Recent Sermons: Prof. Allen Brent, Pentecost Octave Evensong

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Prof. Allen Brent at Blackfriars, Oxford, Wednesday, 30th May (Wednesday in Whitsun-week), 2012

Readings: Pss 147-150 OT Wis 9:1-18 NT 1 Cor 3:1-23

ST PAUL, in our New Testament reading, addresses the Church at Corinth divided into warring factions. One group claims Paul and another Apollos, but Paul is insistent that the Church’s foundation, the base of her unity, is Jesus Christ. Yet he will also insist that such divisions are not to be disregarded, that each group should go its own way with mutual respect. The Church is the Body of Christ and as such is the Temple in which the incarnate God dwells. In holy rage Paul cries out that he who destroys God’s temple, him will God destroy. Schism is sin because it injures the body of Christ’s holy temple: it evokes a deeply spiritual intuition of revulsion at a desecration. It is a deep emotion that we feels especially when we adore the Host, true body of Christ, and receive Christ’s Benediction.

But the Catholic Church through her history has had a lesson to learn about how that unity can be preserved in the context of human passions and emotions, in which the individuals love to choose and see their own individual paths unaided by divine grace, and unsupported by the community of faith, the consensus of the world and of the ages. The Catholic Church as founded by Christ would require the grant of a special, Petrine ministry of a figure who would, exhort, challenge, argue, convince, and reconcile, by showing a shepherds love and care with which he would hold together the unity of Christ’s Temple and Body against all the human tendencies to divide and sunder his Body into so many schisms.

Christ’s promise to Peter, to be the Church’s visible foundation, ‘the rock on which I will build my Church’ against which the gates of Hell would not prevail, was of a Peter pointing to Christ as the foundation of his Church. The foundation was not of a man alone, with all the temptations of power and autocracy, but a man who confessed ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,’ a man to whom this revelation had been divinely given: ‘Blessed art thou Simon son of John, for flesh and blood had not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.’

As Newman saw, Christ’s statement was a prophecy to be fulfilled in the unfolding of the history of the early Church in which the latent Petrine ministry was to be actualized in the living life of the Church. The road to Nicaea and its aftermath leading to Chalcedon had seen the breakdown of the claim that the unity of the Church would be achieved by the mutual recognition by bishops of each other’s life and teaching, and by the grace of their consecration and individual formation. In the words of the later, ARCIC, conversations, the theory was that they would not do apart what they could not do together in fundamental matters of faith and morals. This was the principle of koinonia, of fellowship between the dioceses and their bishops that constituted the visible, sacramental bond of unity of Christ’s Church. Yet on the road to Chalcedon, when those who said ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos’ were replaced by those who were ‘of Arius,’ ‘of Nestorius,’ or ‘of Eutyches,’ there was no consensus, no united episcopate, no securing of the koinonia or fellowship preserving the unity of Christ’s Body.

And so it was that at that Council, with human hearts failing them through fear, in doubt and perplexity, with all the human passions and emotions of bishops seeking power and pre-eminence, the Roman delegates arrived from pope St Leo, with his famous tome, those Chalcedonian Definitions that were to define the orthodoxy of East and West, whether of our continuing Catholic Church, or indeed those Christian bodies that divided from us at the Reformation. And Newman was to describes what then transpired as one voice after another was heard proclaiming ‘St Peter has spoken through Leo’:

… not that, for the moment, the multitude may not falter in their judgment,-not that, in the Arian hurricane, Sees more than can be numbered did not bend before its fury, and fall off from St. Athanasius-not that the crowd of Oriental Bishops did not need to be sustained during the contest by the voice and the eye of St. Leo; but that the deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against such portions of it as protest and secede.

It was in this scene at Chalcedon that Newman saw the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to Peter that he regarded as a prophecy now fulfilled, as the assembled council at Chalcedon the cry was heard: ‘St Peter has spoken through Leo.’

But Leo was exercising supreme spiritual authority in utter temporal weakness. This was the Leo who in 452 persuaded Attila not to sack the city, not with armies that he did not possess but with a few of his clergy. It was a temporally weak pope who had exercised this supreme spiritual authority.

Newman saw in Leo’s exercise of that supreme spiritual authority the fulfillment of what Christ had promised St Peter. Here was the Petrine ministry without force of arms or temporal jurisdiction. Leo as a pastor exhorting, arguing, persuading, consoling, and reconciling could, by his divinely given ministry, secure the unity of Christ’s Temple and Body and foster and protect by his care the destruction of disunity.

The 16th century revival of episcopacy without Petrine primacy was finally and recently to have failed as the Anglican communion splintered internationally and nationally into a number of schisms.  What were we to do? And what did you expect a Pope to do when we approached him? What did you expect Pope Benedict to do?

We came to the Holy Father in the perplexity of troubled hearts. We were heirs of the Oxford Movement, that movement in the Church of England that Newman himself had helped to found. We sought to fulfill and have fulfilled its aims in our generation. We had been ordained in a Church of England whose object then had appeared to be of gradual but definite movement towards full, corporate union. We accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church on the unborn child and the culture of death, on the character of the ordained ministry, on the true character of consecrated sexual relations between a man and a woman, entering into the high calling of sharing with God in his creative activity. Indeed it was Catholic teaching itself that was the reason for our conflict with what were then our fellow Anglicans.

And how did you expect a Pope to respond, a man only human like us all, with human failings, but with a grace and an authority divinely committed to him, to exercise the ministry of Peter as shepherd of all Christ’s flock? How did you expect the bishop who, at his enthronement, at the High Altar of St Peters, had raised his eyes through the columns of Bernini’s baldachino and read Christ’s words to him whose ministry he bears: ‘Simon, lovest thou me…. feed my sheep.’? Did you think that he would simply reply ‘Its all too expensive for us, and anyway it will mess up our ecumenical relationships and discussions. Go and make up your differences with your archbishop of Canterbury, none of this has anything to do with me’?

But this was not a Pope’s reply, this was not the reply of Pope Benedict. He was true and faithful to the grace entrusted to him in exercising his pastoral ministry, fostering in love the whole church in unity with its bishops as successors to the apostles. The Holy Father instead opened his arms in welcome as a shepherd, and under the protection of Almighty God, and strengthened by the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Blessed John Henry Newman, exhorted and entreated us to return to the full unity of the Catholic Church, giving thanks for the fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer the night before he suffered that all his people would be one.

We give thanks for our unity in Christ that the Petrine ministry has secured for us.


This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.