Some thoughts about Christian Unity

Posted on by Tania Birtwistle

In late January the universal church celebrated the week of prayer for Christian unity.  In Southwold and District the local churches participated, and a special service was held at Southwold Methodist church on 21st January.  My experience of the church during my lifetime suggests to me that much progress has been made.  When I was a student I attended a Baptist Church for a number of years and remember being told that Anglicans only go to church to be seen, and are not real Christians.  When the great storm of 1987 blew down a Methodist chapel, an Anglican was heard to observe “serves them right.”  Such sentiments are not ones that I ever hear now, and have hopefully all been left behind in the 1980s.

In a world of change and uncertainty, in which the Christian faith, its values and position in society can no longer be taken for granted, it seems to me that the churches have grown out of many of the rivalries that used to divide us, and we are now better at supporting each other with a shared sense of mission.  I wonder if you agree with me!  If I am right this is a sign of blessing and of prayer answered.

I wonder what we mean therefore when we pray now for Christian unity.  I am sure that we are not praying to all be the same, or necessarily to all be in the same denomination.  Anglicans and Methodists have been trying to sort this out for decades, but our unity keeps being frustrated because of various theological traditions.  I find this very sad.  I was at one time the Environment Officer for Wakefield Diocese.  In this role I came to appreciate that God has made a world of infinite variety.  The plant and animal kingdoms are created in such a way as no two creatures, not even two leaves on the same tree, are identical.  Yet two different leaves are still part of the same tree.  It is inevitable therefore that in our relationship to God we do not all experience him in the same way.  In education it is understood that people learn in different ways.  Some learn through words, others through pictures, some by being told, some by doing it oneself.  Therefore some worship styles will appeal to some, and other worship styles to others.  We do not all have to be the same.  Arguing about the validity of Holy Orders and the sacramental nature of Holy Communion would, I believe, sadden our Lord’s heart. 

I am sure therefore that praying for Christian unity requires something of us, beyond just praying about it.  If our prayers are genuine, what response are we going to offer to enable the Holy Spirit to answer our prayers?  Risk and sacrifice will be involved.  Within the Christian tradition hospitality is very important.  Jesus accepted invitations from all sorts of people across the whole social spectrum, and paid no heed to personal preference, respectability of tradition.  Jesus also laid down his life for the sake of those he loved.  Risk and sacrifice were both ingredients on the path to new risen life. 

In Halifax a few years ago the local Christians were invited to a meal by the local Islamic centre.  The church community was primarily made up of women beyond retirement age.  These women were very uncertain about going to “that place” and eating all that funny food.  “Curry does not agree with me”, etc etc. The Islamic tradition dictated that it the men who received their guests and no women from their community were expected to be at the meal.  The average age profile was much younger.  So it was that a most unlikely social gathering took place.  A group of young Muslim men received a group of 70 plus year old English women Anglicans into their community centre, for a meal that the women were not too sure they wanted to eat.  Both groups took a risk, neither understood the other, but as a result of eating together much progress was made, and mutual understanding began.  “Thank you luv, I liked them funny coloured bits in’t rice.”  “You are very welcome Grand mother…luv.”  Finding a suitable occasion to offer an acceptable return invitation sadly proved difficult, so the relationship progressed very slowly.  Friendship requires a mutual embrace.

If we mean what we pray about Christian unity I guess something of this example applies to us all.  Risk taking, stepping out of personal comfort zones, being equally as willing to offer as well as to receive hospitality throughout the whole life of our churches, and all done in a spirit of genuine love for the sake of the one who is loved, not because I am right & I am being polite.  Unity like this would demonstrate to the world the inclusive character of the Gospel of Christ, the welcome that he offers to each of us, and the readiness to make room that enables everyone to find their place.

Revd. Simon Pitcher