I must confess that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has passed me by almost unnoticed. But I’ve been pondering the topic this week.
There is such a thing as the feeling that you are on the same page as someone else. Or, in more Christian language, the sense that you are singing from the same hymn sheet.
It’s a feeling that goes deeper than the experience of literally being on the same page, for example, when singing in a choir. In such a case, there is a strong sense of common purpose, of using your bodies and voices together towards a common end. The conductor gently holds things together, but the singers are all united in a shared love for the music (usually), working together to achieve a good performance. But in a choir there might be a wide range of different political views, different passions in life, and different ultimate (‘religious’) commitments. You might all be on the same page, literally, but that doesn’t mean you are all on the same page in a deeper, existential way.
A political party perhaps takes you closer. Here there is a common goal: implementing the party’s political vision through elections. And this vision is often closely linked to a person’s deeper commitments: what it means to be human, what justice looks like, what really matters. But, as anyone who has been involved in politics will know, all but the tiniest parties are pragmatic coalitions of people who fundamentally disagree about very significant (political) questions. Give any party enough power, and the cracks will soon appear.
What about being in a church? Over the last few years, I’ve glimpsed many different Christian communities, from the local to the national. What have I noticed?
Some Christian communities are quite obviously singing from the same hymn sheet. They make it clear, both explicitly and implicitly, week in, week out, that we are all on the same page, and that we all fundamentally agree about the really important things. This may be through doctrinal statements, verbal or nonverbal signals, practices of worship, suggestive words and phrases (‘inclusive’, ‘gospel’), and repeated warnings against singing from different hymn sheets.
The problem with these communities is that they are never more than a tiny and unrepresentative part of the body of Christ, and they struggle to relate to the rest of the body of Christ. This leaves both them and the rest of the body impoverished.
Some Christian communities are quite clearly not singing from the same hymn sheet. On a local scale, this usually results in some kind of crisis or split. On a national scale, one thinks of the Church of England. There is no doubt that the areas of disagreement get far more attention than the areas of agreement. But the disagreements are still there, and they are very serious. Human sexuality is the obvious one, but other issues include the Bible, sin, conversion, salvation, baptism, communion, ordination, other religions, judgment, hell…
Finally, some Christian communities try to muddle along, even though people really aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. I would describe this as papering over the cracks. There would generally be unwritten rules about what we do and don’t talk about. Liturgically, there might be what I’ve heard described as ‘studied ambiguity’: texts that could be interpreted in more than one way, so that we can all worship together. By and large you act as if you are all on the same page, but you have suspicions that this is not the case.
I suspect that most of the Church of England is a bit like this, including the majority of ordinary parish churches. It’s quite rare to find people actually arguing with each other. By papering over the cracks and avoiding conflict, it is possible to create spaces in which individuals can access the resources they need in order to grow in their personal spiritual life. So as long as we talk about knowing Jesus and loving God and serving one another and growth and prayer and devotion, and as long as we don’t really explain what we mean or mention anything controversial, then we’ll each be able to make progress along our personal journey of faith.
And in many ways this works. People grow as followers of Jesus, and basically get on well with each other. But it is far from ideal, because it clearly falls short of the kind of unity for which Christ prayed. ‘Mutual flourishing’ might be one way to describe it, except that there is nothing particularly ‘mutual’ about it.
In fact, none of these forms of Christian community is ideal. Biblical unity is both a gift and a goal. It is something we must ‘make every effort to keep’, but also something towards which we must strive, ‘until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:3, 13, NIV). But in none of these Christian communities is there any growth in unity. The first kind of community functions as if we already have all the unity we could possible want, while the second and third appear to have no ability to move forwards in this area.
I wonder whether what is lacking is any real desire for Christian unity. Are we so shaped by the individualism of our culture that we aren’t bothered about the unity of the worldwide church, so long as we each have a decent relationship with God, and a few like-minded friends, or a like-minded local church? Perhaps this is why the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity didn’t really appear on my radar.
But if we genuinely wanted deeper Christian unity, then we would be prepared to take risks in order to attain it. We would be willing to risk allowing our communities to become untidy places with unresolved questions, or to risk loving one another, or to risk actually speaking about our differences, knowing that it is only through such courageous actions that the church will ultimately be built up. What will be the consequence if we do this? By ‘speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ’ (Eph 4:15, NIV).