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Peter and PaulHallo again to all.

Today our parish celebrated the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a very big red mark indeed on the church's calendar, stretching as it does from Pentecost to Advent in a vast season of liturgical green. We sang hymns in stifling heat as sweat poured down our brows and legs, wishing instead that we were spending time in coldest austral winter with friends and coworkers now enjoying the cool of the day.

Peter and Paul were startlingly different men in many ways: Peter has white hair—or at any rate a full head of it—and a round face in a remarkably consistent iconographic tradition of centuries' duration; Paul's face is long and his hair—such of it as remains around his pate—is dark. Peter is married (or at the very least he has a mother in law, however she may have been acquired) and Paul is 'unmarried for the Lord'. Peter knew Jesus intimately during the time of our Lord's earthly ministry, but Paul met Christ only after the first Easter on the famous road to Damascus. They were different, too, in terms of their approaches to religious practice at the very earliest days of Christianity. Peter, for example, gave in to the local demands of the Galatians who insisted on the lasting quality of some aspects of the Jewish ceremonial law. Paul was so furious about this that he 'opposed [Peter] to his face, for he was clearly in the wrong'.

So we have, in some of the earliest Christian writings, a real showdown over doctrinal and practical matters. (We've often thought that Paul is the apostle we'd be least excited about encountering in a dark Anatolian alleyway, and that even rocklike Peter must have been intimidated by the fiery confrontation recorded by Paul.) The Petrine-Pauline dispute was important enough to record in writing, and it must have given great cause for concern to nascent church communities at a critical time in their life. We do not for our part like to think of where we'd prefer to have situated ourselves during this dangerous apostolic division. And thankfully, today we do not have to decide whether we are Pauline or Petrine Christians, because the church survived and her divine gifts of love and light triumphed over these early disagreements.

Do vestments alone make the bishop?Yet the point of the church feast celebrated today is not finally a focus on division as a constant state of Christian reality. It is that despite their differences of personal history and pastoral approach, both Peter and Paul had life-changing, life-making, powerful and growing relationships with Jesus as their teacher, model, brother, friend, guide, lord and saviour. They had both made devastating mistakes in their lives, one denying entirely that he knew Christ not once but three times, and the other actually helping to kill some of the earliest believers. Both took on new names when they had made dramatic turns away from their initial deeds and opinions. Both used their considerable gifts and energy to build churches, to tell others about the joy and strength that were theirs as children of God, and to train other leaders who would lead and serve the churches after they were gone. And finally, both were united invisibly in the anchoring depth of their faith, so strong that they would undergo martyrdom rather than buckle once again in a loss of integrity. They did not die on the same day, but in a sense they did end their lives together, having lost those things that separated them in the earthly realm, and held on steadfastly to those truths that bound them to the heavenly realm. The church calendar's commemoration today, together, of two leaders who differed strongly in their earthly ministries is significant; it says, in effect, pay attention, there's something important here.

The church's favourite image of Peter and Paul shows them kissing—or at the very least embracing—in a sign of peace that ought to be familiar to all Christians who know one another as sisters and brothers of the same family. It is a sign of unity not often seen among the leaders of our churches today, the bishops and archbishops, primates and primuses who have so much in common with their predecessors the apostles. This strikes us today afresh as what may be the best indicator of genuine episcopal charism and ministry, more than mitres, more than crosiers, more than rings or pectoral crosses, more than pontificalia of any kind. (We confess that we've never actually seen bishops of our communion exchanging the kiss of peace, though we do remember its exchange with some frequency by popes and patriarchs of other ancient churches.) Do rochets, chimeres and other accoutrements a bishop make, as one could be forgiven for imagining based only on first-hand experience of the Anglican world? Of a certainty, they do not.

We do not often give homework to our readers, but we wonder if you have seen Anglican bishops whose churchly office is confirmed by their behaviour toward their fellow-bishops, whether it be in kisses or kindness of some other kind. We'd very much like to learn about them, and we hope you'll tell us who they are. We need them severally as the earliest churches needed both Peter and Paul, and we'd like to thank and follow them.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 29 June 2008

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