Simon Barrow

Being suspicious of Christian unity

By Simon Barrow
January 20, 2007

Since I previously worked for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), an official body which exists to assist the shared action, witness and understanding among its Anglican, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox member churches, you would expect me to be in favour of Christian unity. Especially in its special Week of Prayer, 18-25 January 2007.

But I am not inclined to let the subject off the hook so easily. There are displays of solidarity among the churches that can be decidedly excluding, particularly in a climate where the loss of traditional influence is encouraging assertive paranoia in some Christian quarters. Moreover, as a person with involvement in the ecumenical movement over a number of years, I can claim to have learned a fair bit about the problems of ecclesiastical joinery and general Christian cosiness.

The ‘problems of unity’, as we might put it, are well illustrated by the story of Colin Morris, a well-known broadcaster and former President of the British Methodist Conference. During his earlier missionary years he was also involved in the protracted negotiations which resulted in the formation of the United Church of Zambia – and as its first head he lived with the outcome.

In what was then northern Rhodesia, Morris was passionately concerned with the life and death trials of the majority of ordinary people, and with their struggle to gain full human dignity and democracy. The movement for Zambian independence was one he came to see as vital, sometimes to the chagrin of those who disliked his boat-rocking association of the Christian message with political activism.

Colin Morris’ work was premised on the belief that the real cutting edge of the Gospel lay in furthering the work of God in the world, not in tinkering with ecclesiastical structures. The greatest affront to Christ and the greatest hindrance to faith in his situation, he said, was not the voluntary separation between Christians of different denominations (inconvenient though that might sometimes be), but the brutally enforced division between black and white people. This was the disunity that needed addressing first.

Morris lived out the true meaning of the New Testament word oikumene, from which we get our term ecumenism. This is not to do with ‘Christian unity’ for its own sake. Rather it comes from two words which together mean something like ‘living together in the big household’, and it refers primarily to God’s concern for the healing of the whole world, and only secondarily to our share in that.

So, taking as a crie de coeur St Paul’s injunction that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Epistle to the Galatians) Colin Morris preached on the incompatibility between racial discrimination and the Gospel. Far from promoting unity, this message set believer against believer and reduced an affluent, predominantly white Copperbelt congregation from hundreds to a mere handful in four sermons. Only after a false unity had been demolished could the truer (but rather more vulnerable) unity of Christ appear. These powerful addresses were later published under the title Anything But This – ‘this’ being the awkward demands of the Gospel in a situation where humanity was being divided from itself in a manner sanctioned by religion.

Morris also wrote an incendiary book about the Christian vocation called Include Me Out (Epworth, 1971) after he found a copy of the Methodist Recorder – full of reports about the perilous state of Anglican-Methodist unity talks back in Britain – on his doormat. What angered him was that outside the door lay the body of a young Zambian who had died of hunger. How on earth, he asked, can we Christians get our priorities so wrong that we end up putting far more effort into reorganising our own church structures than into practical care for our neighbours – when Jesus gave priority to “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (St Matthew)? Similarly, what use is church growth if it simply allows us to baptise other divisions which really are offensive to God – those between rich and poor, black and white, young and old, women and men?

If it is to be of any use to the Gospel and to the world, Christian unity cannot be about papering over the cracks of injustice to the advantage of church security. It cannot be about constructing alliances against others. It cannot be about flaccid accommodation for the sake of a false peace. Rather, it needs to be enriching of our capacity to extend the circle of love’s relating, both within the household of faith and well beyond it. That is the criterion.

In an article for the Methodist Recorder a few years ago (1 February 2001, to be precise), Colin Morris challenged us again on these questions. He wrote:

Throughout my ministry I’ve been told that the scandal of Christian division is a prime cause for the failure of the Gospel to be heard in out time, yet I have never met anyone who said that he or she would have become a Christian were it not for denominational differences. Indeed it is evangelical churches and groups who how least interest in union schemes that are enjoying the most dramatic increases in membership. Consumerism has eaten into the very soul of our society as people shop around for their spiritual as well as physical needs. The world is no more sold on a single church than it would be on a single television channel, superstore or political party. I have never really understood what is meant by the ‘sin’ of disunity. Certainly, backbiting exclusiveness and factionalism are sins, but they are much more likely to be found within rather than between denominations. The glory of being human is that we enjoy a wide diversity of tastes, aptitudes and perceptions about everything under the sun, yet the claim is that if our apprehension of God is not uniform, we are in error…

…I am no sectarian, and none of this should be taken as an argument against current proposals for closer association with Anglicans or any other body of Christians. If the Methodist Conference so decreed, I would settle down happily in a disestablished Anglican Church, but for me it is a matter not of high theology, but of practical obedience… [Union schemes are] fine provide we always keep in mind that mission is about God making all things new, not the churches trying to sew together leaking old wineskins.

All this is acutely put. But we perhaps need to go even further. Christian unity is not the end result of a process of cooperation or ecclesiastical engineering – it is a gift. The challenge is to find out what shape (personal and structural) that gift, which has already been given, needs to take in our human communities, and how simultaneously it can do justice to the huge range of insights and aptitudes which exist within and across our different church traditions and structures.

This requires reconciled and reconciling difference, not unity in a homogenising or totalising sense. Whatever church tradition we belong to (and mine is an odd mix of Anglicanism, catholicism and anabaptism, I guess), we need continually to remind ourselves that ecumenism is fundamentally about God’s desire to bring about the transformation of the whole creation, the oikumene. It is not about making our church structures and assumptions dominant or impregnable. Often the reverse.

So anything we say and do should, if it has authenticity, be said and done in a way that actively demonstrates and speaks of the Gospel for all – that is, it needs to offer healing for a sick world, peace for a warring world, love for a tortured world, and justice for a divided world. Not for nothing is redemption at the heart of this. Church as ekklesia, a body of people ‘called out’ towards a different kind of polity, has a particular vocation to model the path of Christ, with and for others. To show by the way it handles divisions and disagreements, for instance, that it is the peace of Christ that moves it forward. In the row over sexuality this is obviously, and disgracefully, not the case.

But there are signs of hope. In Ireland there have, over the past ten or more years, been Christians prepared to work across deep communal and church divides at local level, often in unspectacular and unpublicised ways. In so doing they helped to create the conditions for a fragile (but still vital) national peace process. More broadly, Christian involvement in the Jubilee 2000 movement to cancel the crippling, un-payable debts of poor countries resulted not only in headlining an obscure but important biblical notion, it also assisted and strengthened unity among those from different religious traditions and with those of no faith (or perhaps, simply ‘good faith’).

Britain today is a diverse, money-driven, secular and yet also spiritually hungry place. However, those who are doing the seeking are deeply suspicious, if not downright hostile, to received religious institutions and interpretations. This means that many of our inherited ways of ‘being church’ will inevitably be thrown into the melting pot of God’s larger ecumenical venture, if they are not to disappoint and disappear. For it is increasingly clear that the church of today is dying – while the church of tomorrow is perhaps only just being born: and not necessarily where we see or expect it.

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