Unity and humility
THE Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws to a close for another year. For those readers – by no means all – who participated in joint services, it was an opportunity to express solidarity with other Christians, giving and receiving welcome and hospitality. It was also, human nature being what it is, an opportunity to cast over another sect the critical eye that is usually reserved for one’s own. One of the chief hindrances to closer unity is the surprisingly strong loyalty that springs up when encountering another group that expresses a desire for the same ultimate goal. In fact, competing football fans are an accurate, if unflattering, analogy. Put a group of Arsenal supporters together, and you might not hear one good word said about the team. Set a Tottenham supporter in their midst, and not one word of criticism will be brooked.
The problem is that nobody really knows what Christian Unity (the phrase seems to require upper-case letters) looks like. For most, it suggests a single organisation and joint worship. The first element seems fantastical, given the tendency towards schism – 41,000 denominations worldwide and counting; the second, frankly, is unwelcome, given the difficulty, even within one denomination, of finding a service that suits everyone’s spirituality and taste. In actual fact, taken out of upper-case letters, Christian unity is familiar to everyone. No two people sharing a pew, or seated, side by side, in comfortable chairs, encounter God in the same way; yet they are united by the one thing above all else that drew them into that service. Assuming that they can be persuaded to acknowledge each other’s existence – not a foregone conclusion – they will discover, if nothing else, a common desire to know God more. And if there is nothing else, this too can be celebrated. All of the larger denominations encompass a breadth of styles. The particular charism of Anglicanism is that its breadth is so awkwardly and excitingly great. Taking St Paul’s metaphor of the body: a grouping of just eyes, or hands, might experience the fleeting pleasure of compatibility before the realisation of their fundamental uselessness sinks in.
This is where mission comes in. Christian disunity can seem dangerously familiar and acceptable, unless seen through the eyes of those who expect the Church to model the one God in Christ whom all the various Christians purport to emulate. Until ecclesial structures reflect Christ’s prayer that all shall be one, the chief element of this week – and all subsequent weeks – should be shame.
Near the end of the world-wide ‘Week for Christian Unity’ – which New Zealand Churches seem largely to have missed out on observing – this editorial in the Church Times seems only too relevant. If the prayer of Jesus, ‘that all might be one’ (as He and the Father are one) has any relevance today, it must be admitted that we are far from achieving this objective – especially within the Churches of the Anglican Communion.
The disabling ethos of intentional schism has been at work in the Communion on issues of gender and sexuality for some time now, and it seems that there is little hope of accord being found on these issues within the coming decade. Short of any hope of accommodation to the general acceptance of differences on these important matters of human thriving, it seems that there will inevitably be a split between the conservatives who refuse to accept homosexuality as part of the human condition for a minority of people, and those of us who really believe that the LGBTQ people in our midst are deserving of being looked upon as ‘fellow sinners’, socially acceptable as children of God.
And then there is also the matter of the place of women in the ministry and life of our Churches. Whereas Provinces like my own, ACANZP in New Zealand and Polynesia, already have women clergy and bishops ministering profitably amongst us; there are other Provinces – for instance, Canterbury and York in the U.K., that are still debating whether women are divinely called into the priesthood and episcopate. This issue is still causing some grief amongst members of the General Synod of the Church of England at this time. However, this matter has not yet provoked intentional schism in the Anglican Communion.
What has to be taken into serious consideration is whether, or not, such issues are sufficiently divisive to promote schism within the Anglican Communion of Churches. The plain fact is that this has already happened; where certain African Churches have founded rival church units in North America and in England, that are at odds with the local Anglican establishment in those countries, and are setting themselves up as the ‘orthodox’ Anglican Church intent on replacing the established local churches thought to be ‘apostate’ – on account of their openness to a new understanding of gender and sexuality.
The Anglican churches around the world have hitherto been seen as bastions of reformed catholicity, which, though many-faceted in its application and theological understanding, has maintained that degree of unity in diversity that had become the hallmark of Anglicanism. This seems no longer to be the case.
Has the time come for the Anglican Communion itself to accept that its very diversity has become the ground for its inevitable separation into at least two formal entities – wherein basic Anglican traditions may be fostered, without having to agree to a consensus on matters of gender and sexuality – that might better be managed according to the local culture of the society being served by the local Church? With such a cultural division, would that which divides us necessarily be greater than those things that should unite us? These are questions that, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, should concern us all.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand