The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley
When we speak of Christian Unity, as we have been a great deal in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I suspect that we are often talking about very different but related concepts. There is the model that the Church of England and the Methodist churches have adopted of trying to work together and to look at their structures and working practises and to see how they fit together and how they might be adapted.
I always feel a bit odd talking about Christian unity in the Partnership churches because we are a model for many, many people. People look at our website to see how we operate and many are impressed. Over decades, decisions have been made, compromises thrashed out which have made a very well integrated Partnership. I am sure along the way, some people have had to make sacrifices and treasured traditions have been modified or even lost. But the prevailing, overwhelming desire to work together has driven the process along and the bumpy bits have been overcome due to generosity of spirit and an earnest desire to follow Gospel values. I can understand Partnership Christian Unity perfectly.
A different model for how churches might come together is provided by the Goldington Triangle. St Mary’s, Holy Cross and Priory have had a long-standing a very happy arrangement of occasional meeting together in a fraternal way but without the expectation that any of them will be dramatically changed by the process. But what is more confusing, more difficult is when you contemplate extreme differences between individual churches. A Partnership type scheme for Unity, or even a fraternal relationship, would not be sensible to contemplate. If you look at this town you can see that there is scarcely any similarity between the extremes of Anglican churches let alone with neighbouring churches from different denominations. They look different (robes or not), they sound different (bells, chanting), they even smell different from one another with clouds of incense. Some churches use the Common Lectionary, some do not.
Difference, what we do about difference is one of the greatest challenges for Christians today. It is no secret that the Church of England and the Methodist churches are both very fraught over the issue of whether gay people should have the same rights as straight people within their churches. As you know I am a member of the Church of England’s Parliament, the General Synod, and the place will be a powder keg when the debate about Gay Rights comes up - because we simply can’t agree, at least at this time. With God’s grace, and a lot of divinely inspired self-control, the C of E hasn’t split over women Bishops. But the issue seems set to be even more divisive and challenging for our denominations.
There is inevitably going to be difficult, painful issues of contention between good people of different views within the world wide church, Catholics, evangelicals, reformed churches, Quakers, Salvation Army, high church low church, we are not all going to agree all the time. It is not enough to scream “read your Bible!” or “look to tradition” or “follow authority” as sound bite Christians are apt to do.
I would argue that too much attention is given to what Christians think, and too little on what they do. If you look back to the early twentieth century the poorest parts of East London were invaded by teams of Roman Catholics, high Church Anglicans, Evangelical missions who went there to set up food centres, libraries, hostels, because that is what they thought Jesus would want them to do. They were obeying Gospel values. They were doing what they thought was right.
The Book of Nehemiah is the source of our Old Testament reading today. And a very curious book it is too. It must be one Book of the Bible, Charlie will correct me if I am wrong, to be written by a Civil Servant, a pen-pushing administrator. And what an administrator!. Nehemiah, a Jew, worked in the immediate court circle of the king of Persia and begged his master for permission to follow his conscience, and the calling of God, to return to his own country Israel. When he got there he found that the people were still broken by some of their number being taken into exile in Babylon. The remnants and stragglers crept home to Jerusalem to find its once proud walls broken and derelict. Realising that the walls of the city were symbolic of the moral and religious state of the people, Nehemiah set about rallying the people. It meant pulling together the mutually distrustful tribes, the scattered and battered groups and calling them to the great task of working together to rebuild the city walls. And Nehemiah says that they did so with swords in their hands, and weapons at the ready. And it was that sense of uniting against a common enemy and working together for a great work which reunited the people. And that it my model for Christian Unity. That we find common cause in doing. We know as Christians what we should do. The Gospel tells us. Our missionary and pioneering forebears, Wesley, Bell and all, tell us what we should do. We should go out into the world and do God’s will. We should work outwards. Some Christians, and it is an old preoccupation, believe that you have to cleanse a church from within, get rid of people who don’t agree with the leaders, purge people who hold dissonant views and then , only then start doing things. And you can see that it is a great temptation to try and make a perfect church. It is very nice when everyone in a group thinks exactly the same on important matters, cosy and easy, except it can’t happen for long. Eventually disagreement will occur and then what do you do? The Puritans of New England wanted to create a perfect society and ended up constantly getting rid of dissident people. And then those who disagreed had to move a few miles away and set up their ideal city. The effect was both narrowing and weakening.
In the end it is the work of the Gospel, inspired by the teachings of Jesus, powered by the Holy Spirit which matters, rather than enforcing total uniformity of belief on any given subject. So what do we do when we disagree? We recognise that God speaks to his people as individual souls, that it is part of His divine purpose that we are different and that we see things differently. Paul’s remarks on the different parts of the body reminds us that we are all mutually dependent and equally valuable. “If parts of the body believe different things , can we cut them off?” Part of our heritage as dissenting Christians, is our one-to-one relationship with God, our belief that God speaks to us as individuals and we should be wary of those who try and tell others what their conscience should dictate. We keep ever before our eyes the Saviour who loved everyone, regardless of their views, religious practises, cleanness or uncleanness, race or gender. We must think long and hard about the centrality of working in God’s name and we must find unity in purpose and practical action if not in fact.