Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
By Kim Cain*
There are moments in a churches conference when it feels as though a speech moves from presentation to proclamation just by its tone and content.
Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stepped forward to address the topic of “Envisioning the Journey Ahead”.
Surprisingly, he began with a journey of division: of the story of the man born blind in John chapter 9, interweaving it with a forthright reflection of where the Church is, on the journey to unity.
As we travelled further with Bishop Farrell, we found along the way he transformed into a homilist.
In his exposition of that man who could not see, we discover in the end, the reality that the man in the story has lurched through a series of abandonments because of his engagement with Jesus.
By the time he had concluded his speech, Farrell had listed a six-point wish list of what the GCF may do to help the churches. [See below, ‘Six realities to face’]
But not before he had made clarion clear comments on the spiritual basis of the church’s life.
At the start of this journey Farrell, asked, ‘Who is this man born blind…could it (he) be the church?’
Farrell names for us an uncomfortable truth for our churches: “Christians like us, who claim to believe in Christ … are living in a situation of division which is a form of ‘unloving’: we don’t love one another, at least not enough.
“In the past, Christians have persecuted one another and waged wars against each other. Even today in places, there is rivalry and mutual rejection.
“Our concern here though is not about our sins or who is to blame…let us concentrate on the Spirit-filled transformation that turns the blind man into a courageous follower of Christ,” he explains.
Firstly, he notes, that in the story of his healed man, the neighbours are disbelieving.
Farrell asks the question: “How hard it is to recognize and accept God’s works!”
He goes on, “Is there some wonderful work of God happening in the Gatherings of the Global Christian Forum?”
Then there are further rebuffs from religious leaders then his parents reject him: “Nobody around the man wants to believe that there is something wonderful happening here. But he knows there is!
“…They expel him. But the man is now a believer. And while he is rejected by those around him, he has found his Saviour.”
Farrell finds a link here with the dominant themes of modern culture, suggesting then as now, “faith and religion are unwelcome intruders” in the world.
“Jesus had given him his sight, but he had left him in real trouble: separation from his family, expulsion from his community. There is a price to be paid for the gift of faith.”
And so, Farrell, the homilist, describes us to ourselves, uncomfortably: “we may be women and men of faith, but we are living in a broken, sinful situation.
“We are not one as we are supposed to be, as Jesus and the Father are one — in mutual love. We are divided. Still, most of us are conscious that some form of visible unity is what Jesus prayed for,” he says.
Bringing us back to our gathering, he says, “If the Global Christian Forum stands for anything worthwhile it is… to create the conditions for a new era of friendship and solidarity between all Christian communions, emphasizing the grace we share and not harping on the differences that divide.
“Only in this way can we fulfil the Lord’s command to preach the Gospel to the nations, “so that the world may believe”. Let us not be afraid of one another.”
But there is more on offer in this presentation.
We are reminded of the bedrock of the living church and ecumenical hope: love brought by Jesus, and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is the only energy and force that we Christians have for advancing God’s Kingdom on earth.”
“We will succeed”, he said, “Only if Christians and their churches stand together, speak with one voice, and work together in mission, evangelism and service.”
“Nothing of what our churches hope to do and seek to do will be achieved without a renewal of our personal faith and our commitment to follow Jesus. In other words, Christians and Christianity have no future without holiness of life.”
So, now we are back with the man who cannot see, discovering light and holiness.
“Our hope and prayer should be that our communities and all of us personally, have the same transforming experience as the blind man: to hear the voice and feel the touch of Jesus, leading us out of darkness into the Light.”
*Rev. Kim Cain is the GCF Communications’ secretary and Minister, of the Uniting Church in Australia
Bishop’s realities’ for GCF to face: six challenges to unity
The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s secretary, Bishop Brian Farrell has said he has a wish-list in the years ahead:
1.Call the mainline churches to take the new Pentecostal, Evangelical and charismatic communities seriously;
2.Call the new religious bodies to deepen their theological base to avoid uncritical understanding of Scripture and its implications for Christian witness and mission;
3.Concretely, this means renunciation of all open or hidden proselytizing; it implies respect for one another as Christians, including mutual recognition of our baptism into the Christian community, performed in the biblical way: through water and the Trinitarian formula;
4.that Christians who have been suspicious of the ecumenical movement will recognize it is a movement rooted in the Gospel and inspired by the Holy Spirit; … that the goal of our ecumenical efforts be the full unity willed by Jesus;
5.that we move on from sterile discussions on structures and governance to a new appropriation of our shared Gospel faith;
6.that our churches not place obstacles to doing together much more than we actually do.