January 25 is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul in the Anglican calendar. It also marks the end of what is known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a week when Christians of different denominations in Britain, and indeed throughout the world, are encouraged to meet in each other’s buildings and hold joint acts of worship. Thirty years ago, when I was more actively involved in ecumenical activities as an ecumenical officer for an Anglican diocese, this Week was celebrated with far more enthusiasm. Today ecumenical activity, bringing the churches together, seems to have lost much of its energy. In the diocese where I now live, the diocese of Carlisle, we are supposed to be linking the churches together by creating what are known as ‘mission communities’. This is a method for bringing together Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed congregations to work, worship and act together in particular geographical areas. The feed-back that I have been hearing suggests that all is not going well in this particular ecumenical initiative. Problems of working with other groups, which have a different tradition and a quite different history from one’s own, will always encounter difficulties. There are also practical issues in to be faced in churches working together, like finance, leadership and buildings. It is never going to be an easy task to weld together different groups, even if the very survival of the church may depend on clustering resources together in this way.
On Sunday I listened to a sermon on the topic of Christian unity. The Dean of the cathedral made the point that Christian unity is not the same as uniformity. This set me off on my own path of thinking about what can really be expected when we seek to be Christians ‘being in full accord and of one mind’ as Philippians 2.2 suggests. The models of unity which suggest that it might be possible to be of ‘one mind’ have a relevance in political life. Politics sometimes seems to indicate that it is important for everyone in a particular party to have an identical point of view as well as repeat the slogans that are put out by their leaders. Political unity thus always risks a descent into herd-like behaviour. Those of us who have read Animal Farm will remember the slogans that were a compulsory part of life on the farm. A sloganising form of unity is all too often repeated within church congregations. Strict compliance with the theology of the leaders and teachers is a mark of a true member in many conservative churches. I have often discussed in this blog the issue of how difficult it is to be a theological dissident in this kind of church. Is a congregation where everybody believes exactly the same things an example of Christian unity? In a political context, do we value the followers who shout the correct slogans or the dissidents who question the assumptions that have become the norm in the particular community? All too often this kind of mindless unity is based not on truth but on fear. The fear goes into two directions. First of all there is a fear of being expelled from the group because one’s thinking is not in accordance with the standard conventions. One also fears falling out of favour with the leadership who may be presenting a powerful coherent presentation of a political creed. In conservative Christian circles, the presentation of the expected orthodoxy will always claim to be based on a true and authentic reading of Scripture. We know, however, that in practice that there are as many ways of reading Scripture as there are Christian leaders. A unity of a kind may be found within a single congregation but in the wider orbit of evangelical organizations beyond the local, it is very hard to find more than superficial agreements among the leading teachers of particular churches and networks.
What might a practicable unity in a group actually look like? The best and most realistic example of a united group is the successful marriage. When two people come together in marriage, they create a psychological and emotional environment where each of them can support the other in becoming the people they are meant to be. Each partner within the marriage will not be expected to agree on everything with the other. We do not insist, for example, that each side in a marriage must vote for the same political party. What is important is that both sides respect the right of the other to have an opinion. Marriage, in other words, is an institution which allows the ‘dignity of difference’. This phenomenon of unity combined with tolerating difference is also implied in the Pauline description of the human body with its many parts. I would love to be able to say that we find a similar respect for the beliefs of others at work among the churches. For this to be possible there would first of all be involved a general acknowledgement that there is no such thing as a single version of propositional truth. In other words Christians would have to start handling the idea that there is more than one way of talking about the things of God. The problem in this is that there are simply too many Christians at present wedded to the idea that there is only one correct way of reading the Bible and understanding its message. Other interpretations exist but many congregations still retain the fantasy that their church, their leader, alone is able to determine the path to salvation and God’s truth. It goes without saying that such a belief in any congregation is for me a sheer fantasy. To put it another way, it is a total nonsense to suppose that any particular chapel or even network of congregations are able to contain the entirety of truth about God and spirituality. Holding on to such a belief will also distort an ability to learn and grow in spiritual depth. If you have the ‘truth’ now, there is nothing new to learn. How can the Spirit be at work leading you into all truth if you already acquired it years ago?
If the analogy of a good marriage is a realistic description of the right kind of unity we should look for in the church, then it follows that Christian unity will always be about respect and the constant new discoveries of the truths that are held by other people. When we meet Christians who speak a different theological language from us, our reaction should be, not how do these people fall short of our definitions, but what can we learn through a patient listening to their history and to their experience? I have referred in the past to my privilege in learning about Christianity through the eyes of a quite different culture, the Greek one. I have also learnt that prayer in other languages has a quite different feel to it and I particularly enjoy hearing prayers read in French. This blog has always wanted to stand up for the claim that truth is not something we can ever possess, but only something to which we can aspire. The task of Christian unity is a call, not to put up barriers to protect our definitions of truth, but an invitation to go out beyond our traditions to learn from others. In this way, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could be a path to a greater, more complete vision of who God is and what he wishes for his people. I believe that it was General Smuts who coined the expression that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. He was not talking here about theology, but his statement could well be applied to a vision of God. God is and always will be beyond what we already know.