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Mary Tanner

Co-Presidente del Consiglio Ecumenico delle Chiese

Dear Friends it is a delight and a privilege to have been invited to this meeting by the Community of Sant Egidio, a Community I so much admire, and to be asked to contribute to this particular theme with such a distinguished panel. I bring greetings from the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, The Reverend Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

‘Unity : and love of the poor’ – each panellist has approached our given theme differently. I’m going to interpret unity here as the visible unity of the One,  Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church- that unity which is surely intended to be ‘sign’, ‘foretaste’ and ‘instrument’ of the unity that God desires for the whole of humanity. Constitutive of Christian unity is surely love of the poor, a commitment expressed in words of faith, words that turn into costly sacrificial actions. It must be so for that is what we learn in Holy Scripture is God’s way for God’s people.

 In the Hebrew Scriptures God chooses a poor, enslaved people and shows them that their vocation is to be a ‘contrast people’, a people, given to acts of justice (mishpat) and righteousness (zedaqah), expressed in caring for the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the stranger. It is not just that Israel’s God has a concern for the poor but Israel herself is to live with that same concern for the poor. It’s not just that poor people are to be given generous aid, but that the social system that produces their poverty is rejected in toto.  (This is explored in a wonderful book by the Jesuit theologian, Norbert Lohfink.)  God challenges the nations by creating a people as a contrast –society. Then, when Jesus began his ministry, we see in two key texts in the synoptics, his Gospel is one that is good news for the poor. ( Matt.11.4-6 and Luke 7.22-23).

In the picture of the Jerusalem Church in Acts we can already see, in nascent form, certain necessary characteristics of unity and ecclesial communion. The foundation of this unity is life with the Father, in Christ, through the power of the Spirit. Visible communion is entered through baptism, nourished and expressed in the celebration of the one Eucharist. There is a mutual giving and receiving of spiritual and material gifts, not only between individuals but also between communities, a life in solidarity with the poor.  ‘All who were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as they had need’. Acts 2.43. 

From the beginning one of the characteristic marks of Christians living together is loving care for the poor – that concern for the poor that was a constant theme through the Hebrew Scriptures becomes now the vocation of the early Church. Unity will never be authentic, never credible, unless it issues in service to the poor, unless it is lived out individually and as communities. We are called to be one, a unity that finds expression in together binding up wounds, setting captives free, feeding the hungry. Unity and love of the poor are inseparable. As separated Christians learn to return together to their common foundational Scriptures we cannot be deaf to the call to unity, a unity lived out together in service to the poor. We are called to inherit together that vocation to be a contrast society.

The moment that I began to get hold of this at a deeper level, my own moment of disclosure if you like, came in 1982 in Lima, Peru, at the meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC – an unlikely context you might think. We were completing what is perhaps the most important ecumenical document of the ecumenical century – Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. There were some ecumenical giants in the room: Walter Kasper, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenburg, Desmond Tutu, and you, your Eminence, a young Daniel ….At the moment when the Orthodox Moderator, Nikos Nissiotis, asked if the document was ‘mature enough to go to the churches’, the members stood up in silent prayer, perhaps sensing the significance that this document, the result of almost 50 years work, was to have for the churches in the years ahead. I remember in that moment looking out of the window. I saw we were staying in a beautiful oasis with a stream running through our Garden of Eden, with its flowering trees and shrubs. No sign here of the drought that the country was experiencing. I saw that we were enclosed in our oasis by a high barbed wire topped fence. Outside the hills of Peru went up steeply. Where the green scrub  gave way to the barren hills, there were a few half built shacks where the poor of Lima eked out – God knows how- some sort of existence. I understood in that moment that unless what we were doing in our comfortable, enclosed oasis safeguarding our life giving sacramental gifts of baptism, Eucharist and ministry had something- no everything - to do with that life of poverty and deprivation out there, we ought to give up the ecumenical search for convergence and consensus in faith that convergence and consensus that we believed was required for the visible unity of the Church. In that moment of silence I began to understand that it’s not simply that the unity of the Church and the love of the poor go together. But that there can be no true, no authentic unity, that does not issue in and flow out into loving service of the poor. In a powerful meditation at the end of our meeting the Jesuit theologian Father Samuel Ryan, reflecting on the stark contrast of the few living in the affluent suburb of Mira Flores and the vast majority of the population living in cardboard suburbs with no water, challenged us: - ‘How much of what we have seen and heard has entered our discussion and our understanding of visible unity ….how much has disturbed our agenda and customary set of smooth convergent theological words?  This question’ - he continued- ‘persists for me. I can hear the thirsty children playing in the middle of the garbage in the slums. … What difference did our coming to Lima make to our discussions, to our theological sensitivity, to our understanding of Christian unity?’     

Well it had made some difference to our understanding of unity in one Eucharistic communion. It is not surprising that the most often quoted passage from the BEM Eucharist text is this:

The Eucharistic celebration demands reconciliation and sharing among all those regarded as brothers and sisters in the one family of God….All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ….As participants in the Eucharist we, therefore, prove inconsistent if we are not participating in the restoration of the world’s situation and the human condition. E 20.

The unity of the Church, focused in the sharing around the one Table of the Lord is inseparable from our vocation as Christians together to go out together to love and serve the poor. That’s why we pray at the end of each Eucharist – ‘send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory’. There is a liturgy after the liturgy and a liturgy before the liturgy, a life we offer up in our Eucharistic thanksgiving. We may be deeply committed to the visible unity of the Church ( a unity in the apostolic faith, in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and a single ministry in apostolic succession, supported by conciliar instruments that enable us to discern and teach together with authority)  but unless this life is all of a piece with our concern, active and sacrificial concern, for the poor then it will not be authentic unity- not unity in the perspective of that biblical vision – not unity in Christ’s way.

And this is where the ecumenical movement has so often been betrayed, even by its most ardent supporters. The search for agreement in faith on those things ‘sufficient and required’ for the restoration of visible unity, has so often been divorced from what we used to call the ‘life and work’ agenda- the activist agenda for justice and peace, with its acts of care for the poor.

Since the coming together in the formation of the WCC of the doctrinal conversations of Faith and Order and the Life and Work agenda for action, there has always been a tendency to tear the two agendas apart. The doctrinal work has been seen by the activists as abstract, unrealistic, irrelevant to life. The life and work agenda often accused of being simply the world’s agenda. Ecumenists have not been good at asking what they can learn about the visible unity of the Church from acting together in service of the poor now which can support and confirm the insights of the doctrinal discussions. Nor have they been good at understanding that we could be united in faith and sacraments but without costly service of the poor that would hardly be authentic unity. The authenticity of Church unity is not judged by general, religious, institutional or merely human criteria but by its faithful witness to God’s promised kingdom of peace and justice.

In our unsettled ecumenical context today what seems to me most needed is a passion for the visible unity of the Church that holds the two agendas together in a way that our doctrinal discussions show us that unity in faith, sacraments and ministry and unity in action for justice and peace and care of the poor belong inextricably together. And action together requires us to receive together the divine energy, the gracious gifts of the Spirit which are given to us in sacramental unity.

Of course, I know, there are already wonderful actions of Christians together in the service of the poor through ACTS Alliance, the recent coming together of aid agencies. I have seen in towns in England Christians together caring for Asylum seekers in the middle of the worst of winters and caring together for the elderly when state systems break down. Only a few weeks ago Christians together responded with healing work in the midst of the riots in some of our inner cities. And I marvel at the care for the poor which is woven into the fabric of the lives of those in the Sant Egidio Community with their openness to ecumenical friends. We need to ask ourselves - what does all of this service of the poor together now tell us about the unity, the visible unity of the Church, that God desires for us to live in and for the world?

Perhaps the most important thing it tells us is that in caring together for the poor and needy we come to understand that in giving we are the ones who receive. We receive from those with whom we are learning to work together, those from different ecclesial bodies. We learn a new form of receptive ecumenism as we open ourselves to receive from their traditions and we offer gifts from our own tradition. And above all we learn that we are the receivers of gifts from those to whom we give. And here we surely grasp the most important insight of all about unity  –  about unity that is grounded in the mutual giving and receiving life of love (perichoresis) that flows between,  Father, Son and Holy Spirit - Trinitarian unity.

My hope for the ecumenical movement of the next years is that it will re-discover the inextricable link between unity in faith and unity in action and that each will enlighten and give energy to the other. If we can re-discover this we may be able to offer together a more attractive and motivating portrait of the unity to which God calls us. I hope that those who think that if only we could get our doctrinal consensus right, all would be well, and those who think that if only we could act together now, all would be well, that both will come to see that the agenda for the visible unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church demands both action for the poor and marginalised now as well as the discovery together of sufficient agreement in faith so that we can confess together in word and in deeds. Why does it sound so obvious and so simple but has proved to be so hard to hold together in one ecumenical movement?

The theme of the next Assembly is: ‘God of Life: lead us to justice and peace’. A powerful prayer. I pray – ‘God of Life: Lead us together to unity with justice and peace’ – ‘unity in love of the poor’.