Justin Welby: Every Christian is Called to Seek Reconciliation | Magazine Features
In 1966 my predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, formally met the Pope for the first time since the Reformation. They had agreed, after centuries of conflict and bloodshed, to establish a dialogue on doctrinal and practical issues between the two Churches and had signed a “Joint Declaration”. As they left St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome, the Pope pulled Archbishop Ramsay aside and gave him a ring – the ring the Pope had worn as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan. This recognition of his episcopal vocation was a profound gesture of reconciliation that brought Bishop Ramsay to tears.
It was the same ring I wore in April 2019, when Pope Francis, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and I hosted a retreat at the Vatican for the warring leaders of South Sudan. Pope Francis knelt at their feet and implored them to make peace. The retreat was remarkable not only for the humility of His Holiness and the evident presence of God with us, but it was a sign of how far the churches themselves have come to live together and love each other by grace. of God, and how that reconciliation had allowed us to make God’s desire for peace known in one of the most wounded nations of our world.
During those remarkable days, I was reminded of Jesus’ last public prayer in John 17:21 – “That they may all be one, Father, as you are in me and I in you.” May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me. This unity is the call of every Christian. Not just because it’s nice to have or the right thing to do, but because our unity is how the world could know that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is this unity that gives our mission of reconciliation integrity. In a broken world, marked by war and violence, conflicts and struggles, reconciliation is the voice of hope that promises renewal. It is the possibility of new beginnings, of new life, of new relationships – with each other and with God.
Reconciliation is the story of God’s new creation.
We are facing a time when the most likely outcome of the next thirty years will be greater pressure than ever on the way we live with each other – in terms of geopolitics, economics, in terms of climate change and advances science and technology. To live in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and war in many other places around the world, in a cost of living and global food crisis.
What is our calling in a world that we seem so determined to tear apart to keep the pieces for ourselves? Or, more accurately, how does God call us to join His work of putting the broken pieces back together – to be reconciled with our planet, with each other, with ourselves, and with Him?
In a Divided World, Christians Must Be One Family
In a divided world, Christians must be one family. This does not mean that we all have to be the same; The Anglican Communion alone is extremely diverse. It contains within itself a multitude of differences and disagreements. It is how we deal with those differences that mark us out as different, that make us known as the Church of God, and make Jesus known as the redeemer of the world.
In this era of rapid technological development, with the advent of smartphones and social media sites that connect us with people around the world, we are seeing diversity on an unprecedented level. In the 19th century, the divisions within the Anglican Communion and between the different Christian denominations were certainly as complicated as they are today, but they took several months to be communicated by boat. Now we hear about conflict and tension in real time, different stories from many different sources. The danger is that we become people of communication, but not of community. Community takes time, commitment and trust.
Muslims and Christians
I remember once working with a Muslim community and a Christian community that had been involved in serious riots in which many people had been killed. A Christian pastor, after a long search of the heart, led his people to seek engagement with the local Muslim community. They started by buying bread from the Muslim baker.
When the baker suddenly discovered that his business was taking off with Christian customers, the local imam went to the pastor to find out what was going on. The pastor explained, and in response to the imam’s offer of help, requested that mosque elders spend time around the church on Sundays, as young Muslims were throwing petrol bombs. The imam agreed and demanded that Christians do the same to prevent young Christians from throwing petrol bombs into the mosque during their prayer times.
Over the next 18 months, the dialogue slowly grew, until they worked together for the common good by digging a sewage system in the area. Although they still argued fiercely with each other, their shovels, pickaxes and shovels were not used as weapons but to improve their common environment. They had built the trust and relationships that allowed them to live together as a community.
Because we are human, we will inevitably disagree. Where we disagree, we must learn to disagree well. To disagree well means to reshape, to look outward and to respond to the crises around us, with the love of God that is within us and with the unity that can be achieved between us.
This is a huge challenge for us in a world where individualism and atomization are often admired, difference is often interpreted as a threat and disagreement is seen as a challenge to our identity and our being. It is also a challenge when, historically, we have so often created God in our image. As Voltaire said, “In the beginning, God created man in his own image, and ever since then man has been trying to reciprocate.”
the image of God can be seen in every tribe and language
But through our collective, creative, and congregational existence, we learn that the image of God can be seen in every tribe and language. We must not try to put human limits on the divine and limitless God. The Church must find its way to visible unity, maintaining its deep and wondrous diversity, because of the nature of God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 reads: “Therefore we are ambassadors of Christ, as if God were calling through us. We implore you in the name of Christ: Be reconciled to God.
The difficulty of reconciliation is something for which Christians must be prepared. In John 16:12 there is a word that means to carry or carry: ‘bastazein’. The same word is used in Isaiah 53 to bear sins. There is this sense that the cost of reconciliation is bearing the pain, loss and suffering. It is the place of a church that resembles Jesus: sacrificial and servant.
One dark night in 1940, in the middle of World War II, Coventry Cathedral was bombed. In the aftermath, amid the destruction, smoke and horror of Coventry at the time, Provost Richard Howard had the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the wall behind the altar.
On Christmas Day 1940, Provost Howard preached to the BBC service at 10 a.m. and said that after the war they would rebuild “a world more like that of the Christ-child”. They took the thousands of nails strewn across the floor of the cathedral and turned them into crosses – one of which I wear today. This is what bearing the burden of reconciliation looks like; turn away from vengeance and follow God towards healing and hope.
The Gospel of John tells us clearly where our place is. Christ’s commandments from the Gospel of John are to wash one’s feet and to love one another: service and love.
What does service and love in reconciliation look like to us as we navigate the complexities of our lives?
There is a team working at Lambeth Palace who have developed a course called the Difference Course. Over the course of 5 sessions, participants develop three habits that, when practiced, are transformational.
The first habit is to be curious. Not circling cars or defending yourself, but really wanting to get to know others, hear their stories, and understand their points of view. Do not jump to judgment, but seek to cross borders. It calls us to look beyond ourselves, to question preconceived ideas. It is a challenge to look at others with God’s eyes rather than our own.
The second habit is to be present. It means having the courage to meet others with authenticity, giving them our full attention – even when we disagree with them or find them difficult. On some occasions, it means having the humility to recognize our own fears and flaws, and trusting God’s grace to overcome them. For others, it will mean having the strength of God to back up a conviction with love. In the face of unhealthy conflict and power imbalances, it will mean deep lamentation – being present to a broken reality and not naively perpetuating abuse.
The last habit is reinvent. Reconciliation asks the moral imagination to hope for something different, even after generations of repeating the same cycles of violence. It means not seeking to prevail, but being open to seeing something entirely new, which is the work of the triune God.
Blessed are the peacemakers
What we see in the Gospels is the reconciliation of Jesus with those whom we consider to be “outside” as well as inside (or perhaps even more): to the younger son as well as to the elder in the parable of the prodigal son, to the disciples as well as to the Syrophoenician woman, to the woman at the well accused of adultery and to Zacchaeus the tax collector. Jesus goes beyond borders and brings us together as part of a new people with a new identity. He calls us to dare to imagine, to hope, what things could look like beyond the limits we impose on ourselves, who we could be together.
Jesus crosses borders and brings us together
The ability, the will and the capacity, holistically and in partnership, to work together in a world torn by war and misery, designates the Prince of Peace. The promise of reconciliation points to hope, even in the shadow of the Cross.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” reads Matthew 5:9, “for they shall be called children of God.”
I pray each of you, beloved children of God, to go and live your vocation: to be a seeker and speaker of peace. Whether in your own heart, in your family, at work, with other Christians, between nation and nation, or with our suffering planet, may you play your part in God’s work in God’s world , so that the whole world knows the reality of Jesus Christ.
The power of reconciliation by Justin Welby (Bloomsbury) is released on June 9