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In thanksgiving for the life of Hildegard Atherton.
I am conscious of the particular honour of being asked to speak of Hildegard on the day of her funeral. We are all here because we loved her, but also because we knew she loved us. She was special to us, but she made each of us feel special to her. She was interested in what we did, and what we thought. We are all aware of her recent ‘failing strength’, but today I want to remember Hildegard in her prime, and especially as someone who effected significant changes within her local environment, which made waves not just ripples in a much larger pond.
So, it is with some trepidation that I am the first to address you today. But I know that I have been asked to speak first because of the primacy for Hildegard both of her life-long commitment to her faith as a Catholic Christian, and her on-going commitment to Christian Unity. This commitment was not blind. She always questioned. This questioning underpinned her approach to everything in her life. She was the ‘critical friend’ who did not fear speaking out when it seemed right. She remained a Catholic throughout her life, even when other churches might seem more welcoming, and easier in their strictures. She was content to ‘await the coming of the kingdom’ of Christian Unity from within the Catholic Church. She was a perfect example of ‘loyal dissent’ whenever she discerned an injustice or foolishness. She didn’t wear her faith lightly, but she never imposed her beliefs on others. She was always interested in the ideas of others, especially when they differed from hers.
This need to question, to explore, and for intellectual stimulation and academic rigour led to her, together with Desmond and others, becoming a founding member of the Coventry Circle of the Newman Association in 1957.
The Newman is an organisation committed to discussion and the development of understanding of the Christian faith, aimed at meeting Newman’s wish for ‘an educated laity’. The Association takes its name from Cardinal John Henry Newman, who “wanted a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but those who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it… an intelligent, well-instructed laity…”. (The Present Position of Catholics in England, 1851)
Hildegard would come to the monthly meetings, engage in the discussions which would often continue into the social events. This stimulation and support was to last her all her life. It led to her hosting a variety of visitors with varying approaches to the church in the world. I especially remember meeting Daniel Berrigan, then an American Jesuit priest who actively opposed the Vietnam war: not a favoured position then.
She had come to Coventry as a young wife and mother in the 50s, to a city severely impacted by war, not least the destruction of the cathedral by incendiary bombs. Her own young life had already been seriously disturbed by conflict and war, and she was attracted by the message of peace and reconciliation which the visionaries of Coventry Cathedral, and its city conveyed.
She had a real gift for friendship, and in parallel with Newman friendships, developed many local ecumenical contacts in the late fifties and early sixties, from the Free Churches as well as Anglicans. This small group of like-minded, Christians, mainly local and not clergy, was the active group which formed around the incipient Chapel of Unity.
The principle of a Chapel of Unity binding the Church of England and the Free Churches together for Christian service in Coventry was born out of the sufferings of war and the visionary ecumenical enthusiasm of the church leaders. By November 1945 the West Crypt was dedicated to this principle and, with the building of the new Cathedral, the opportunity was taken to create a purpose-built chapel. A stone of witness was laid in the entrance on 24th September 1960, and the Chapel of Unity was dedicated on Whit Tuesday, 12th June 1962, a fortnight after the Cathedral itself.
By the time I came to Coventry in early 1964 there was already a very well-established Wednesday morning Prayer Group, followed by a simple breakfast, meeting at 7.30am so that everyone could go straight on to work. Hildegard was a leading light. For a couple of years Brother Gerard and another Taize brother lived at Cheylesmore Manor House. Hildegard especially was inspired by their lived vision of a united church and with Desmond visited the Taize community several times.
The official record states: ‘In 1962 there was virtually no formal communication between the Roman Catholics and other denominations, but by 1970 the constitution of the Joint Council had been changed to include them on equal terms’. Hildegard Atherton was at the forefront of this ecumenical engagement who, with other Catholics, was active in making this major shift.
These were heady days full of hope and expectation of greater unity as people prayed together, studied together and worked together. As a Catholic Hildegard will have been buoyed by the openness of the second Vatican Council which spoke not of a ghetto church but of a church which engaged with the world: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ’. Gaudium et Spes. 1965. As a woman committed to a vision of Church Unity she was confirmed in her work by the Decree on Ecumenism, Church Unity: ‘The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council’. Decree on Ecumenism. 1969
When Desmond’s health, and then her declining health meant she could no longer attend the early Wednesday service, which continues to meet, but at the gentler hour of 8am, she maintained her interest in the work of the Chapel. It was a special joy for us all when she was able to attend the Thanksgiving service for the refurbishment of the Chapel of Unity last September.
Her commitment to church unity and drive for a more inclusive faith practice was not confined to prayer and discussion, but it also led to action. I know the next speaker will describe the setting up of CCHA which led to Extra Care. This was an embodiment of the ecumenical covenant made to promote the unity of all Christians. ‘Under this Covenant we agree to work together whenever possible and not to do separately those things which we can do together’. We would do well to remember this today.
Hildegard was a woman who heeded the teachings of Christ as she prayed, argued, discussed and acted according with faith, hope and above all love in her heart. We have been blessed to know and love her.
May she now rest in peace, reunited with her beloved Desmond.
Janet Ward, Co-Chair, Coventry Chapel of Unity CIO
Pastor Albrecht Kostlin-Buurma gave the following sermon after the Reading from St Luke 15 vv11-32 (the Prodigal Son Parable):-
We have just heard one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible: A new life is given to a man who has fundamentally destroyed his life. ” This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” That’s how God is dealing with you, Jesus tells us with this story. You can start your life again thanks to His love, and what you have failed to do before will do no lasting harm to you.
This story is at the centre of Christian life, and however we understand our Christian faith, however we express it or however we arrange it in our ecclesiastical structures, with this story we find a common witness of the love of God that is stronger than all human guilt .
If I now hear this story as a Protestant Christian, 500 years after Luther’s Reformation, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I have an image of Pope Francis emerging in my mind, who celebrated the beginning of the Reformation anniversary in Sweden a few months ago, and a voice whispers to me: You see, the Catholic Church returns to the roots of faith.
A beautiful picture – until I put myself into the shoes of my Catholic friends. They see the Pope lovingly welcome the Protestant siblings and hear the voice whisper: See, the Lutheran Church returns into the open arms of the church from which it had once separated.
Anglican Christians may now think, perhaps, that the clashes between Lutherans and Catholics show that there are actually two lost sons in history who have yet to learn how to unite two different directions in one church. It is nice that they return to our ecumenical form of the Christian faith in the Reformation year.
And since there are also denominations in this country, which see the connection of the Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans with political power as a dramatic mis-development of the Christian faith, the number of lost sons in their eyes should be at least three.
Perhaps you are smiling about these associations between the confessional differences and the story Jesus told. This is good. Humor helps us to see the point of view of our own religious group self-critically. Of course I can do this only with my own Protestant tradition, and a little more precisely, with my particular stand within German Protestantism, but it will be easy for you to translate this into the world of your own experiences.
As a Protestant Christian, I ask myself now: Is it really true that we Protestants have remained in the house of the True Faith, while the other denominations have all moved into the world of error and can now be glad that God allows them to return home, where we have always been?
As a pastor of the German-speaking United Synod, I ask myself: Is it really true that we have remained in the house of the True Faith, whereas the Lutherans and the Reformed with their denominational differences have hurt the attractiveness of Protestantism and that they only come back home because we live in a post-Christian society?
And as a liberal theologian, I wonder: Is it really true that I have stayed in the house of the True Faith while the dogmatic traditionalists and the biblical fundamentalists have taken themselves to the wrong place and can be glad that God is not annoyed with them?
I am convinced that each one of us finds himself or herself in this story first in the role of the son, who has remained faithful to the Father in principle, and therefore needs no repentance. We therefore understand this story of Jesus as a call to lovingly deal with the wandering brother and to facilitate his return. And I do not deny that this loving interaction with the lost is the goal of the second part of Jesus’ narrative.
In the first part, however, this story clearly places us in the person of the lost son. We see how this man terminates his communion with the Father against all reason, and seeks his happiness in fellowship with men who destroy his life. I used to wonder again and again: Is it really possible that a person can be so stupid? Meanwhile, I have learned that this stupidity is widespread, and it is a great pleasure for many people to destroy their livelihoods for the sake of an ideology. But today, this story is asking me: Is it possible that you are the stupid one? Where are you going to with your way of proclaiming the Christian faith? Is not every of your attempts to press the Christian faith into a dogmatic system misleading? Can you really transform into a catechism what Jesus only could express in a parable? Can you really transform the communion which the Risen One creates by means of His Word into an organised church? Why should your tradition or theological direction be the home to which the other Christians should repent? Are not you the one who should return to the Father?
The story of Jesus can make us humble. It can make us confess the familiar words “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It can create a community of lost ones who are on the way to the Father they once left. It is a good story for this week of prayer because it replaces our longing for a united church with the longing for the unity of Christians with Jesus Christ. We are united in the firm confidence that God is the loving Father, whom Jesus presents us with his story. We are united in the promise that there is a new beginning and that the theological errors and the errors of the churches in the past will not determine our future. And we are united the hope that for our own churches, the relieved words of the Father will also be valid: ” This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”