Each year on 4 November, we observe the Day of Prayer for Anglican–Roman Catholic Reconciliation. This year, as the Anglican and Catholic dioceses of Melbourne both celebrate their 175th anniversaries, these prayers have a special significance.
Last month, on Sunday 9 October, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli joined the Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Justin Welby, at a special Provincial Choral Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral to give thanks for the 175th anniversary of the foundation of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior archbishop of the Church of England and lead bishop of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The evensong—part his official visit to Melbourne—was attended by church leaders and representatives of fatih communities from across Victoria, as well as Anglican bishops, clergy and representatives from Anglican parishes, schools and agencies. At the end of the service, Archbishop Comensoli pronounced the benediction, along with Archbishop Welby and the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Rev. Philip Freier.
Archbishop Welby began his sermon by reflecting on the origins of the Anglican and Catholic dioceses in Melbourne, which were both established 175 years ago on 25 June 1847. ‘What an extraordinary adventure it must have been’, he said, to travel so far from home and all that you had known in order to plant a diocese on the other side of the world. ‘It must have felt terrifyingly insecure. On what do you rest such an adventure? On what do you rest your hopes?’
The answer can be found Psalm 107, he suggested: ‘You rest your hopes on God, who is worthy of thanks.’ When we look back, he said:
We start by not just seeing the people but seeing God, who underpins and built this mission. God who was here before and will be here for all eternity, long after this world has passed, long after we’re long gone and forgotten … It is so easy, looking around, to think that somehow this is the work of our hands, this is the work of our forebears … It’s easy to think that we did this, but God did this.
Addressing Archbishop Comensoli, he acknowledged that this year marks the 175th anniversary of two dioceses, established on the same day. A celebration of our shared history as dioceses in Melbourne, he suggested, shouldn’t just focus on buildings and other achievements, extraordinary and dramatic though they might be. Quoting the words of a popular hymn—‘Nothing in our hands we bring, simply to your cross we cling’—he pointed to the reliance of Melbourne’s earliest Christian communities on God: ‘They brought nothing with them except trust in the unchanging faithfulness of God.’
Psalm 107, he said, contains the key to such trust: ‘His work is worthy to be praised, and his righteousness endures forever.’ We serve a God who is not only worthy of thanks, but one ‘who is capable of deliverance, of rescue.’ Referring to the first reading, he said, Jeremiah—‘that cheerful character of the Old Testament’—is speaking at a time of ‘desperation and desolation’ (Jeremiah 30.1–9). God promises to deliver the people of Israel, ‘not just make things a little bit better’.
‘He says to Israel and to the people of Jerusalem, I will bring you back. I will save you. I will deliver you ... I will give you your rightful place.’ This message, Archbishop Welby said, ‘is one that we too need to hear. For who can deliver us—us the Anglicans, us the Church in its broadest sense, including Rome—who can deliver us from our past?
‘For our past has so much in which there is shame. So much in which, in the dark of the night, we say to ourselves, I wish they hadn’t done that. I wish they’d been different. I wish they’d understood the world as we understand it today.’ Acknowledging the displacement and mistreatment Australia’s original inhabitants, he said, ‘I wish [the settlers] had come with the Good News of Jesus Christ lived as well as spoken; shared as well as imposed. I wish there had not been lost generations. I wish our society was fairer, when so much of it originated in the life of the Church.’
He also expressed regret for the sectarian spirit and division between Anglicans and Catholics in the early days of both dioceses. ‘Thank God we’ve moved on from there’, he said, noting that he counts Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, Archbishop of Westminster, as one of his closest friends. (‘We speak every time there is a crisis—which means in England at the moment about hourly,’ he joked.) ‘I wish we had not split in the 16th century. Who can deliver us from a church which in the United States alone has 36,000 denominations? Who can deliver us? Well, the answer is: God can.
‘If God can wrench the people of Israel from the hands of the superpower of their day … if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead, God can transform our Church—and I mean the whole thing.’ God, he said, ‘can bring us together and offer us not only forgiveness but restoration, to be once again a light, salt in society: forgiven, transparent, full of integrity, united, a blessing to our society, a hope for the lost, a strength for the weak.’
When we reflect on God’s mighty works, he said, ‘we must not ascribe them to ourselves … And when we look around at the uncertainties and agonies of this world … we need not fear because God is the one who delivers, saves, forgives and re-establishes. It is not in our hands; it is in the hands of God’—a God ‘who calls us to holiness, obedience and integrity of relationship; who makes it possible.’
Quoting Psalm 107, he reflected on how nice it is ‘to be known’. As the psalmist says, ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’ The way God knows us is not just surface knowledge, he said.
God looks at you and sees the real you—not the you [that] you put on in church or in a pulpit, but the absolute, inner you that in the depths of a bad night you suspect might be the real you, and of which you are deeply frightened. And God knows you and sees who you are—each person here—at the depths of who you are and loves you unremittingly and calls you to change.
‘God’s Church around the world is to be those who have been converted, and are converted daily—to use a phrase of St Benedict—those who are leading a new life with a new centre, whose thankfulness is to the God who is worthy of thanks, whose hope is in the God who can deliver anyone, and does deliver everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.’
Drawing on the second reading (2 Timothy 2.19–26), he said, ‘God is the one is who is capable of transforming his people, and creating a people who are there to transform the earth in which we live—to tackle those things that threaten our very existence’: climate change, war, the ‘intense selfishness of some nations over against others, our aggression, our narcissism’.
The characteristics of this new, transformed people are described throughout the New Testament, Archbishop Welby said, quoting Paul’s advice to Timothy again: ‘Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels’ (2 Timothy 2.22–23).
Describing the great diversity of backgrounds and experience among those who gathered recently in London for the Lambeth Conference (an international meeting of Anglican bishops)—‘people from the hills of Papua New Guinea through to the canyons of Wall Street’—he asked, ‘Is it any surprise that we have different views about what life is about within the Anglican Communion, let alone across the global Church?’
Nevertheless, ‘God calls us to be united—not unanimous, united—and to learn to disagree in profound love.’ One of the most striking aspects of what the New Testament says about our relationships, he said, ‘is that for every one time there is talk about particular forms of behaviour, there are ten where there is talk of how we should relate to one another, and it is in love.
So after 175 years, how do we look forward? We look forward in love, in hope and in joy. Not because of ourselves … The great works of God have created what is around us, and we lift the name of God in thanks. We look around and we see the consequences of where we went wrong, and we call out for help to God, who will deliver us. We see the world of the future, the secularisation, the violence, the fears … and we are able to hope. Because if, as one, we seek to serve God, to reconcile with each other, to love and bless the world on which we live, God is powerful for deliverance ... And for that reason, 175 years is not only a time of thankfulness but a time of hopefulness.
Photos courtesy of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
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