Deacon Keith FournierA tribute to Protestant Bishop Tony Palmer, friend of Francis and champion of Christian unity

I awakened this morning to the shocking news that Bishop Tony Palmer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches had gone home to the Lord whom he loved and served with such sincerity.

His passing occurred as a result of a tragic motorcycle accident in the United Kingdom on July 20, 2014.  May he rest in peace and may his family and friends know the comfort that comes from living faith.

I first read the news through the twitter feed of Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia. Rocco linked to the Facebook page of Archbishop Charles Hill, a member of the same communion of churches as the late Bishop Palmer. The Archbishop wrote:

“We are in prayer for the family of Bishop Tony Palmer who was in a motorcycle accident this morning in the U.K. after hours of surgery he went home to be with the Lord. He was a good friend and brother in the vineyard.

You can read the post – as well as the growing list of heartfelt condolences and tributes to this historic figure here.  I then read the coverage on Seasons of Grace, the Patheos blog of Kathy Schiffer.  Her treatment was respectful and her blog is always a source of encouragement.

Kathy noted, “Bishop Taylor, the presiding prelate at Ambassadors for Christ Ministries of America (AFCMOA) in Atlanta, Palmer was in an accident while riding a motorcycle in the U.K.  After hours of surgery, Bishop Palmer died on Sunday, July 20, 2014.”

After searching for more information, I read a horrid report on a traditionalist Catholic site which actually seemed to imply that the tragic loss of this sincere and courageous man, this Christian friend of the Pope who worked so hard to heal the divisions in the Body of Christ, was some kind of retribution?

I will not dignify the offensive and uncharitable implication with a link because I do not believe it deserves to be read. However, I will quote a sentence to convey the horrid tilt of this reprehensible comment:

“Meaning no disrespect to the deceased Palmer, we must point out that this is the umpteenth time that something tragic, something terrible, something frightening has happened in connection with something done, planned, or desired by 'Pope' Francis…”

This misguided implication conveyed more than disrespect for the dead. It was despicable and indefensible. The writer should be ashamed.

I never personally met Bishop Tony Palmer. However, I look forward to spending an eternity in the full communion of God’s love with him. I appreciated his Christian courage and felt that his efforts were prophetic.

He wrote his life - and lived his ministry - with broad brushstrokes, seeking to reveal the fullness of God’s loving plan for the Body of Christ, the healing of the divisions and wounds which separate those of us who share the name Christian.

He did so at a critical time in the history of the Church and the world into which she is sent to continue the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. We can all learn from that kind of example, no matter where we stand in the wounded and divided Christian community. We must continue the effort.

The late Bishop understood that the prayer of Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of John, “May they Be One” (John 17:21) still echoes in this hour. It is the prayer of Jesus and so it is heard by the Father. We are invited into the response. It requires our sincere commitment to work to heal the divisions in the Body of Christ as a part of the answer.

This young, dynamic, charismatic, evangelical Bishop was – and still is – a friend of Pope Francis. He was catapulted into prominence in the broader Christian community when, while meeting with his friend the Pope in January, he was given a recorded message from Francis to deliver to a large group of charismatic, evangelical protestant leaders who gathered in the United States.

The video went viral. It moved millions to sincere prayer for the healing of the divisions in the broken Body of Christ and is prompting a renewed commitment to common apostolic action between Christians.

It has become controversial in some circles, as the comments from the misguided traditionalist Catholic quoted above demonstrate. The opposition has come from some Catholic, protestant and orthodox Christians. In the video, Pope Francis expressed his sincere Christian affection to the protestant leaders, extending what he called a “spiritual hug” to them.

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That meeting led to another meeting at the Vatican between Pope Francis and several Evangelical Christian leaders on June 24, 2014. That meeting included my friend, James Robison, and other evangelical and charismatic protestant leaders, including Ken Copeland. That meeting was also historic. Its rippling effects have only begun to be experienced in the broader Christian community.

On Monday, July 28, Pope Francis will travel to Caserta, Italy for a visit with another evangelical protestant Christian friend, Rev. Giovanni Traettino of the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation. Bishop Tony Palmer was scheduled to be at that meeting.

Francis is dedicated to helping heal the divisions in the broken Body of Christ. He is encouraging courageous efforts at Christian cooperation.  He has raised the water level for the whole Catholic Church, by bringing his lived experience in Argentina, along with his unique palate of gifts, to the office of Successor of Peter at a prophetic moment in history.

In a teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ given on June 19, 2013, Francis made an extemporaneous comment which revealed what his life work revealed. Throughout his service as priest, spiritual father, Bishop and Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has always heard the passionate Prayer of Jesus Christ and made it his own:

"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 17:21)

Here are a few of those heartfelt words from his message:

"Divisions among us, but also divisions among the communities:

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Evangelical Christians, orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, but why divided? We must try to bring about unity. Let me tell you something, today, before leaving home, I spent 40 minutes more or less, half an hour, with an evangelical pastor. And we prayed together, seeking unity."

"But we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians. Pray that the Lord gift us unity! Unity among ourselves! How will we ever have unity among Christians if we are not capable of having it among us Catholics, in the family, how many families fight and split up? Seek unity, unity builds the Church and comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to build unity!"

With this clear and courageous commitment to unity, Francis stepped into the trajectory of his two predecessors, Saint John Paul II and His Holiness Benedict XVI. The sincerity of his quest for healing the divisions between Christians is expressed in word and deed.

The comfortable way in which he shares from his heart and prays with evangelical Protestant Christian leaders reveals his naturally supernatural approach to living his Christian faith. It also sets an example for all of us. It should inspire each one of us to reach out to other Christians with the love of Jesus Christ and find ways to work, walk and pray together.

I have spent years praying and working with evangelical protestants and orthodox Christians, co- laboring in the trenches of the culture on the great challenges of our neo-pagan, or what I prefer to call pre-Christian, age. I am so very happy to have Pope Francis make it clear that this is part of our task, our call and our mission.

For those who followed the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope, this will come as no surprise. One of his evangelical friends from Argentina, protestant evangelist Luis Palau, has been straightforward and enthusiastic about his friendship and prayer with Francis. In an interview with Christianity Today entitled Why It Matters that Pope Francis Drinks Mate with Evangelicals.

Palau revealed where the Pope was headed as he stepped into this trajectory of his predecessors and now responds to the imperative of healing the divisions among Christians.

A scholar and leader among evangelical Protestants in the United States, Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School, also wrote a piece for the same publication entitled, Our Francis, Too: Why we can enthusiastically join arms with the Catholic leader.

George wrote: "Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict XVI was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd. Catholics and evangelicals are the two largest faith communities in the body of Christ. Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world."

The Gospel proclaims that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God - and through Him, in the Spirit, with one another- is the plan of God for the entire human race. The Church is the way to that unity.

For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord's plan that she be divided. It is His Plan that she be restored to full communion. We are invited to become a part of that plan.

Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. Ecclesiology is the theology of the church. All who are validly Baptized already have a form of communion, albeit incomplete.

We are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for full communion and visible unity our own - in the way that we relate to other Christians. We need to show the love so evident in the words and witness of Benedict, St. John Paul and Pope Francis. We should learn and use the language of communion which the Catholic Church clearly encourages. St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter on unity (Ut Unum Sint):

"It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression "separated brethren" tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities".

The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes. There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ."

He also wrote concerning the urgency of building good relationships with other Christians:

"Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant".

"This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved."

Bishop Tony Palmer Has Died but his vital work for Christian Unity lives on. Let us all take it up and make it our own.

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