Sunday, 7 February 2010

View from the Pew - Love one another!

View from the Pew is a regular column in Newslink, the Limerick & Killaloe diocesan magazine. This piece appeared in the February 2010 edition.

Praying for Christian Unity
For many years churches around the world have designated 18th - 25th January as a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Each year the global organisers, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches, ask the churches of one country to prepare materials for use by all. This year the job was given to Scotland, to mark the centenary of the first world mission conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, which is often seen as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.

All of us, I’m sure, will have prayed in our parishes for Christian unity during that week. Many will have taken part in ecumenical services. In the Nenagh Union, for the 2nd year running, we hosted an alternative evening of ecumenical singing under the title ‘Come teach us your songs’. It was delightful, with enthusiastic choirs from the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholics and the Nenagh Baptist Group joining in songs precious to each of our traditions, though we missed the Methodists and Living Waters who could not be with us this year, due to a prior engagement and illness. At the end we shared refreshments in a happy buzz of conversation, echoing Jesus’s constant table fellowship recorded in the Gospels.

Such ecumenical get-togethers give us a warm feeling, don’t they? I detect a great yearning for fellowship among lay Christians I meet of all denominations. Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven for his disciples, ‘that they may be one, as we are one’ (John 17:22). The Spirit is surely calling his people together today, just as Jesus did two thousand years ago.

Unity in Diversity
But I don’t think that means the Spirit calls all Christians to be identical – to worship in the same way, or to believe the same things. Our Father in heaven delights in diversity, judging from the wonderful variety of life that he has called into being on this planet. In the same way, surely, he calls his churches to be diverse in the glorious variety of their traditions and beliefs. Just as there is a unity in the diversity of life based on shared inheritance through DNA, so there is a unity in the diversity of our churches based on our shared inheritance of the love of God through Jesus.

We can learn so much about the love of God from our brothers and sisters in different denominations. Their different insights and spiritualities can only enrich our own if we engage with them – we don’t have to agree with them in all things, nor copy them, just engage with them lovingly and respectfully. The body of Christ contains us all, and is diminished by any that are missing.

There is a darker side, however. All denominations, surely, also have things to be ashamed of, things to be repented of, things others should take as awful warnings. But let us take the beam from our own eye before we look for specks in our neighbour’s. We Anglicans behave like hypocrites when we talk to others about Christian unity yet are incapable of maintaining it within our own Anglican Communion.

Schism is an ugly word
But that seems to be what the Anglican Communion faces in the near future, unless the Holy Spirit brings about a change of heart. For generations Anglicans have prided themselves on being a broad church, able to hold together in reasonable amity a wide variety of views, from low-church Evangelicals to high-church Anglo-Catholics and everything in between. But all this has changed in recent years. Now many Anglicans are unable to abide together in love. Though the focus of conflict is elsewhere, we in the Church of Ireland are not immune from the schismatic forces, which are already opening up old North-South fault lines.

The main presenting issue is whether homosexual practice is compatible with Christian discipleship, though there are others, like the ordination of women. Some people identify the root cause as deep underlying differences about the authority of scripture. But I think less seemly forces are also at work, involving power and politics in the church and funding from outside it. Parties have formed:
  • One side call themselves ‘orthodox’. They see themselves as maintaining traditional biblical values. They abhor homosexuality as sinful, and some, though not all, oppose the ordination of women.
  • The other is called ‘liberal’, at least by their opponents. They call for the church to be ‘inclusive’ of women and minorities, including partnered homosexuals. They support their ordination as priests and bishops, and hold services of blessing for those in civil partnerships and same sex relationships.

Most ordinary folk in the pews hear little of the disputes. The protagonists are for the most part clergy, arguing with other clergy; many if not most of them seek to steer a middle path and try not to disturb the faith of their flocks. But the contending voices have become shockingly shrill and bitter, as can be seen from the blogs and web sites where much of the argument is conducted (for a taste of it - but not for sensitive souls - try googling ‘Anglican Mainstream’, ‘Inclusive Church’, and ‘Virtue Online’). Both factions accuse their opponents of not being true Christians, seek to drive them out of ‘their’ church, and try to recruit the rest of us to their cause.

I would be less than honest if I did not admit that my own sympathies lie with the liberal, inclusive side – the Jesus I encounter in the Gospels never rejects those who come to him, and is infuriated by those who place the letter of the law above its spirit. But I am deeply disturbed by the sheer hatred displayed by some on both sides. It is as if an evil spirit has possessed otherwise decent, Christian men and women, who share much more than divides them.

Love one another
I think this evil spirit of faction can only be opposed with love. Recall that Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (John 13:34).

St Paul, who knew a thing or two about faction fighting, has some good advice. He urged the Ephesians to ‘speak the truth in love’ and warned the Corinthians not to let their liberty become ‘a stumbling block’ to others. Let us love one another. Let us respect each other’s integrity and be honest with one another. Let us walk the extra mile with those with whom we disagree. And if at last some decide to walk apart, let us be generous to them, wish them God speed and give them something for the journey.

And let us pray together, for unity in our diversity, and for the grace to hear where God’s Holy Spirit is leading us.

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