All sorts and conditions – Second Sunday after the Epiphany 2011

 

 

We are asked this week to pray for the unity of the Christian Church. Given how ambiguous our attitude to such unity is, it’s hard to know exactly what we want to pray for. It’s at times like these that set forms of words can help; and this morning I want to draw your attention to the prayer “For all sorts and conditions of men” which has been in the Prayer Book since 1662. In particular the middle section, which will be (I think) familiar to most:

More especially, we pray for the good estate of the Catholic Church; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

The context of this prayer is a controversy of the 17th century. The Puritan party in the Church of England disapproved of the Litany form of prayer, with its alternation of minister and people – they felt that during prayer only the minister should speak, and the people should listen and then say Amen at the end. After the Restoration of King and bishops in 1660, the Savoy Conference between Anglicans and Puritans attempted to revise the Prayer Book, to see if it could be made acceptable to the widest variety of opinion. This prayer, which was originally much longer, was intended as a substitute for the Litany, and is attributed to Dr Gunning, later Bishop of Ely. In the end, it did not prove possible to contain both parties within the Church; the puritans became non-conformists, and the Litany remained. But Gunning’s prayer, in shortened form, became a well-loved familiar text.

The experience in England and Ireland during the 17th century was of great sectarian strife, Prayer Book men against papists, and presbyterians; and everyone against Quakers. The Restoration Church was not marked by any great sympathy towards the dissenters – many godly ministers suffered great hardship. Nonetheless, this prayer is at least capable of being read as expressing a generous and eirenic spirit, probably more so than the original users felt at the time. Which only goes to show that God moves in mysterious ways, in spite of us as much as through us.

 

We pray for the good estate of the Catholic Church

It would have been all too easy to pray simply for the Church of England (or Ireland); instead it prays first and foremost for the Catholic Church, the worldwide church in its broadest sense. This includes the Church of Rome, the Churches of the East, the reformed churches, both Lutheran and Calvinist – and possibly the many small groups of the radical reformation. It doesn’t specify, it simply includes. In some circles, the word catholic has come to have a narrower meaning; here it is as broad as possible. It certainly claims a place for the church of Ireland or England within the fellowship of the Catholic Church, but not to the exclusion of others.

that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit

So much of the controversy between denominations has to do with order and governance. Should we have bishops, or not? What role do the laity play? Is the local congregation independent, or is the diocese the basic unit? Is the church essentially international, with a single human head? The prayer avoids these issues by acknowledging that the true source of guidance and governance is God the Holy Spirit. Does it also, perhaps, suggest that the explosion of diversity of form through the Reformation might itself be a product of the Holy Spirit’s “governance and guidance”?

that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth

The prayer acknowledges that many and various people profess to be Christian, and refuses to distinguish between them, merely praying that they may be led into the way of truth. This accommodates the reality that the denominations are in disagreement with each other about aspects of faith or morals or discipline. Doubtless each of us has a tendency to think that we have the best grasp on the truth, and that others would do well to learn from us. But the prayer stops short of saying that; and by including the word “all” – “all who profess and call themselves Christians” – it acknowledges that no one has a monopoly on truth, that we all need to be “led into the way of truth”. Now most of us instinctively feel that others have further to go than we have! But at least this charitable phrasing opens us to the idea that we have more to learn, and probably from other christian traditions.

and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life

The prayer doesn’t envisage unity of doctrine, or of liturgical practice, or of organisation – none of that had proved possible at the time it was being written, quite the opposite. (It doesn’t look any more possible at the present day.) So it looks for another sort of unity. “Hold the faith in unity of spirit”: we do not always agree on how to express the faith – but is there a recognisable christian spirit that transcends the boundaries? Surely there is, or at least there can be. The “bond of peace” is important here – the emphasis on peace and charity in christian life; not peace at all costs, but a determination to pursue peace and charity as well as truth. Over-aggressive partisanship can make for exciting arguments and debates and struggles, but may not be so good at discovering truth, or promoting christian spirit. In St Michan’s Church, they had retained some old posters from the end of the 19th century, when the Rector of the time would preach controversial sermons, and would be answered in his turn by the local PP. One of the sermon titles was: “Converts to Christ, Perverts to Popery”. Words have changed in meaning bit since then, of course. One wonders how much truth emerged from that debate. Our  little ecumenical prayer service this week, maybe mostly an exercise in neighbourliness, nonetheless might be of greater use than we imagine. The “bond of peace” matters.

The last few words “righteousness of life” are a reminder that the quality of our Christian profession shows itself most concretely in how we live. Here of course is another denominational minefield: one person’s christian freedom is another person’s immorality. Perhaps all we can do is to pray that each of us may be led into righteousness of life as much as into the way of truth. None of us perfect, all of us open to the guidance of God’s good Spirit.

More especially, we pray for the good estate of the Catholic Church; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

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