Pentecost comes to us this Sunday, 23 May – a time when all things are renewed; we remain, basically, the same, but with the added purification of a complete renewal. A good analogy would be when we come in from some hard work, stained with mud, our bodies tired and in some discomfort after all the sweat and toil, and we can’t wait to get out of our old, dirty and rather smelly clothes, put them to the wash and then the treat of a lovely hot shower and change of clothes.  How wonderful to feel everything new and fresh!

In the readings at daily Mass this week we have had the Gospel from St. John (Chapter 17). Some long time ago I learned the Chapter by heart, and so it is very familiar.  Within it, Jesus says some rather extraordinary things; they are very new and revolutionary and in some ways strange; however, they leave us with an awareness of the Holy Spirit. For instance, “I have finished the work that you gave me to do”. Jesus finished his work, presumably, in a perfect fashion, yet it would seem that his work was a ‘failure’. After all he was condemned to death as a criminal, he was deserted by all his followers except his mother, some women friends of Jesus and his mother, and one of his male disciples – the ‘one that Jesus loved’. This apparent conflict, involving success / failure, is just another revelation that the ways of God are certainly not the ways of the world, and that our human, and often clumsy, categorization cannot help us to understand the ways of God!  Just to illustrate the point, it is possibly the case that  many a man or woman, coming to the end of their lives, may seem not to have achieved much in the ‘eyes of the world’, yet are told by Jesus “Well done, my brother or sister, you have completed the work that God our Father wanted of you”.   I cannot conceive of a more wonderful welcome and greeting!

A second ‘mysterious’ part of this Chapter of St. John’s Gospel reads: “Now at last they know that all you have given me comes indeed from you; for I have given them the teaching you gave to me, and they have truly accepted this, that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me”.  Accepting the truth of this statement, one is left to question how could the Apostles – those of whom Jesus is writing – have behaved in the way they did, at the capture of Jesus in the Garden of Olives through to his crucifixion? It may be a great consolation to us – the followers of Jesus, two millennia later – to know that these ‘pillars’ of the Church ran away and hid, but that does not answer the question about why they acted as they did, when according to Jesus, they believed that Jesus was the one whom God had sent into our world. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit wants us to understand that our doubting – our failure to follow Jesus as we think we should, with massive mistakes in our own lives, or in the lives of others around us – are no reason to turn away from Him. No, it is part of a bigger plan in which God is working out his purposes and, just as Jesus appeared to the ‘miserable’ and ‘disgraced’ apostles, after his Resurrection, so He is continually coming to us, through ALL the events of our lives – if only we can stop and find the space, and peace, to recognise Him.

I want to point to a third part of this Chapter that is also puzzling: “Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us”. Here Jesus is referring to the apostles. Jesus goes on to re-affirm his prayer and desire for unity: “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you.”   Ultimately, this Unity is for ALL people – at first glance a ‘non-starter’ when we see how divided people are – but a start must be made, somewhere, and all Christians, of the many and varied denominations are a ‘band’ of people that have ‘heard’ the words of the apostles. In fulfilment of the prayer of Jesus, it is a very good thing for these Christians, from different churches, to come together and grow into greater unity – whatever that means?  In my view, this, surely, would benefit the whole human race, and not just the cause of Christian Unity.

Still, there remains a big challenge. I remember times when my soldier father was stationed in Trieste, Northern Italy, in the early 1950’s and all of our family were with him. He had a certain authority and position within the British Armed Forces stationed there, especially within his regiment, “The Royal Engineers”. My father, let it be said, was a soldier through and through, loyal, committed to his country and to his duty; he was also a very strong Catholic.  At a military parade – one religious part of which required all present, soldiers and guests – to pray the ‘Our Father’, we were enjoined by my Father, as Catholics, not to join in,  because the Padre would lead the prayers according to the Church of England point of view – with ‘different’ words for the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. As a young boy, I remember, my own beliefs were very much that Catholics followed the ‘whole’ truth, and that Protestants were wrong, and their only hope was to become Catholics, one day. Our task as a (Catholic) Church, in those days, was to work and pray for the conversion of England – conversion to the one, true and (Catholic) Faith.

Since those far-off days, I have met many Christians from many other denominations, often finding them to be ‘better’ people than myself, and certainly often imbued with that essential virtue – ‘love’ – which marks them as a follower of God. Add to this, the fact that I have made many friends from other Christian Churches, with whom I feel more united, sometimes, than with fellow Catholics, and the weight of evidence begins to show me just how wrong my childish beliefs were. The ‘Unity’ that Jesus prayed for, in this famous Chapter 17 of St. John, is now entering into that category of paradoxes that makes this Chapter of the Gospel so extraordinarily interesting. In this ‘change of heart’ I should add that I am not any less of a Catholic now, than I once was: if anything, I feel a stronger Catholic, but I hope, one who is less arrogant, and one endowed with a bit more of the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, guiding me in joyful dialogue with others, has enriched my life that once lacked this dimension.

It has been during the past 35 years in particular, that interest in the Unity of all Christians has become second nature to me. In fact, without forcing matters at all, the search for Christian unity has become a priority. Speaking to a local Anglican vicar, recently, he confessed to me that it was not a priority for him. Neither is Christian unity a priority for the large majority of my fellow Catholics and yet, although it is slow and difficult process to convince people to ‘put themselves out in the cause of Christian Unity’ it is a ‘given’ for me, that it will be along this path that our Churches will proceed in the future. It has often ‘struck’ me that division belongs to the past – unity to the future.

Archbishop Rowan Williams with the Pope

On this coming Saturday, 22nd May, therefore, it is a joy for me – beyond words – that we are holding, in our Church, at the request of Churches Together in Lancashire, a celebration of praise to honour the Centenary of the Ecumenical Movement. This all began in Edinburgh, at a conference held there in 1910, and now all over the world, there will be these centennial celebrations of the 1910 event. There are two for Lancashire, organised by Churches Together in Lancashire. One is at the Ecumenical Chaplaincy at Lancaster University on Friday night, 21st May. The second – and, certainly, the larger one – takes place here in Leyland, on Saturday, 22nd May – the Vigil of Pentecost. There are many who are prepared to ‘go the extra yard’ in the cause of singing, at least, and who have been practicing for the celebration of praise that will take place at St. Mary’s, this Saturday. Our ‘One Voice Choir’, supported by Churches Together in Leyland, and consisting largely of CTiL members, has swollen in numbers so that it is three times larger than usual. At the Saturday afternoon Service, we will do what so many Christians of different denominations have been doing for the past 50 years – praying together to our wonderful God, who renews us – worshipping and adoring Him together, breaking out of the barriers of distrust, ignorance and prejudice that afflicted us not so many years ago, and celebrating the liberation that comes from God which has been ours now for the past 100 years.

The movement for Christian Unity is ‘down in the dumps’, however, from what people say. Year by year, it is more difficult to get people involved in official unity activities. Despite that, I see the love and care that exists among people from different denominations in Leyland, and in other places where relationships of friendship between people of different Churches, have been established. On this level, the ‘capillary’ level – there is much ‘life’ and ‘drive’ in the journey towards Christian Unity. Our event on Saturday is an example, and, like anything that is worthwhile, and under the vision and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, time, effort, and sacrifice of self have been given, in order that this good enterprise should bear fruit.

This Pentecost, the words of Mary from the Gospel of St. Luke come to mind.  Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the person favoured by the Holy Spirit, as I reflect on the newness that God himself bestows on us. She is, actually, the model for the whole Church, as – in her – human life was given to our Saviour Jesus, and that is what the Church is meant to do, for all time, and throughout the future, to give life to Jesus for each generation by his spiritual presence among Christians.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid …. for the almighty has done great things for me”.