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/ 31 August 2014

Domkirche zu Berlin

Location: Berlin Cathedral
Date: 20140831

Micah IV:1-4. Matthew V:1-10.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”

It is moving to be standing in this pulpit at the end of a month which began for me with a solemn commemoration in Westminster Abbey of the beginning of World War I. It was especially appreciated that Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland Bishop for Oecumenical Relations, was a participant. On that occasion we recalled the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey – “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

On the first of August 1914 the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to my equivalent in Germany the Senior Court Chaplain (I am Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal as well as Bishop of London) Ernst Dryander to say – “War between two great Christian nations of kindred race and sympathies is or ought to be unthinkable in the 20th century of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace”. Three days later our nations were at war and we must confess that the war with its terrible consequences was among other things a failure for the Christian Church.

Now at the end of the month in this service we remember the beginning of the Second World War which led to six years of immense suffering for the peoples of Europe and the world and not least the German speaking peoples; years of the un-speakable horror that was the Shoah-Holocaust; years which left our continent devastated and the maps re-drawn.

A new world and a new set of international institutions were established on the ashes but what of the Christian Church. It is true that the World Council of Churches came into being, in whose life the German Churches have played such an active and generous part. But we must also confess that the Churches of Europe were overtaken by the social revolution of the 1960s and left bewildered. As we look back on all this, we cannot change the past but we do have to accept responsibility for how we remember it – the future depends on how we remember the past. A totally impartial view is a dream but honesty is a duty.

The Bishop of Gibraltar, one of the characters in the English speaking writer Anthony Burgess’s novel Earthly Powers, makes this statement – “Faith is hard to sustain unless it is beleaguered or dreams the imperial dream.”

It is the good fortune of the Christian Church in Europe that she has been beleaguered and experienced marginalisation but now is entering a period in which, I believe, she is recovering her confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ who subverts and overturns all imperial dreams. It is time for a fresh commitment to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace but also to ask in the light of the experience of the last century what such a fresh commitment might involve in modern circumstances.

Only a short time ago, social commentators in Europe were convinced, as Mark Thompson the former Director General of the BBC said in a lecture in Westminster Cathedral, that the story of God could only have one end – relegation to the leisure sector; the harmless pursuit of people with antiquarian interests. By the year of the Millennium of Jesus Christ, the influential inter-national journal the Economist actually published an “Obituary of God”. But already in 2009 the new editor of the Economist had co-authored a book entitled God is Back and if the Editor of the Economist says so we must take it seriously.

But we are right to be cautious and humble. A study of history, including Christian history, suggests that much so-called religious conviction is simply the story of a bruised and humiliated ego surreptitiously re-ascending to find comfort in a god who is in reality a projection of some part of ourselves. On the other hand, it is a dangerous world and merely invoking the great universal abstractions like peace, respect and tolerance – with which we all probably agree – does not generate one iota of the energy necessary to transform lives or to equip us to stand up to the cults of hate and unreason. There is an urgent need to proclaim that there is reliable and tested knowledge of God, who is not our creation but our creator and who has revealed himself and communicated with us through his human face, Jesus Christ. Through him there is a knowledge of God to which we can be committed by faith in a way that lays upon us responsibility for action.

On the basis of the Christian knowledge of God tolerance is far from being a mask for indifference. Christians are tolerant not because we believe so little about God but because we believe so much. There is knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ which has been substantiated experimentally in the life of the Church. God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the human face of God; he is God’s Word, his plan for the evolution of the human race embodied in flesh and blood. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has transforming and reconciling energy; his death has turned enemies into friends. We are tolerant and refuse the way of force and persecution because that is how God has dealt with us. We have tested confidence in the Bible as the supreme witness to God’s self-communication through the people of Israel and in the coming of Emmanuel – God with us.

In the remarkable dialogue between the philosopher Professor Marcello Pera and Pope Benedict XVI published under the title of Without Roots, Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, poses the question “How can Europe develop a Christian civil religion that overcomes the boundaries between denominations and gives voice to values that sustain society rather than console the individual?” He highlights the vital significance of “convinced minorities” that have discovered the “pearl of great price” and live it in a manner that is persuasive and convincing to others. These “minorities renew the vitality” of the Church as a whole as they draw on her hidden life force which is forever generating new life.

At the same time there must be an active breaking open of the silos and a new mutual openness to those who are seriously perturbed about the way we live now but yet for various reasons cannot find their own way forward in membership of the Church. Far too often we are obsessed with petty ecclesiastical issues speaking an in-house jargon to communicate only with ourselves.

We should recognise how new Europe is in its present form after the cataclysms of the years 1914-1989. Thomas Masaryk described the Europe of these years as “a laboratory atop a vast graveyard.” Our present situation is not the result of any historical inevitabilities but just one of the possible outcomes of the protracted 20th century European civil war.

Our task it seems to me is to be active partners in identifying, asserting the resources of the Christian faith as a foundation for the common values and principles of this new Europe.

The partnership between London and Berlin is very precious to me. Much has been achieved by ecumenical pioneers and institutions but if ecumenism becomes a specialism it has lost its way. Our partnership must be broadened not only to embrace more people but to serve more effectively the gospel of the Prince of Peace.

I shall mention just three possibilities out of many. I was fascinated to learn about the sustained commitment of the Berlin Mission Institute to work in China. We also have a Chinese speaking church in London and as President of the British Bible Society I have just visited China to witness some of the work of the United Bible Societies. I went to the Amity Press in Nanjing which last year produced 20 million copies of the Scriptures. There is a great need to train pastors in the Chinese context. Is there a possibility of co-operation between London and Berlin in serving the Chinese Christian Church?

Then there is the field of reconciliation. We have much to learn from the experience of Christian friends like the members of the lay Catholic organisation of St Egidio which has been especially active in Africa. We have a centre active in reconciliation work in London, the St Ethelburga Centre. At the same time the new Archbishop of Canterbury has made the development of resources for international reconciliation one of his principal themes. You have experience from which we could learn.

Lastly in the area of theological education and the formation of ministers, we would greatly benefit from a more intensive interaction with the German Church. We have founded a new embryo Christian University in London named after my predecessor St Mellitus. It is now the largest theological college in the UK and it would be good to explore a closer link with Christian scholarship in Germany.

Nicholas Boyle in his stimulating book “Who Are We Now” observed – “Since the Reformation, Germany and the German speaking world have provided some of the most powerful and influential ideas by means of which the European peoples have sought to understand themselves, after their detachment from the theology and anthropology of the mediaeval church.” Until the very eve of the Frist World War, British institutions and thought developed in constant interaction with Germany. In 1914 the largest immigrant community in the UK after the Irish was German.

The extent of the German contribution to European thought both secular and religious needs emphasising in Britain as we embark on the urgent task of developing the conversation between us about the responsibilities shared by the Christians of Europe in the new interconnected global world. Kant remarks that however little we may know about the past, we know this much for certain about the historians of the future: that they will be interested in us and in our age only insofar as we have contributed to the establishment of world peace.

There is one world and it is not endless. We have to work out how to build a global civilisation; how to work together as global citizens or retreat behind the battlements in a world of increasing conflict. Ecclesiastical systems still guard their frontiers and their doctrinal perimeters while Jesus Christ offers us a dynamic centre from which a new international reality can grow. We “are all the children of God in Christ Jesus” committed to the Gospel of Peace in word and deed.

The world is still unhealed. Who could forget as we worship here in security the suffering of Christians and others caught up in the cruel civil war which has devastated Syria and Iraq? The cities and states of the earth are still being built on relationships of dominance rather than compassion; on blood taken rather than blood given. The city of God is not built on blood taken but on the blood which flowed from Jesus Christ on the cross. There is no restored and healed world without personal sacrifice. Only if we commit ourselves to the way of the cross will we avoid creating just a new variation on the old imperial theme.

We live at a time of great promise and at the same time peril. Shall we develop in time the wisdom to use the power given to the human race as a result of the knowledge we have acquired of how to split the atom and manipulate the genetic code? The tectonic plates of global power are shifting and we need to navigate into a new multi-polar world. In this time of promise and peril the challenge for those who are called by Jesus Christ to be peacemakers is to obey his command to love and to pray down the Kingdom into the here and now. Even so Lord Jesus may we hear and obey you.

About Richard Chartres

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO was the 132nd Bishop of London from November 1995 until March 2017.

Read more from Richard Chartres

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