Volume 15 Number 3
The War Against Fear
01 June 2002

Denis Nowlan is an Executive Producer of Religious Programmes for the BBC. This article is taken from his sermon in Westminster Abbey during Christian Unity Week, January 2002.

A little while ago, I made a visit to Mount Athos, in Greece, to make a programme for BBC radio about that ancient centre of monasticism - one of the holiest places of Orthodox Christianity. After a complex process of permits and passports and a journey by air, road, sea, bus and finally on foot, we arrived at one of the many monasteries which dot the holy mountain. We were welcomed courteously with spring water, coffee and fiery liquor.

The guest master looked at me and asked, 'Are you Orthodox?'

I hesitated.... 'I am a believer,' I said.

He asked again, 'Are you Orthodox?'

'No,' I admitted, 'I'm a Catholic.'

'Ah... come with me,' he said.

I followed him, intrigued, to a side chapel, and to a long wooden chest which he solemnly opened. Inside was a skeleton. These were the bones of a 13th Century monk, killed for hiding the monastery treasures from Catholic Crusaders.

'Skeletons in the cupboard' took on a whole new meaning for me that day!

There are many skeletons in the cupboards of Christian history, and unless we Christians face them, our unity will only be the unity of politeness, not of love.

We have, of course, travelled a long way in a short half century. Even in my own childhood it was forbidden for people of my tradition even to pray with members of any other. I suppose that to do so could imply that our view of ourselves as the One, True Church might need to be qualified. And who knows where that subversive idea might lead?


Thank God, my parents' generation dared to start out on the risky road towards unity. And over the years we have come, in our various traditions, tentatively, to respect each other. To begin to accept that we are all fragments of the whole, that none of us has the whole truth. Except - although we're much too polite to say so - we each think our fragment is bigger than anyone else's!

Mind you, Christian unity is not the same as Christian uniformity, still less conformity. The key to unity lies not in trying to be like each other - nor even in trying to like each other - but in hearing afresh the call of Christ to repent, to change our minds.

And how should we repent? Well, maybe one way is to give up that narcissistic desire, so deep in our nature and culture, to convert others, to make them into copies of ourselves. Instead, let us aim to be converted, to see the world and ourselves through others' eyes, 'to walk in the other man's moccasins,' as the native Americans say. To be prepared to acknowledge that we have something to learn, before we try to teach.

A common tool of management consultants is the 360 degree appraisal. In it you are assessed, not only by your superiors, but also your peers and those who work under you. I've been through it - and it can be very bracing! It's based on the conviction that none of us has a complete picture of ourselves or of the world.

Recently I visited Rome, in the company of a Welsh Baptist minister. I was looking forward to sharing with him the artistic glories of the city. But often I found myself learning from him how to see the place afresh. Where I saw a vast basilica as a symbol of the unity of the Church, he saw it as a symptom of megalomania: the architectural equivalent of saying, 'We've got it in the bag.' Where I saw a statue of St Paul holding a sword as a symbolic reference to the word of God, he saw a very different message, 'Believe or suffer the consequences!' It can be painful to see yourself as others see you - but it's good medicine! And it's a vital part of that process of repentance, which is the doorway to the Kingdom of God.

To see ourselves through our neighbours' eyes is only the first stage of this 360 degree appraisal. The next is to see ourselves through the eyes of our enemies. And the last is to see the world through the eyes of God, in the light of eternity, where all the barriers are down.


So much of our life is spent inside mental and emotional boxes. And our theological arguments can be thinly disguised attempts to persuade others to climb out of their box and join us in ours. So should we rather aim to build a new box, big enough for all of us? Or could we dare to step out of our boxes to meet in the big, unpredictable, open space where the spirit of God moves?

We are told that the great task of our time is the war against terrorism. But I believe the great task of our time is the war against fear itself. Our fear of those who think differently. And their fear of us.

Last September it was often said, 'We are all Americans now.' We didn't mean we had become any less British, Irish, French or whatever. It meant we felt the Americans' loss, and stood with them in their pain. Terrible events brought us closer together and helped us to experience, for a moment, a sense of universal humanity.

I believe we will not have peace in the world, until Christians can say, 'We are all Muslims now.' Not that we believe as Muslims believe, but that we feel as Muslims feel, and stand with them in their sense of pain and insecurity.

Can we unite in befriending the Muslim world, not in an effort to convert it, but to understand its hopes and fears and even - who knows? - to learn from Muslims something new about the mystery of the love of God, which is always so much bigger than anything we can ask or imagine. And could it be that in sharing this great task of global reconciliation the Church will find the unity for which we long?
Denis Nowlan

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