The Sermon at the Signing of the Agreement in Nidaros

Service to celebrate the signing of the agreement.

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway 1 September 1996

Address by The Most Revd Richard Holloway,
Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church

It is an honour as well as a joy to be present here in Nidaros Cathedral to celebrate and inaugurate the historic Porvoo agreement that commits us to a deepening fellowship and to new steps on the way to visible unity. We give thanks for the agreement between our churches that will be solemnly signed in the Eucharist today. There is certainly much for which to be grateful, but we must not forget that what we do today, significant and heart-warming though it is, is what St Paul would call an earnest the first instalment, of a greater thing to come – the full, visible unity that is God’s will for the Church. So let us rejoice for what has been already accomplished, but let us not deny ourselves a twinge of holy impatience for the greater thing this day promises, the future inauguration of the Episcopal Church of Europe, which will itself be a foretaste of that great gathering up of the fragments of Christ’s broken body into the unity for which he prays to the Father.

One of the benefits that I hope this day will bestow upon the Anglican churches is the rediscovery of the radical nature of the doctrine of justification, a doctrine particularly treasured by the Lutheran churches and preserved by them as their special offering to the coming great Church. The doctrine of justification by grace alone, though it is developed and proclaimed as central by St Paul, is not a Pauline invention, a despairing projection of his own hopeless search for perfection; it is at the centre of the message of Jesus, particularly in Luke, where the broken-hearted love of the father rushes to meet the returning son and pours forgiveness and grace upon him before he has time to utter his calculated act of repentance. This sublime doctrine has never been popular in Britain, particularly in England. Pelagius, after all, was British. In her fascinating novel, The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West puts these words in the mouth of a Russian:

The English want a prescription for social order and union with God means nothing to them. So they pretend that this is what religion is for: to teach men and women to be moral. But we Russians know that religion is for the moral and the immoral. It is the love of God for man meeting with the love of man for God, and God loves the vicious and the criminal and the idle as well as he loves the industrious and the honest and the truthful and the abstinent. He humbles himself to ask for the love of the murderer, the drunkard, the liar, the beggar, the thief. Only God can achieve this sublime and insane relationship.

But the doctrine of justification by God’s unconditional grace is about much more than our moral failures. It applies not only to our personal sins, but to our structures, our ideas, our theologies, our ecclesiastical systems. We are not justified by any of these. Like everything that is human, they fall under the judgement and mercy of God. The theologian of our era who best recognised this was Paul Tillich. In the preface to The Protestant Tradition, he writes:

The step I made in those days was the insight that the principle of justification through Faith refers not only to the religious-ethical but also the religious-intellectual life. Not only he who is in sin but he who is in doubt is justified through faith. You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking or by a sacrifice of the intellect or by a submission to strange authorities, such as the doctrines of the Church and Bible. You cannot and you are not even asked to try.

In the Porvoo statement we make much of the emerging consensus on the historic episcopate that values it as a sign of the unity and continuity of the Church. These are careful words which we all welcome, but they do not acknowledge the shadow that has hung over debates about the nature of Christian ministry down the centuries. In the tradition in which I was trained bishops were thought of as much more than signs of unity and continuity: they were held to guarantee the essential nature of the Church and the validity of its ordinances, they afforded us an apostolic certainty that justified the claims we made about ourselves. Others might declare our orders to be absolutely null and utterly void, but we knew that we possessed the righteousness that came through the unbroken chain of apostolic succession, not as a metaphor, not as a potent symbol of continuity, but as a hard empirical fact, a law, that placed us in the major apostolic league. We were episcopal pelagians. We justified ourselves by the pipeline theory of grace, rather than by the glory of God’s insane generosity. If we are going to be honest about episcopacy today, we have to acknowledge that some of us have treated it as an idol that justified us and that its practice has reflected the standards of the rulers of this world as much as the example of the servant lord, who warned us that among the Gentiles the great make their authority felt, but that it shall not be so among you. Of course, it has been so among us, which is why so many churches have rejected episcopacy, with its un-Christlike tendency to pomp and self-importance. The episcopate as we understand it today in the churches that have signed the Porvoo Agreement leaves no room for these monarchical models. For us it is a ministry of pastoral oversight exercised in personal, collegial and communal ways and it belongs to the whole Church. Our churches are synodical churches; our bishops are now bishops in synod; our idea of episcopacy has evolved under the prompting of the Holy Spirit who guides us into the truth we never possess in a way that justifies us: we are justified only by the grace of God that continues to purge the Church of the Idols it makes to console itself in the loneliness of the life of Faith.

Today we are beginning to glimpse the outline of what a kenotic episcopate might look like. It is intrinsic, not extrinsic authority that commends bishops today; it is the quality of their leadership that counts, not the office they hod; it is their ability to articulate the purpose of the Christian community that matters, not their place in the pecking order. We are moving in the right direction, but we still have far to go. The practice of the episcopate may be personal, collegial and communal; the theatre of the episcopate is still monarchical and hierarchical. We are too fond of the intricacies of address and title, with our Most, Right and Very Reverends; we are too bound to be badges of office, with our mitres and crosiers; and the more splendid our titles and the more gorgeous we look, the more cautious we tend to become. Being signs of unity and continuity gives us the perfect excuse for not upsetting anyone. St Martin of Tours said that bishops came in two forms, shepherds and fishers: shepherds cherished the flock, but fishers launch out into the deep; they push the boat out from the shore; they have a prophetic as well as a pastoral role. The Anglican episcopate has rarely been prophetic, though there have been several splendid exceptions. I pray that the Porvoo agreement will embolden us all to speak more daringly to the times, as our European homeland faces unprecedented challenges.

Thomas Merton, in a letter to Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet and member of the socialist resistance movement during World War II, talked about the need to undermine this comfortable and social Catholicism, this lining up of cassocks, this regimenting of birettas. I throw my biretta in the river. That has given me an idea. It is rumoured that when the bishops of the Anglican Communion come to Canterbury for the 1998 Lambeth Conference we are being taken on a cruise up the Thames. I am starting a movement to persuade the bishops to bring their mitres with them and throw them into the Thames as a sign of our commitment to a new understanding of episcopacy. Maybe the bishops of the Nordic and Baltic churches would like to join us for this mass drowning of the mitres, those symbols of prelatical pomposity, so that together we can move into a simpler, more Christlike understanding of the Church.

I pray that what we do here today will help our churches to conform more joyfully to the dangerous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Sprit is one God, now and for ever. Amen.