Grace-filled Churches

 A reflection for Christian Unity Week 2021                  

It’s funny how you end up in a particular church or denomination.
When I was a boy the Catholic priest visited my grandfather who was ill, to give him communion.  I had hoped to stay with him but the priest said to grandad –  “He’s not a Catholic!” and ordered me out of the house. I had been a regular at the Methodist Sunday School, but just before the annual Anniversary service, the teacher took away my part in it and gave it to someone else.  I voted with my feet.  Then I joined the Scouts and as they met in the local Church of England Church, I became an Anglican. I have felt ‘at home’ in the Anglican Church most of the time since.

Religious experience of a negative kind can turn people away from Church very easily.  It can also colour your judgement about other Churches.  It took me quite a few years to think kindly of the Roman Catholic Church after my encounter with my grandad’s priest. I’m sure they will be relieved to hear this but I forgave the Methodists rather sooner!

It sometimes feels like attempts at Christian Unity fall foul because every church believes that it is right and that it alone has the truth. 
There was once a Church in a town which was signposted with The Church of God. All went well for a while but eventually there was a bit of a fallng out. A group of the members broke away and set up a rival church. The sign outside proclaimed: The TRUE Church of God. Again things flourished for a while but then there was another argument and some of the members of that church left. They bought a building a bit further down the road and soon they opened their doors. This time, the sign read: The ONLY True Church of God.

It sometimes feels like attempts at Christian Unity fall foul because every church believes that it is right and that it alone has the truth.  How false is that!
The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, in his book, The Dignity of Difference, wrote this — Only in heaven is there Truth. On earth there are truths. God is the only real truth and all over the globe people are seeking to answer that profound question of Pilate to Jesus at his trial – what is truth?

Truth on earth, Rabbi Sacks says, is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. What propositions conflict is not necessarily because one is true and the other false. Rabbi Sacks. He suggests that the difference is because we are coming at something from different angles but both are only part of the truth

I believe that we can only look to God for the real answer and anyone who claims to hold THE truth exclusive of others, is bound to be mistaken.  We can only learn truth if we listen to others and share our insights with each other and, of course, most important of all, listen to God in prayer.

Because of this everyone has something to contribute to the knowledge and experience of God. No one’s perception is greater than any one else’s and the real wisdom isn’t that someone knows something absolute which cannot be disputed. The really wise person, Rabbi Sacks maintains, is one who knows all have some share in the truth and is willing to learn from them, for no one knows all the truth but each of us know something of it and it is in sharing these insights that our life and our faith are enriched and our knowledge increased.

There is much in Judaism I admire and there is much in Islam that I respect.  My Hindu hairdresser in the North taught me a lot about prayer in the family.  I love the joyful and convincing hymn-singing and biblical insights of the Methodists.  I like the ritual and devotion of the Roman Catholic Church.  I love the ceremonies of High Anglicanism; the intellectual honesty of Anglican theology; the exuberant praise worship of our evangelical brethren. 
I draw strength from Celtic insights into the sacredness of places and people; I enjoy the simple rhythm of Taizé; I find enrichment in ancient prayer forms like the Labyrinth; I adore the Orthodox Liturgy. 

I am reduced to silence by the witness of monastic places like Bec where Sister Iréné painted an Icon which breathes prayer into my home; I like the simplicity of worship in a quiet rural church and my heart soars during Anglican Cathedral Evensong and much, much more.

I find talking with Christians of other denominations fascinating.  There is so much to learn.  Within the church community I am part of, St Mary-at-Latton. I rejoice at the many different insights people bring to worship.  There is so much to share.

And God is in all that and in much, much more.  He is bigger than all our concepts of Him or He would not be God. 

Wide Vision goes with deep exploration. God is always teaching us something new. 

Evelyn Underhill (mystic and spiritual guide) spoke of all our differing expressions of faith as ‘Chapels in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit’. 
I love that.

We are all part of the Universal Church – and that’s what being Catholic means.  What gives any church real authenticity is if, in the words of Michael Ramsey, it is filled with the grace-giving presence of Jesus Christ.  Grace-filled churches have no need of labels.  They simply reflect our Lord Jesus Christ and so try to live close to God who is the giver of ALL Grace and Truth. 

[Mr G]

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