January 15, 2023

Father, may they all be One

Father, may they all be One

It’s probably not great to start with some statistics but I am going to take the risk!  The first is a good one – even in our secular times Christianity is the largest world religion and one third of the world’s population embrace it.  The Roman Catholic Church is the largest part of the Christian community with about 1 billion or so members, the Orthodox Churches come next with about 224 million and then the Anglican Communion with around 80 million.  So far, so good, you might think.  But then comes something which I find both puzzling and worrying.  There are something like 46,000 different denominations, and the rate of increase is something like 2.4 new denominations per day. 


During the coming week, we begin the annual Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, and that last statistic might well remind us how important this is.


Even as a Scot, used to seeing division after division within the Established Kirk and its subsequent offshoots, I am horrified by the number of different denominations.  It’s true that part of it is a recognition that so-called independent churches spring up all over the place.  Whilst some of them will remain just that, fiercely independent, hopefully some at least will find accommodating neighbours and form affiliations

together, and ultimately with the mainstream Church.


But much of this proliferation is sadly due, not to the Holy Spirit promoting new expressions of service and community, but due to human sin.  Certainly the sin of pride.  And in particular the kind of human sin that refuses to see in any way other than with tunnel vision.  Refusing to admit that where we find and discover and celebrate the wonderful diversity of creation, we must at the same time admit a whole number of

different responses to the Gospel of Christ.  The work of the Holy Spirit in human lives is about the drawing of the many into the One beating loving healing heart of God, whose own unity gives birth to all that is.  As such, that work will challenge us, will open our eyes to see truth in places where we are not inclined to seek it, and in particular will undermine that self-satisfaction and self-pleasing that debilitates and destroys our humanity, dividing us from one another.


For the work of the Holy Spirit in human lives isn’t first and foremost about giving us certain wonderful experiences, or producing extraordinary and unexpected healings.  First and foremost, the Spirit is given to draw us into communion – into koinonia.  Into unity – with God and with one another.  That’s why we refer in so many hymns to the Spirit as the Creator Spirit.  For as one Catechism reminds us  “God…in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man [sic] to make him share in his own blessed life… He calls man to seek him, to know him, [and] to love him with all his strength.”  Or, as the Reformation Westminster Catechism more baldly puts it “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”   The work of the Holy Spirit in human lives is this work.  The drawing of the many into the One that we may realise our calling.  Our calling to live in communion.  Because that is to share in God’s own life where communion constitutes being.  God is communion, living in relationship – which is part of what the doctrine of the Trinity speaks about.  Anything that opposes this growing into communion is sinful – and the sin is deep-set.  It’s not just people setting up their own churches that is sinful – there is sin in the perceived or real rejection that such people find from the mainstream Church too.  A two-way process.


Sin stops us from finding our true selves by losing them in communion.  Very rapidly sin erects barriers to isolate us both from one another and from the living God.  When this happens in the life of the Church, the community that is supposed to be a sacrament of God in the pattern of Jesus, the great Sacrament of God, then this is indeed mortal sin.  Deadly sin.


And when it happens, when Christian people isolate themselves from one another by drawing lines of

demarcation between what they will and will not accept, or between whom they will or will not accept as part of their communities, then progressively those communities cease to be saving realities in our world.  A divided Church is simply a Church not fit for purpose. 


So the call to unity for Christian people is not a call to some administrative tidiness, a call to become a streamlined, cost-effective instrument of the Gospel.  The call to unity is a call for the Church to be its true self.  A sacrament of encounter with the living God, the One God, whose very being is communion.  koinonia..  The Way of true life.   


That this is an even greater necessity in our own times should be self-evident.  Last year we witnessed a whole progression of events which illustrate just what a divided world we are presently inhabiting, and a world which is heading for an environmental catastrophe.  A divided Church cannot effectively challenge such evil in our midst, cannot effectively offer another way, a better way.  If our faith is seen as a kind of pick-and-mix option, one choice amongst many others from the great supermarket shelves of life, then of course boundaries and choices begin to assume a significance and importance that they should not have.


But isolation is not part of the Gospel by which we live.  The world we inhabit is a complex one, where life at the local level cannot be separated from events in a different part of the globe.  The problems which this brings cannot be solved by a single nation alone, they cannot be solved by pulling up the drawbridge and lowering the portcullis as if we lived in a medieval castle.  Our common humanity demands something better if the interests of the common good of that humanity are to stand any chances of being adequately served.


A divided Church is at best less than adequate for giving a fuller vision.  Our Lord prayed that his followers be one as he instituted the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, the means by which what is signified is made real.  He prayed that we might be one with the Oneness of God – the very being-as-communion revealed in the Trinity.  Unity is not an optional extra, a five star rating.  Unity is essential.


And, thank God, we have made some steps towards that.  Even though statistics show us another picture.

But there is – all will acknowledge – a very great distance still to travel.  And whilst we live in a political and cultural climate where isolation from, if not outright suspicion of, those who appear different from us in some easily definable way, then the work of unity is even more difficult.


Whilst there is much that can be seen to be lacking within our own Anglican Communion, there are some signs of hope.  First, despite many predictions to the contrary, the Anglican Communion has not split up.  In fact there are more Anglican Christians worldwide now than there were twenty years ago.  A lot more, even if they are largely not found in Europe.  And as part of a Church which unites both reformed and Catholic practice and understanding, we have a part to play in the global picture.  It’s true that we wrestle with mighty issues, not least in the field of sexual ethics.  But we do this and continue to do this as people-in-communion – with each other and, as far as may be in this fallen world and broken Church, with God.  And this goes

beyond a kind of mutual respect towards an active celebration of difference and diversity.


Because such diversity comes ultimately from the unity of God.  Understanding this unity of God and the unity of God’s purpose in the diversity of human flourishing is an important step towards the reunion of Christian people in a single Church.


For in reality, that is what we are, could we but see it.  Our baptism unites us with Christ.  Not with a particular flavour of Christ, nor a particular language of Christ.  Certainly not with a denomination of Christ.  That baptism into the One Christ who shares the Oneness of God absolutely, is nourished at every Eucharist.  And as we are drawn deeper into the koinonia of God, we realize that the silly barriers we want to put up around ourselves, in whatever way, are just that.  Things that get in the way of being truly human.


So this coming week we pray for unity.  Not because it would be nice or convenient or administratively tidy and cost-effective or even because it would be easier for people to make a commitment if they don’t have too many different competing choices.  We pray for unity because unless we have such unity – in Christ with God, and in Christ with one another – there is simply no real hope for our world.