Nourishing Unity, BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship sermon 22 Jan 2023, Selwyn College, Cambridge

by Graham Kings

Date added: 22/01/2023

To listen to sermon again, click here.

In this week of prayer for Christian unity, how may we nourish unity?

In March 2013, the ministry of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury was inaugurated the same week as the ministry of Francis as Pope. Later on, their first meeting in the Vatican had a surprising start. ‘I am more senior than you’ said the Pope. ‘Yes, your Holiness’, replied the Archbishop, wondering why he was bringing up centuries of division and discord. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, the Pope continued: ‘By two days’. Angst was punctured by humour and personal relationship.

In May 1982, Pope John Paul II visited the UK. In planning the historic service in Canterbury Cathedral, a key question was “who would sit on St Augustine’s chair – the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie?” Not easy.

The Dean, Victor de Waal, solved the issue adroitly. The Canterbury Gospels, given by Pope Gregory the Great for the mission of St Augustine, who arrived in Kent in 597, would be placed on the chair. The Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury would sit on either side – under God’s Word.

At the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit, I was a curate at St Mark’s Kensal Rise, London, and travelled to Cardiff Arms Park to be part of the celebrations. Next to me on the coach of ecumenical pilgrims was a young Roman Catholic schoolboy. On the journey we discussed the concept of vocation. He was surprised that, as an Anglican, I was encouraging him to consider the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

In 2008, when vicar of St Mary’s Islington, London, I invited the new Catholic priest in Islington, Fr Howard James, to lunch in a restaurant on Upper Street. When I asked where he grew up, he replied “Kensal Rise.” We were both overjoyed to discover that we were the ones who had sat next to each other, on that coach, 26 years earlier. We then had coffee in the vicarage and I showed him a photograph of me outside St Mark’s Church in 1982. ‘That’s you’, he said, laughing. ‘I know it’s me’, I replied.

In our epistle today (which we heard earlier) Paul is trying to nourish unity in the church he planted at Corinth. He writes:

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 

Now Cephas was the Aramaic name for Peter. But who was Apollos?

In Acts chapter 18, after Paul had left Ephesus to travel to Jerusalem, we learn that Apollos came to Ephesus from Alexandria in Egypt. He was a Jew, wonderfully eloquent, and well-versed in the Scriptures. He taught accurately about Jesus, but only knew the baptism of John. He was taught about the Holy Spirit by Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s converts, who had travelled with him from Corinth.

Apollos then went over to Corinth in Greece, with letters of recommendation from Ephesus. He was so good with words that some people in Corinth say, ‘Wow! He's a wonderful preacher. He's actually better than Paul, isn't he?’ Some others say, ‘No. I think Paul's better. After all, Paul founded us.’ And other people at Corinth say, ‘Well, Peter was actually with Jesus those three years, so I'm following Peter.’

One of the reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians was to solve that problem of disunity. He asks three questions (verse 13): Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul argues against relying on wisdom, eloquence and rhetoric to preach the gospel, for this could empty the cross of its own significance (verse 17). He seems to have Apollos in mind here and in chapter 3 verse 6, he sums it up, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

George Augustus Selwyn  (after whom this College is named) served as the pioneer Bishop of New Zealand from 1841 to 1868, “and God gave the growth”. He was sensitive in his ecumenical relations with the Congregationalist London Missionary Society (LMS). On 5 February 1848, while planning his Melanesian Mission, he wrote to George Turner, a missionary of the LMS in the Pacific Islands, offering: ‘to render every assistance that may be in my power, without seeking to obtrude any missionaries of our Church upon the field of your operations’.

After serving for 27 years in New Zealand, Selwyn became Bishop of Lichfield in England in 1868. In 1874, he preached at the parish church of Wall, near Lichfield. His unpublished sermon included these stringent words against attitudes which foster disunity: ‘This strife of tongues; this party spirit; these railing accusations; those so called religious journals, rivalling if not exceeding the fiercest utterances of political parties’. 

Here at Selwyn College today we frequently have on placement students training for ordination at the two Anglican theological colleges in Cambridge, with their different histories of tradition and theology. The colleges are part of the pioneering ecumenical Cambridge Theological Federation, which has nourished Christian unity for over 50 years. It currently includes 12 institutions from the Methodist, United Reformed, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican traditions. 

So, in this week of prayer for Christian unity I leave you with the image of Christ the oboe. When an orchestra is tuning up before a concert, it is the oboe which plays the note of A. All of the different instruments in the orchestra then tune themselves to that one Alpha note and are thus in tune with each other. If we hear an oboe this week, perhaps we should tune in.


(BBC Radio 4 text and audio file of whole service is here)

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

A bronze

Wood panel


Wood panel