A sermon preached by The Most Revd Dr. Peter Carnley AO. Anglican Archbishop of Perth and Primate of Australia at the Cathedral Church of St. James in the Archdiocese of Seattle at vespers on Monday 16th May to celebrate the publication of the 'Seattle Statement' of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Theological Commission: 'Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ'.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It is a great privilege and indeed a very considerable pleasure for me to be present with you this evening to celebrate the publication of what I think will be one of the most momentous documents in the history of modern ecumenism. This is a particularly appropriate day for me to bring you greetings,. not just from the Anglican side of the membership of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, but also from the part of the Church of God from which I myself come, the Anglican Diocese of Perth in Western Australia, and indeed, as Primate of Australia, I bring you greetings in the name of the whole Anglican Church of Australia, which as with the Episcopal Church here in the United States, is one of the 38 member Churches of the Anglican Communion.
The document which we have published today was successfully completed in February last year here at Seattle, so it will be known as the Seattle Statement, and that is why we have also published it also here in Seattle.
There is a sense in which we just happen to be here today, a bit by accident, because we had planned the launch of the document two weeks ago on 2 May. However, the death of Pope John Paul II and the election and installation of a new Pope made for complications at that time. As a consequence the publication was delayed until today. But, as it turns out, it seems to me that this unscheduled delay is not only somehow entirely appropriate but even providential. For it means that the launching of this particular agreed statement is occurring in the context of the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost. This is particularly appropriate because one of the fundamental themes of the Seattle Statement has to do with Mary, precisely as a member of the community of faith, the community of the redeemed. The statement invites us to think of Mary amongst those redeemed by her Son, for, just as Mary conceived by the over-shadowing of the Holy Spirit and carried the Incarnate Word for a time within her own body, so as a consequence of the redemptive work of her Son, she became a member of the apostolic community of faith which at that first Pentecost received the gift of the Spirit. As a consequence, she who had once carried the Incarnate Word in her body became a member of his Body, for through the obedience of faith and the gift of the Spirit she became a member of the Body of Christ, a member of the Church whose coming into being we celebrate at Pentecost.
A second point of convergence between our reflection on Mary and the celebration of the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit and the birth of the Church, is that Mary can also be understood as a type or sign of the Church. Mary is a type or paradigm of the Church insofar as she embodies the grace-filled response of faithful discipleship. And just as Mary was prepared by grace to be the Mother of God Incarnate, and responded in faithful obedience to the announcement of the angel that she had been chosen to perform this unique role in the history of salvation, so we, and all other faithful disciples who make up the Church must, like Mary, respond in faithful obedience to the call of God to pursue our particular vocation in the world. Like her all of us must respond to the word of God: 'Be it unto me, according to your word.'
Let me unpack this a little more. Just as Mary was the Mother of the Christ who became incarnate of her flesh, so the Church, which like her responds in obedience to the Word of God, is itself by the gracious gift of the Spirit formed as the Body of Christ in the world. But Mary is also a sign or type of the Church insofar as, in her role as Mother of the Lord, she received the Word of God delivered to her by the angel 'in her heart and in her body' and brought that Word forth into the world as the Christ of God, the Word Incarnate. In this sense Mary stands in the great prophetic tradition of the people of God. A prophet is one who in a uniquely poignant way receives the Word of God and then delivers it to the world. In Mary's case she received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and then delivered it in the world. The Church stands in that same prophetic tradition. For, the Church at all times and places, likewise has a vocation of essentially the same kind, to hear the Word of God, and so to express it in the world, as to bring Christ to birth in the hearts and minds of Christian believers. That is why we speak of 'Holy Mother Church'. The Church, like Mary, is now called to bring Christ to birth in the world.
This idea that the Church bears and nurtures the children of faith through the on-going ministry of Word and Sacrament was first suggested by St Paul in Galatians 4:19 where Paul conjures up the maternal image of the labour pains of a woman, to describe his own experience of labouring, often enduring anguish and pain, so as to bring Christ to birth in others: 'My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you'.
Given this Scriptural precedent it is understandable that there has been a long tradition of speaking of the coming to be of the Church in maternal images. St Augustine of Hippo writing in the fifth century once said of the role of the Church both in bringing people to Christ and in Christian nurture: 'Nobody can have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother'. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 6).
So, one of the things we celebrate today is the event of the bringing to birth of the Church by the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, but also the motherly role of the Church itself in bringing Christ to birth in others. The Church is not only the recipient of grace but the instrument of the communication of grace to the world. At the time of the Reformation Martin Luther said: the Church 'bears children without cease, until the end of this world, as she exercises the ministry of the Word.' (WA 40/1:464).
Since the completion of the Mary document I have come across the following very similar statement of the arch-reformer John Calvin, which I think is very interesting. It comes from his Institutes of the Christian Religion (IV. I. 4) 'But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church,' he writes, "let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceives us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels.'
The fact that we find both Luther and Calvin appealing to the maternal role of Mary in understanding the motherly role of the Church with respect to the coming to birth of faith in believers and their continuing nurture, means that the agreed statement we will publish tomorrow is not just an agreed statement of Anglicans and Roman Catholics; it is not just an in-house statement of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in other words, but is offered for the consideration of all the Churches. The publication of Mary; Grace and Hope in Christ is not only significant therefore because it marks a further stage in the ecumenical journey of Anglicans and Roman Catholics; it is significant because it is the first major agreed statement on Mary amongst all the ecumenical dialogues. Indeed, it is an invitation to all of the Churches to go back to their own traditions to re-discover some of the common ground that we can all share and celebrate, and own our essential unity as the Church of God through the gift of the Spirit.
Certainly, the role of the Church as mother, with a specific vocation or calling to bring the faith of Christ to birth in others and to nurture them as a mother, continues to have significance for all of us. It means that our task, our mission in the world, is to bring Christ to birth in the context of today, both in individual souls and in the sense that we must labour earnestly to gather faithful people together into community and form them in human unity and peace as the Body of Christ in the world. The late Pope John Paul II at a celebration last November of the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio at the Second Vatican Council, observed that the modern ecumenical movement was the world's most important and significant peace movement. That is what is at stake. The unity of the Church is not an end in itself but a sign of the human unity and peace of the whole world which God promises when his Spirit will be poured out on all flesh.
Let us, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and the coming to birth of the Church, pray that each one of us may bring Christ to birth in the lives of those with whom we have to do, in a new and vital way for the ultimate good of all humanity.
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