Sunday, 28 February 2010

Primroses, ecumenical winter and the coming of spring

This morning I noticed for the first time that the primroses at the bottom of the garden are in flower - this despite a terrible overnight storm and torrential rain. It made me feel glad - I love primroses. We still feel as if we are in the depths of winter but all around us is proof that the days are getting longer and that spring is well on its way. Slowly the invalid in the house is gaining strength. And we have had no snow in the valleys now for about two weeks. The skiing season is still in full flow but down here in the plain spring is coming.

Here in Ferney Voltaire winter was also something mentioned during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. My successor in the parish Pasteur Bernard Millet, had a very difficult time trying and failing to convince one of the local Roman Catholic priests to have the traditional pulpit exchange during the week of prayer. The local ecumenical group nearly despaired and then the bishop said he would come and preach. So, the local bishop of Belley Ars who is based in Bourge en Bresse, Monseigneur Guy Bagnard, preached here in the "temple". He admitted that this was a first, he had never in his life preached or attended worship in a Protestant church! (I should add that he is not a young bishop and will turn 73 this year.)
At the beginning of the service Bernard welcomed everyone, saying that he hoped that the bishop's presence at the joint ecumenical service held in a Protestant church was a sign that the local ecumenical winter so many lamented was now thawing. Many Roman Catholics came and thanked Bernard for these words at the end. Sometimes it is important to name things as they are in order to work for change in relationships. I mentioned last year that Monseigneur Bagnard has in recent years encouraged local Catholic priests to not go out of their way to let Protestant funerals take place in Catholic churches. This is of course not an official written ruling, just verbal counsel.
Ecumenical winter has been a theme at the ecumenical centre in recent weeks as well. Our new general secretary at the WCC tries to get us to see winter as not only as a negative time. Humorously he says that winter gives even small nations like Norway the possibilitiy to win gold medals in the olympics (even if in the end the Canadians beat Norway in the curling). Winter is a time for reflection, a time when the land lies fallow but the snow and ice are invisibly nourishing, fertilising and cleansing the ground for the glorious time of spring and the harvest which follows.
In the song from China that preceded the sermon Olav Fykse Tveit preached on Tuesday at his installation it is very clear that it is spring rather than winter which is the new general secretary's theme and his favourite season:

Winter has passed, the rain is o’er, earth is abloom, songs fill the air.
Linger no more, why must you wait? “Rise up my love, come follow me.”
Refrain: Jesus, my Lord, my love, my all, body and soul forever yours,
In dale so dark I long for you, abide with me in spring anew.
The Norwegian poem and hymn that followed the sermon took up a similar theme:
O make our barren trees to grow
our hands to blossom,
and let our lives bring forth such fruit
that heals our neighbour’s grief and pain.
If winter is the time for reflection and the silent invisible nourishment of the earth, then spring is the time for falling in love anew. A season where we can all begin to believe in new and lasting relationships, that these can grow and blossom.
From a global perspective of course if it is winter here it is summer somewhere else in the world - one reason why names of months rather than seasons should be used in international texts - this also helps us here in the Pays de Gex, we can see that our very local institutional ecumenical winter may actually be a fertile and enriching time. We also know and trust that elsewhere it is ecumenical springtime, in other places still a time for harvesting the fruits.