Bishop Roy Warke, gave a sermon in Our Lady & St David’s Church in Naas, Co. Kildare. This Ecumenical Service took place on 20th January to mark Church Unity Week 2009.The Service was attended by members of the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church congregations in Naas along with Catholic parishioners from Our Lady’s and St. David’s.


Full Text of Bishop Roy Warke’s Sermon

At the outset may I thank Father McDonnell for his invitation to speak at this evening’s ecumenical service. For those who sometimes express impatience at the progress of ecumenism it is good to reflect on how far we have in fact come in, say, the last fifty years. However, it is not inappropriate that I should begin this evening by posing a question.

Where now does ecumenismstand onthe ecclesiastical richter scale?

In posing that question I’m reminded of a radio programme from the B.B.C. popular many years ago – ‘Any Questions’. It had a siinple format. A panel of experts responded to questions sent in by listeners. One permanent member of the panel was Prof. C. E. M. Joad, a philosopher and a real character, who had coined a phrase that became part of colloquial conversation. No matter what question was asked he prefaced his answer by saying, “It all depends on what you mean by … ” And so this evening as a follow on to our initial question we might well respond. “It all depends on what you mean by ecumenism.”

The word itself is a Greek word (oikoumene), meaning ‘the whole inhabited world’, and so when we refer to the ecumenical movement we are referring to something that is of more than local or even national significance. Ever before ‘globalization’ became an in word in economics, the Church in its diverse totality had this global aspect as part of its being. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the ecumenical movement in these terms – “The movement in the Church towards the recovery of the unity of all believers in Christ, transcending differences of creed, ritual and polity.” The interesting element in that definition is that the ecumenical movement is regarded as the attempt to recover the unity of all believers in Christ. Not to create something new, but to recover something that had been lost. We can see evidence of this in the mutual acceptance of baptism within our traditions when it involves water and performance in the name of the Trinity.

Now having said that it must be acknowledged that from early on the Church was prone to division. The ‘split’ has been as common in Church life as it has been in Irish political life. One has only to read 8t. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to realise this (1 vv 1 0- 13) “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement, and that there should be no divisions among you … For it has been reported to me … that there are quarrels among you … What I mean is that each of you says, I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos, or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Christ. Has Christ been divided?” There’s a passion in those words which speaks of an unhealthy situation in the infant Church.

Time would not permit to enumerate the many occasions when the Body of Christ has been rent asunder over the centuries. The split between East and West in the 13th century and the Reformation period in the 16th century simply highlight the fissures that have all too often appeared and are all too evident when one looks out on.the complex ecclesiastical scene in the world today. It is this complex ecclesiastical scene that the ecumenical movement is called. under God, to address today; because the question, the rhetorical question, put by Paul two thousand years ago, is as relevant today as when first uttered – “Is Christ divided.”

The modern ecumenical movement really dates from a missionary conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, and it reached a significant growth point with the inauguration of the World Council of Chur~hes in 1948, an event that had been postponed because of the 2nd World War. Initially the Roman Catholic Church was not a part of the movement, despite the vision,the courageous vision, of a man such as Father Michael Hurley, here in Ireland . . It was not until the pontificate of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, and especially the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, that the Roman Catholic Church became a welcome and significant player in the field of ecumenism. Bearing all this in mind we return to our initial question, “‘Where now does ecumenism stand on the ecclesiastical richter scale,” and
the follow up, “It all depends on what you mean by ecumenism,” because ecumenism is not a uniformly understood term.

For some it is merely thought of in terms of spiritual unity, as for example when we pray together or study the bible together. However, although not unimportant, this is at the same time rather nebulous and does little to address the differences that divide Christians in matters of doctrine and practice. I other words what are known as Faith and Order issues are not high priorities for those who think: in terms of spiritual unity.

Some others think: of ecumenism in terms of a federation of Churches, which exist separately but occasionally pay deference to the quest for unity, as for example during the week of prayer for unity. And we all might in honesty ask what evidence of ecumenical outreach exists in our congregations throughout the remainder of the year. Do we simply retreat into the safety of our own denominational shell? Our presence here this evening, if it is to be something more than our annual payment of lip-service to ecumenism, should lead to a commitment on our part to work, whenever possible, to promote unity; to use whatever opportunities may arise; and indeed to create opportunities, because that is often what is required if the ecumenical movement is not to become stagnant.

A third approach to unity is, to use a commercial expression, to think of it in terms of takeover, and that is often the case where there is a ~ominant partner in the merger, as is the denominational situation here in the South of Ireland. Ecumenical activity can be inhibited especially at the local and national levels where this is the case.

A fourth approach is to think: in terms of growing together. It is achieved by applying a principle that was enumerated at a conference of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in 1952 at Lund in Germany – that of doing together everything that conscience would allow, and of building on each step taken, however tentative. We see this approach being implemented in some hospitals where there is a hospital chaplaincy team as distinct from individual chaplains working in strict isolation.

And so in terms of one’s possible approach to ecumenism we return to our original question, ‘where now does ecumenism stand on the ecclesiastical richter scale?’ Again, it all depends on where one locates ecumenical activity -local, national or international level. As one now retired from the active ministry my impression is that relations at the local level throughout the country are good and positive, with many joint activities taking place, although at times these tend to be supported by a limited number of enthusiasts. But it must be stressed that unless ecumenism is firmly grounded at the local level it has little hope of progress.
Nationally in this country the ecumenical movement fmds visible expression in the Irish Inter-Church Meeting of Church leaders and representatives which grew out of talks at Ballymascanlon dating from the early 1970’s. However, those involved at this level speak of ‘a quiet period’; perhaps not a recession, but nonetheless a diminution of enthusiasm.

The exception to this is the annual conferences at Greenhills and Glenstal Abbey, and the working relationship that has developed between the leaders of the four main traditions. Internationally the ecumenical movement is traversing choppy waters at the present time. On the one hand documents from the Vatican reaffmning the exclusive nature of their position have produced a negative reaction from other Church bodies in recent years, while on the
other hand the ordination of women to the priesthood and the consecration of an open homosexual,Bishop Robinson, in the Episcopal Church of America have produced a sizeable negative reaction, not only within the Roman Catholic Church but from many within the Anglican Communion also.

And so where now does the ecumenical movement stand on the ecclesiastical richter scale? This evening I have touched only briefly and inadequately on some of the factors that relate to that question. But whatever one’s answer may be there are at least three fundamental factors what must be borne in mind.

The fIrst is that ecumenism can only be found and developed where there is equality, particularly a recognition of the validity of the ministry of those involved in the ecumenical pilgrimage. Otherwise an ‘us and them’ mentality is created. Indeed of all the ongoing issues to be resolved this comes very high on the agenda.

The second factor is that the focus must always be on Jesus Christ, whose body the Church is, and the question posed by st. Paul must at all times be the primary one, “Is Christ divided?”

The third factor is that despite the obstacles and the road blocks encountered on the ecumenical highway, if the Church, in its broadest interpretation, is to be true to its calling as reflecting the mind of Christ, then it must continue to respond to the prayer of Our Lord shortly before his crucifixion, ”That they all may be one.” In other words ecumenism is not an option it is an imperative, as was succinctly expressed by Hans Kung, the Roman Catholic
theologian, who himself had to grapple with the implications of ecumenism, “To be a Christian is to be an ecumenical Christian.”

It would seem inappropriate to conclude this evening without making reference to the historic event that took place in America today. May I place it in the context of a personal anecdote. Some years ago I had the privilege of attending a large student conference in Ohio State University at which one of the main speakers was Martin Luther King. It was shortly before he delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington. To be an ecumenist is to be a dreamer. But just as Martin Luther King’s dream was fulfilled, against all the odds, on Capital Hill today, with the inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States, so we must go on, not only dreaming, but also working for the day when the prayer of OurLord, “That they all may be one,” will also be fulfilled.