We end today the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. I think it is true to say that of all the years that I have been here in Oxford (admittedly not at all that very many) this year the week has featured more prominently. Perhaps in this time of shared vulnerability, of reduced in-person contact, the spiritual bonds that unite us with our fellow Christians seem more precious. There is a sense too of how fundamental to our humanity is our openness to God: we are not masters of our destiny. We know ourselves in these times to be creatures. We are being invited to live more humbly.
N T Wright, the Anglican scripture scholar, has said of Paul’s conversion – and here I give an oversimplified summary of his thought – that it is not that Paul does a complete about turn in his life, throwing off his belief in the God of Israel, rejecting as false the Covenants of his people with their God. Rather what is happening in the conversion of St Paul is a new configuration that the encounter with the Risen Christ provokes which allows him to realise that all that he has been committed to, all the understanding that he has been acquiring, all that he has been seeking after, is given its true expression in Christ.
No doubt, there is scholarly debate about all of this, but I wonder whether the Tom Wright approach might provoke a fresh hopefulness in the journey we are engaged in in our relations across the Christian communities, that in our continuing coming together in Christ we will discover the fullest expression of our Christian faith.
Pope Francis encourages us not to be afraid of difference. I remember learning about, and being struck by, in my theology studies, the friendships across Christian denominations that took place in the challenging contexts of the prison camps of the Second World War. Sometimes it takes challenging circumstances to bring about those encounters with difference that promote genuine mutual understanding and respect. We might prayer that this be a grace of all we are currently living through.
“Lord, Jesus Christ, who didst say to thine apostles, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; regard not our sins, but the faith of thy Church, and grant it peace and unity which is agreeable to thy will; who livest and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”
Prayer posted by the Chapel Community at Jesus College