celebrated the Eucharist every day as a sign of their hope of a reunion of the Church.

Now of course there are divisions of practice, even within our beloved Anglican Church, let alone between the Roman Catholics and the Church of England.  In recent months, these have been brought sharply into focus by the debate about women’s role in the two denominations.

Paul, in our reading this morning, says, “What I mean is that each of you says ‘I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos, or I belong to Cephas.’”   It is clear that these labelled, stated and identified divisions are hurtful to him and he believes damaging to the fledgling church.  In some ways we could take heart from this letter.  There have always been differences of opinion and theology and it is the case that the Church (with a capital C) moves forward, by which I mean closer to God’s intention, by the exploration of these differences.  At any point, church members, each of us, church leaders and whole churches may hold different views about the interpretation and weight given to the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason that inform our liturgies and practices.  As Augustine said in his “Confessions” “I believe that I may understand” or more often it is put as “theology is faith seeking understanding.”  And that feels healthy.

What it seems to me is not healthy and what I think Paul is warning us about is that these divisions become defining and cause us to name ourselves as being of Paul or Apollos or Cephas rather than concentrating on what keeps us together, our love of God, the teaching and sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ and the presence among us of the Holy Spirit.

So I was pleased that late as I was, that I was invited to join, not a specially constructed evening of prayer that would encompass some safe middle ground, but that we participated in a time of worship that was meaningful to Deacon Jim and his congregation and that allowed us to approach and gain some small insight into the Catholic understanding of the holy elements of communion.  It is by listening, by sharing our thoughts and seeking to understand one another that we can best avoid the labels that divide us and indeed so much of our society.

Let us pray:

The collect for the week of Christian Unity:

Heavenly Father,
You have called us in the body of your son Jesus Christ
To continue the work of reconciliation
And reveal you to the world
Forgive us the things that tear us apart
Give us the courage to overcome our fears
And seek that unity that is your gift and your will.

Amen.

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