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William Watkins – priest, hymn writer, ecumenist, reconciler

William Watkins

The Revd Canon William Hywel Watkins CStJ was born in Aberystwyth on 1 September 1936 and died there of pancreatic cancer on 13 July 2018. For forty years he served the Church of Wales as a parish priest, rural dean and Chapter Canon in South and West Wales, a region he fondly called ‘the periphery of the periphery’.

Watkins took great pride in his hometown, Llanbadarn Fawr, an important centre of early Welsh Christianity. He was schooled at nearby Ardwyn Grammar School Aberystwyth, and read history at St David’s College Lampeter, before proceeding to Wycliffe Hall Oxford in 1958 to read theology as an ordination candidate for the Diocese of St Davids. Deaconed at St Davids Cathedral by Bishop John Richards in May 1961 and priested the following June, he served a seven-year curacy in Llanelli. He was appointed vicar of Llwynhendy in Carmarthenshire in 1968. Ten years later, in 1978, he was made vicar of the Benefice of Uzmaston with Slebech and Boulston where he ministered until his retirement. From 1987 he was rural dean of Daugleddau and, in 1993, was made a member of the Chapter of St Davids Cathedral, occupying the stall of St Nicholas. In 2001, he retired to his family home on the ‘Costa Ystwyth’, as he called it, and was delighted to be able to rekindle old friendships in Cardiganshire.

Watkins was deeply committed to the ministry and outreach of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem and, in 2000, was invested as Commander of the Order. From the twelfth century until the dissolution of monasteries, his parish Slebech had served as the West Wales headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. During his incumbency, the village’s ancient association with the Order was reinvigorated by regular St John’s-tide outdoor services in the picturesque ruined Hospitaller church on the Eastern Cleddau River. A gifted hymnodist, Watkins contributed many modern hymns for use by the members and cadets of the Order of St John, and throughout the wider diocese of St Davids. His ear for matching contemporary words to traditional and popular tunes was so much appreciated by his parishioners that one them challenged the vicar to write new words to Edelweissfrom the Sound of Music. He gladly accepted the challenge, he recalled: ‘I wrote a lovely hymn for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. His hymns celebrated the joy of salvation and the gladness that can be found in Christian service, and echoed the melodies and poetry of his own rich life.

An eager student of German, his commitment to post-war reconciliation was kindled at school. He first became aware of German opposition to the Nazi regime during the War: his German teacher at Ardwyn, Fräulein Einhorn, had fled the persecution of Jews and settled in West Wales. His recollection of her nickname for him, Starrkopf(stubborn boy), was as indelible a memory as his great sympathy for the plight of his teacher and her fellow Nazi victims. At university he sought out German students and made lifelong friends. Later, as a priest, he established similarly strong links with church leaders in the Evangelische Kirche of Bavaria and Baden, the twin state of Wales. A regular visitor to Germany, he shared in ecumenical worship and preached at the Church of the Resurrection, Pforzheim, the ‘Dresden of South-West Germany’. Built from rubble following the 1945 aerial bombardment that obliterated most of the city, the church was named for the new and liberated life that was able to emerge following the fall of the Nazi regime. For Watkins, the lasting physical and psychological scars for the people of Dresden and Pforzheim and other theatres of the Second World War were living memorials to the evils of war that further fuelled his own engagement in reconciliation.

His principal contribution to the work of international understanding, however, was opening his Vicarage to countless overseas visitors. Watkins was an attentive host, generous with his time, and proud of his ever-widening circle of ‘scattered and very dear friends around the world’, as he affectionately described us. There, on the quiet banks of the Western Cleddau river and, later, at his ‘Little Grey Home in the West’, he shaped a community of friends with whom he shared in laughter, poetry and music, discussion and prayer. Even when we had returned to our homes, he celebrated the enduring values of friendship and faith in his regular missives. ‘Politics always seems to end up in tears’, he wrote to me following the Brexit referendum: ‘for me, the Christian faith has so much more to offer’. It is in this faith, and to the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that we commit him.

The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe OStJ
Dean of Melbourne

Lives made whole: Giving thanks for thirty years of the Ministry of Healing

186_028A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Healing Ministry at Sr Paul’s Cathedral on 27 October 2015:

‘The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs, to every town and place where he himself intended to go’, we just heard in our Gospel reading. And I wonder what the emotions of those newly-appointed ambassadors would have been like when Jesus sent them away? No doubt there would have been a sense of excitement, certainly, a sense of new beginnings, perhaps even adventure. But there would have also been a sense of bereavement, of sadness of leaving behind familiar surroundings, friends and family. And then there would probably have been a sense of awe, perhaps even inadequacy, of feeling ill equipped for the daunting task that lies ahead: the task of being an Apostle, of being sent out.

What was it that went through the disciples’ minds as Jesus directed them away from the familiar surroundings of their Galilean home to travel away from Nazareth and the cities around Lake Galilee? For many of them, the Lake had been their breadwinner. As fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John relied on the Lake for their livelihood, while Levi collected the road tolls on the main trading route—the Via Maris—that encircled the lake. Most of the people whom Jesus called into discipleship were Galileans; many had a home and family in the harbour town of Capernaum. Until now, they had remained in the landscape and among the people that had been their home, and which had been so familiar to them. And now Jesus sent them abroad: away from their Lake, their families and friends.

Unlike St Matthew’s parallel of tonight’s gospel reading, which tells us that the disciples are to go ‘nowhere among the gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans’, St Luke does not explain in detail where it is that Jesus sends the disciples—‘every town and place where he himself intended to go’ covers a huge area. In order to fill in the gaps, we need to take a look at the previous chapters of Luke’s Gospel. A few chapters before today’s reading, in chapter 6, we hear how ‘a great multitude from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon’—the heartlands of the Jewish faith and its neighbouring territories, came to hear Jesus at the lakeside and to seek healing. And in chapter 8 we hear how Jesus himself travelled across the Lake to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’—still on the lakeshore, but no longer Jewish.

As the disciples are being sent away from Lake Galilee, they are instructed to seek out the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, are told to proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and healing to the very people who had already travelled so far to seek out and hear Jesus’ teachings. Because that, I am sure, is what Jesus means when he encourages his disciples, ‘wherever you enter a house … remain in the same house. … Do not move from house to house’—‘when you travel, stay with those who have already come to hear us, and share with their friends the news they themselves had travelled to hear’. Here then, we reach a watershed in the Gospel, as the good news travels far beyond the lake counties, the home of Jesus and his friends, and the seedbed of his message.

This is therefore no ordinary journey. And so, as they set out to bring back into the fold of faith the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, Jesus firmly instructs his disciples not to rely on their own strength and resources but orders them to ‘carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’. Jesus’ directions to his ambassadors of the message of reconciliation and lives made whole here match the instructions for entry into the Jerusalem Temple as laid out in the Mishnah, the orally transmitted ritual law of the Jewish faith (Mish. Berakoth, 9.5). Just as no one was allowed to enter the temple with provisions, or money, or ornate clothing, so Jesus’ disciples also are to travel as if they were on pilgrimage, as if they were journeying to the Holy of Holies—light and taking only the barest of necessities.

Jesus instructs his apostles to travel as if they were pilgrims approaching the Temple Sanctuary, because he believes that the place where God’s presence can be discerned is not only located in Jerusalem, but rather that it can be found within the souls and bodies of those who hear and respond to his message; all who are willing to have their lives transformed. Our reading of the Gospels shows that his own relationship with the ritual temple cult was ambivalent at best, which is surely why he asks his disciples first to seek out those people who respond to his message with generosity—the ‘living temples of the faith’, as it were.

Certainly St Peter later spoke of mission in those terms, when he explained that we all are ‘living stones’ called by God to be formed into a spiritual temple on the foundation that Christ himself has laid (1 Pet. 2.5). Today’s Gospel reading illustrates well this principle: on the foundation of Jesus’ words and works, the seventy messengers are to build up into a spiritual home for God people throughout the Jewish world: That’s why Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel first to seek out the ‘living temples’, those whose interest for the good news is already awakened, whose faith can be discerned, and stay with them awhile as they make known the Gospel in their towns and villages.

And as he sends them on their mission Jesus pairs up his seventy ambassadors—so that each disciple will have a companion who walks with them. He ‘sent them on ahead of them—in pairs’, we read. Again, the reason for Jesus’ action probably has its roots in Jewish law. As we know from the reports of the trial of Jesus and our reading of the Old Testament, in a court of law valid testimony requires two witnesses (Deut 19.15). His disciples are clearly sent to be such witnesses—faithful observers who speak of the wisdom, his works of making people whole, and his deeds of power that had astounded so many in Jesus’ homeland. Yet they are not only sent as witnesses who will testify to another’s deeds—mere ‘hearers of the word of God’, as it were—but rather they are sent to witness to Jesus’ power by their own deeds—‘are doers of the word of God’—when they themselves cast out demons, and heal the sick.

Being sent to speak of Jesus’ deeds to others forms the foundation of Christian ministry, today’s Gospel reading makes clear. We are all called to be ready to be make known what we have witnessed of God’s work in those places into which he sends us. We are all called to be God’s ambassadors, speaking of our experience of the work of God among us, and the hope we have for that work in future. As we give thanks for thirty years of the ministry of healing here at St Paul’s, we acknowledge the many faithful ambassadors of the message of Jesus Christ: lay people and clergy who called others into friendship with Christ, who shared his good news with those who were broken hearted, or broken in body or soul. Faithful ambassadors who reached out to this city in prayer and compassion. People who longed to share with others their experience that this Cathedral is being transformative in their lives, how it has offered a place of welcome to them and many others, without judgement or prejudice, how St Paul’s is growing to be a place that hopes truly to be a home church for the people of this city and diocese, and a place where people can share in the ministry of reconciliation and be made whole.

In an age where the bad news about Church so often dominate public understanding of the Christian faith, it is doubly important that we take our role as ambassadors of Christ’s work seriously. That we tell others—especially those friends of ours who don’t share our commitment to the church–the good news about our own faith, that we share our hopes for our church for the future. And, that we don’t just talk about our faith, but also work on our faith. Work to become a community that truly will welcome and include all—a Cathedral and church community, in short, we‘d not only be happy to talk to our friends about but, more importantly, a place we’d be happy to take them to!

Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of this good news; people who are sent out to make known how Christ’s healing power can transform real lives and communities—our lives and our community. Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of Jesus, sent so that many others may hear about, and come to experience, the love and transformative power of God in this Cathedral and diocese. As we give thanks for the faithful ministry of our Healing Ministry, and consider its future, I want to encourage you to pray about what it may be that God is asking you to do as you seek to serve him, and continue to make known Christ’s good news of lives restored and people made whole, in this place.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Silence where God speaks: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:

450px-Cenotaph_HiroshimaThis morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.

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On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.

It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).

While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).

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Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.

At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.

God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.

Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.

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That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).

The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).

We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).

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‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.

It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).