Eminences and Excellencies,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps to the Holy See and Italy,
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am glad to be here this evening, glad to be in Rome and in this fine Oratory of St Francis Xavier. I am grateful for and honoured by the invitation of Archbishop Justin Welby to preach this evening, despite the presence of many more worthy candidates! I can assure you that I do not believe that I have drawn the shortest straw.
Since I first arrived in Rome in the autumn of 1971, the Anglican Centre has always figured to a greater or lesser extent in my times in Rome. Canon Harry Smythe was the Director in those distant days. At the English College we all loved him, but as poms could not resist in making a little fun of his anglicized Australian accent. The Centre is endowed with a fine library, many of whose volumes were bequeathed to it by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. When I was researching a short paper on the doctrine of the Atonement in the thought of Archbishop William Temple, a hero of mine, I was delighted to discover that the books I wished to consult had been Dr Fisher’s. In these he had made many notes in the margins of the pages. Perhaps one day I will go back and read them again.
Forgive me if I now take you away from this place, and as if by magic transport you to a place I love, and will love forever. Let me help you on your journey. Africa is so close and yet so far; it is almost Italy’s backyard. Let us go back to 1985 when a Hollywood movie brings to the world memories of East Africa from the first half of the twentieth century. Sydney Pollack‘s Out of Africa starring a younger Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, helped by John Barry’s lavish soundtrack and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, portrayed a continent of incredible natural beauty and less attractive human folly. It showed us the Masai Mara and Serengeti with their abundant herds of game and predators, and Africa’s rich and fascinating cultures, traditions and peoples. Many fell in love immediately. So when we get to the end of the film and are with Karen Dinesen, Countess von Blixen, in what we imagine to be a very cold room in Northern Denmark, and see her pen and speak the words: “I had a farm in Africa”, we share her pain and her nostalgia for so many cherished and indelible memories. Rome and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj should ward off such melancholy, but perhaps not always!
But, indeed we are far from Denmark this evening, apologies to any Danish friends present, but in my mind neither am I in Rome. The circumstances of this Inauguration Service lead me to imagine myself in the house in which I lived for five very happy, if occasionally eventful years. I am back in the Apostolic Nunciature in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. I place myself on the top floor terrace adjacent to my bedroom, seated at the writing table I placed there or perhaps I am having a drink with my friend Canon Donald Werner, who is here to fete Archbishop Bernard tonight. I look out and across the city of Bujumbura to the waters of Lake Tanganyika and to its far shore and the mountains of the Congo, and the city of Uvira. At night there are a couple of street lights visible there, which are in front of the Catholic Bishop’s house; he can drive to see me, crossing the border in forty minutes; it would take him four hours by plane to reach Kinshasa and my colleague accredited to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
My memory recalls a scene of great peace and serenity, almost paradise, but now as then closer scrutiny reveals a different reality, for in both Burundi and the RDC there are serious political problems, which are provoking great suffering. Such conflicts are challenging, but easily overlooked in frustration amidst the numerous other issues that confront the international community today.
Inevitably, we ask how the Christian should respond to such problems. What do we have to offer? What encouragement can we give to those all over the world who are facing situations that defy resolution, conventional wisdom and common sense. What do we say and do in these dangerous times?
We find ourselves in the sandals of Moses. God has chosen him. It is not he who has chosen God. He does not in least feel up to the task, and initially overlooks two fundamental things: first, when God determines something it is not easy to convince him otherwise. So, he means it when he says: “I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave-drivers…. And now the cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them, so come, I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel, my people, out of Egypt.”
If Moses does not understandably yet comprehend the determination of the Lord, he also underestimates the impact of their encounter. And yet he is already and will become ever more the friend of God, the man with whom God speaks “face to face”, and Moses will come to understand the irrevocable character of a meeting with “I am who I am”. Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi knows a little about life-changing encounters with God!
Today, we are well aware of our limitations, imperfections and faults, and also of our sins both historic and actual. However, there is a danger that we allow ourselves to be caught in the head-lights of our own inadequacy, paralysed and incapable of action or reaction, and of indulging the thought that others are more fit for the task, perhaps even that we have had our day, and should leave things to others with new vision and ideas. But in so thinking are we not in danger of selling short, not ourselves, but Christ, and the inspirational power of his living Word and of his grace, and what of the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit and their power to renew and heal.
Glancing back to Africa, there as elsewhere it is true that our historical relations have too often been characterised by denominational rivalry, but not always. In East and Central Africa Anglicans and Catholics are proud of the witness and legacy of the Ugandan Martyrs, and in recent times we strive to work together whenever possible. I first met Archbishop Justin Welby in Bujumbura when he was working as a canon of Coventry Cathedral for peace and reconciliation in the continent’s French-speaking countries. Today, the Holy Father and the Archbishop both nourish the hope of being able to act together for the benefit of the people of South Sudan. In so doing we continue the principle of common ministry and witness embraced in Liverpool by Bishop David Shepherd and Archbishop Derek Worlock, which is summed up in the title of their book: “Better Together”.
Despite, our shortcomings and our historical baggage, we should be offering encouragement to each other, strengthening and confirming each other in all we would do for God’s Kingdom and the binding-up of the world’s wounds. Paul’s words are opportune here: “We appeal to you, my brothers (and sisters), to be considerate to those working amongst you and are above you in the Lord as teachers. Have the greatest respect and affection for them because of their work.” So, at all times and in all places we must build-up and strengthen, not weaken and knock down.
You do not need me to tell you, that our world faces today an unprecedented number of challenges on every front, no continent is excluded and safe havens are in short supply. Some may have tended to see ecumenical endeavour as a question of the Church, almost an internal Christian affair, in which our unity will be the motor for the growth or even survival of Christ’s Church. Given all we face today, given the urgency and precariousness of our situation, I would argue rather that ecumenical engagement is a moral imperative for all of us who are baptised in the name of the Blessed Trinity. We must proceed together as the one Body of Christ, not because it will nice or cosy to do so, but because we have to in response to the pressing needs of humanity.
Archbishop Bernard, you have a beautiful mission ahead of you, and even if, like Moses, you may have some doubts. I can assure that the Pharaoh round here is not very frightening. He is far from being one “who knows not Joseph”, for he and his revered predecessors have known and esteemed Justin, Rowan, George, Robert, Donald and Michael, whom the Directors of the Anglican Centre have worthily represented these 50 years or more. We will continue to work with you, as our predecessors worked with your predecessors, so that the Christian voice may yet bring the healing balm of our loving Father to our broken world.
“May the God of peace make you perfect and holy…. Safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has called you and he will not fail you.”
The Anglican Centre in Rome is a UK
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Interim Director: The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd
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