Forty years ago, it would not have been possible to have
chosen such a text for a sermon for fear of being misunderstood, as Europe
slowly extricated itself from its embroilment in virulent nationalism. Such
nationalisms, however, owed much to the imperialism inspired by the forged
Donation of Constantine, coronation liturgies, the sixteenth century papal
Bulls of demarcation in favour of Portugal and Spain, the English
counter-claim that Elizabeth Tudor was the protestant Constantine, and much
Thus, many of the evils of ideological and political
nationalism were the bitter harvest of Christian thought and practice. In
this, we Europeans have erred more than the rest of the world and a great
repentance is needed.
Nevertheless, as early as 1947, the Anglican scholar,
I. P. Shaw, was discussing 'Nationality and the
Western Church before the Reformation'. Thereafter, in many places,
nationhood and nationality were being gradually reconsidered as positive
manifestations of community and were being helpfully differentiated from
concepts of state, government, power, rule and authority.
This has, to a certain extent, cleared the ground. As the
misuse of family has often led to nepotism and much worse, so the distortion
of the concept of nation, which has been abused by malignant nationalism,
has been finally diagnosed. Merely to have the potential of such perversion
does not nullify the providential provision of family and nation as valid
nurseries for spiritual growth, within which God has given us our native
guardians and guides.
We meet one another in Europe not only as Christians from
other churches, but also as Christians from different nations. Although this
is tacitly recognised, we often attempt to theorise about common humanity
and in the process turn our thoughts unconsciously from the real situation.
Joseph de Maistre was more than half right when he said, 'I have seen, in my
time, Frenchmen, Italians, and Russians; I even know, that to Montesquieu,
that one may be a Persian: but as for man, I declare that I have never met
him in my life; if he exists, it is without my knowledge'.
As the existence of other nations is acknowledged, a new
dimension in thought appears, removing introverted perspectives and a
realisation that no relationship can be built up on mere intellectual
musings on humanity. A meeting with the other who brings gifts differing
from one's own must be appreciated. A growing awareness of the complementary
inherited treasures which enrich each common sharing.
The providential shaping of every nation, which relates
God's benevolences to the aspiration of the people, can be understood in the
Hebrew apperception of God's guidance of each nation as part of the whole
people of God discovering the identical destiny in the final consummation of
Yet there is a dark shadow cast from the past, in which
the churches have been involved, as much as other human arrogant interests,
which menaced many by their power of obliteration.
In the long history of Europe, many examples can be cited
of nations undermining the contributions of others to the wholeness of
humanity and distorted its participation in the fullness and richness of the
human inheritance of the children of God. Mention need not be made of the
more heinous manifestations of these sinful stains on Europe's history but
there is still a tendency to overlook much which remains branded on the
recollections of many fellow Europeans.
One of the saddest features of Europe's past has been the
awesome inhumanity which produced what Friedrich Engels described as
'peoples without a history', caused by the exterior powers which destroyed
or forced into exile those capable of leadership in religious, cultural and
social fields. Yet it is noteworthy that such 'peoples without a history',
and therefore without a corporate memory, have been called into the
community of nations by the efforts of those who proclaimed the gospel and
God's concern for all that contributes to the recreation of an
interdependent community. This is not surprising as their predecessors in
the faith had contributed to the silent continuation of silenced national
These peoples without a history are by no means a feature
exclusive to Eastern Europe, the Celtic nations are an obvious example.
Their recovery from cultural submergence has owed much to the Christian
conviction that such heritages were worthy of sustained study and committed
As a Western European, it is appropriate to pay tribute
to sensitive Christians of the past who have made contributions to such
nations of the East: Dobrovsky for the Czech language, the Vilna Jesuit
school for Lithuanian and Latvian, and protestant pastors in the Baltic
states who were among the first to study Estonian and Latvian, while the
Serbian nation owes much to the orthodox theologians Rajich and Obrdovich,
the Czechoslovakians to the protestant Kollar, and the many orthodox bishops
and clergy in Romania and Bulgaria. The list is endless.
The chorus of those who resound through history
describing a new day for the family of nations has pointed to the potentials
in the nations of today.
A new and healthy understanding of national differences
which is accepted by each other and never denigrated, is a recognition of
what Akenside has called 'the fair variety of things'. In a world where so
many monolithic structures promote banality, it is mere blindness not to see
in this vast providential enrichment of the sources of delight in living.
Such diversity is powerfully and sensitively described by Lovejoy in his
epoch-making The Great Chain of Being. Appreciation of such
heterogeneousness is 'nothing less than an enlargement of human nature
itself - to an increase of men's and nation's understanding an appreciation
of one another, not as a multitude of samples of an identical model, but as
representatives of a legitimate and welcome diversity of cultures and of
individual reactions to the world which we have in common. ... The God whose
attribute of reasonableness was expressed in the principle of plentitude was
not selective; he gave reality to all the essences. But there is in man a
reason which demands selection, preference, and negation, in conduct and in
art. To say 'yes' to everything and everybody is manifestly to have no
character at all. The delicate and difficult art of life is to find, in each
turn of experience, the via media between two extremes: to be catholic
without being characterless; to have and apply standards, and yet to be on
guard against their desensitising and stupefying influence, their tendency
to blind us to the diversities of concrete situations and to previously
Thus, a sensitivity is required. A modest openness and a
wise appreciation of the other nations' contributions to our multiform world
are aesthetic attributes which must be fostered by the churches.
We must never forget the variations of apperception,
appreciation and application of the faith manifest in the European churches.
This too is one of the grace gifts of the contribution which each makes to
the rich heritage we share. Our common faith is no berserk or maverick
spirit which requires the restraint of a spiritual straitjacket. There is a
diversity of gifts but the same spirit, the fruits of which are love, joy
and peace. The multitudinous diversity of grace gifts are never displayed
simultaneously in one people nor in one place. Yet these varied charisma
join together amid the family of nations to produce the glorious
manifestation of what Bonhoeffer has described as the polyphony of life.
The re-emergence of an awareness of the dignity and the
desires of nations has recalled the churches to a realism in their role
within their indigenous societies not only in relation to cultural,
community and social needs but has guided them to rediscover that mission
and evangelism much be seriously undertaken, as the Ecumenical Council of
Churches in Hungary have said, 'finding opportunities to bear an authentic
testimony to their environment'. Such a responsible undertaking is often
much more difficult to achieve effectively and to maintain momentum than in
the days of ecclesiastical imperialism when enthusiasm for the conversion of
the pagan savage was the sentimental motive while the soulless existence of
those in dark satanic mills at home were often written off as hopeless.
It is only with a recognisable national identity and with
self-confidence in the providential guidance of Almighty God that national
humility is possible. An openness to those outside become meaningful.
Conversations without suspicion or prejudice are assuredly fruitful. The
Babel of clamant strident voices is not heard.
Freedom from defensiveness, free from the erection of
demarcations, unimpressed by the lure of a retreat into prefabricated
positions, uninspired by the false security of preconceived notions: these
are the themes of this passage of scripture. 'And the gates of it shall not
be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there'.
Thus, in this everlasting brightness, there can be no
sinister nor sombre shadows, no hidden darkness nor uncertain greyness. Here
is to be seen only the clarity, the effulgence, the glory and the honour of
This is no dream. This is a divine expectation which
inspires us to pray and work and to await that final moment when this
brilliance of Christ's presence will dispel for ever the darkness of the
mind and the dullness of the sight and clarity of thought and vision will
come upon all nations.
With thoughts inevitably turned towards the expressions
of faith within the nations and the role of the church as seen from inside,
it should not be forgotten that recognition of the dynamic of faith deep
down in the lives of the nations is widely acknowledged. Such recognition is
not confined to England with bishops in the House of Lords or to the status
given to national churches in many western European countries. Fifty years
ago in the Soviet Union, the arts committee of the Council of People's
Commissars stated that it is well known that the Christianising of Russia
was one of the principal factors in the rapprochement of the backward
Russian people with the people of Byzantium and later with the people of the
West, namely, with peoples of a higher culture. The continuing attention
paid by most national civil authorities, in both Eastern and Western Europe,
to the message and ministry of the church is a strong testimony to their
awareness of the perpetual formative role in the life of the nation. This
awesome calling to the quiet, unobserved, often unarticulated influence on
the spiritual direction of the nation towards its destiny in God and its
final fulfilment of its purpose in that city of God must never be undertaken
lightly, aggressively, dogmatically nor bombastically. The final inheritance
is with the meek.
As representative of most of the churches and the nations
of Europe, we rejoice before God in our participation in the polyphony of
life. We are profoundly grateful to God for the particular natural and grace
gifts that each of us brings. Our fellowship is enriched by the variety of
faith, tradition and culture. This communion of heart, mind, and soul would
be debilitated by the absence of even one. As our Hungarian brethren have
said, 'What the outsiders see is the variety of those praising God, and yet
they may also perceive evidence of concord and joint service among them'.
With our varying gifts, we show forth the glory of God,
we are challenged and inspired by the vision of each one of our nations
being transformed on its way to that final city.
We, born within the nations of Europe, with all their
shame, yet with all their glories, pray God that, in our communion with him
and our compatriots, we may experience an unfolding of that glory which each
nation will bring.
May the nations walk in the light of the Lamb and, at the
last, bring their honour and glory at the final consummation.