Queen Elizabeth praises Christian unity, calls for prayer over 'difficult issues' facing church

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Britain's Queen Elizabeth listens to a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at Church House, after a service for the inauguration of the Tenth General Synod, at Westminster Abbey in London, Britain November 24, 2015. | REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Christian Examiner) – Queen Elizabeth II praised the unity of the Church of England and its ecumenical outreach during an address to the church's general synod Nov. 24, but the British monarch – who is also the head of the church – called for prayer as church leaders prepare to discuss "difficult issues" in January, the Anglican Communion News Service has reported.

While the queen did not say exactly what those issues are, one will likely be same-sex marriage, if a prescient comment from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is any indication. In a speech before the synod Tuesday, Welby said the church will continue to have "structured conversations around the issues of sexuality."

The Church of England has acknowledged that secular marriage laws have changed, but it still regards the marriage of same-sex partners as "illegal" among faithful Christians.

The queen said during her address the church is an agent of reconciliation and, as the Apostle Paul instructed, Christians must serve as ambassadors for Christ in the "onerous but rewarding task of peace-making and conflict resolution."

There is time for us to grow together as a body of Christians, sharing fellowship and worship with each other and bearing each other's burdens as we engage in the common task and, most importantly, sharing the joy of the Gospel of Christ.

Queen Elizabeth said during her address that the church's reconciliation with other faith groups has been on display since the 1970s when the Church of England began formally to dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church on moral issues. One leading Roman Catholic, Preacher of the Papal Household Father Raniero Cantalamessa, was at the general synod, the queen said.

"The presence among us today of the Preacher to the Papal Household would not have been possible but for the notable advances since 1970 in co-operation across the great Christian traditions," the queen said.

"There are many other examples. The covenant between the Church of England and the Methodist Church; the recent visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch; the participation in this synod of observers from so many Christian traditions; the newly created ecumenical community of St. Anselm at Lambeth. Each of these serves as a reminder both of the progress already made and of the journey that still lies ahead in the pursuit of Christian unity," she said.

"There is time for us to grow together as a body of Christians, sharing fellowship and worship with each other and bearing each other's burdens as we engage in the common task and, most importantly, sharing the joy of the Gospel of Christ."

Welby said the general synod had assembled during "a moment of great uncertainty and conflict in our world. We shall, in the midst of all our other business, want to take time to pray earnestly for the leaders of the nations as they grapple with problems so intractable that solutions are likely to be neither simple nor quick."

The archbishop also said the church – like many world leaders – will have to address extremism, but without casting opposition to extremism as a struggle against Islam in a third world war.

"Let me be clear, it is not a war against Islam. Religious extremism is global, and faces us with a generational and ideological or theological struggle. It is a war against extremism and the fundamentalism that prefers to defy God Himself, rather than to live in holiness with those whom we are called to love. And let us remember we are called to love God, one another, our neighbor, and our enemy," Welby said.

Welby also said Christians can be susceptible to extremism if they take their focus off of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

Cantalamessa spoke to the synod and drew attention to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. He said Protestants and Catholics like him should not focus on what divided the church a half-millennium before. Instead, the church should focus on preaching Christ and Christ crucified.

"The situation has dramatically changed since [Reformation times]. We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. 'All things were created through him and for him.' Christ is the light of the world, the one who gives meaning and hope to every human life – and the majority of people around us live and die as if He had never existed!

"We need to go back to the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we are facing a largely post-Christian world. When Paul wants to summarize the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, 'I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.' He says, 'We preach Christ crucified' (1 Cor 1:23), and again 'We preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Cor 4:5)."

When it comes to unity between Protestants and Catholics, however, historically the issue of justification by faith has been the falling out point between the two churches. Protestants reject many of the Catholic teachings such as the need for penance and the fulfillment of the sacraments for salvation. They also differ on their interpretations of the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, which Catholics believe conveys saving grace when taken.

Cantalamessa told the general synod, however, that justification by faith ought "to be preached by the whole Church – and with more vigor than ever. Not in opposition to good works – the issue is already settled – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to their science, technology or their man-made spirituality, without the need for a redeemer coming from outside humanity. Self-justification!

"I am convinced that if they were alive today this is the way Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer would preach justification through faith!" Cantalamessa said.

The Catholic priest said unity is the desire of Christ's heart and labels matter little where Christians are living out their faith in dire circumstances.

"In many parts of the world people are killed and churches burned not because they are Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostals, but because they are Christians. In their eyes we are already one! Let us be one also in our eyes and in the eyes of God," Cantalamessa said.