Sunday 24 January 2021
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:21-23, John 17:20-23
If you have been joining me for morning or evening prayer over the past week then you will have noticed that we have been travelling through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
If you have not been joining me for prayer during the week then I hope you have been praying in other ways, as suits you best. However, if you have not been praying at all during the week then we need to talk. Seriously, the only way we can grow in our relationship with God is by spending time with him in prayer and if we only show up once a week then how do we expect to grow as disciples? That’s another sermon but if you want to speak to me about prayer then please do. Prayer for the Christian is not an optional extra and it cannot be ‘contracted out’ to the Vicar, although he does pray for you nonetheless.
In the Anglican calendar today is actually the third week of Epiphany, and the reading set for today was Jesus turning water in wine at the wedding at Cana.
I was going to make the point that when Mary spoke to Jesus and told him to make some more wine, these are the only recorded words in the Bible that she spoke to him directly, and I love the fact that it was to ask for wine. Quite relatable during lockdown. But I shall save that until next year, because if we can no longer get wine from France we may need another miracle.
But this year I do want to reflect on Christian Unity and the readings have been changed accordingly. I am actually amazed that I have never preached on this before because it is something that is close to my heart in many ways and I do pray regularly for church unity, even when it is not the week so to do.
Fortunately, disunity amongst Christians is not the substantial issue here that it has been in our past. In this country Protestants have burned Catholics and vice versa and in the history of St Mary’s Hadlow, which would have been Roman Catholic before the Reformation, the list of previous incumbents shows Catholic clergy being replaced by Puritan ministers and the toing and froing on that list during the 1500 and 1600s speaks volumes about an age of unrest and change.
There is no doubt that, here at least, things have changed for the better on that front. Plague years notwithstanding I have been delighted ever since arriving here to walk around Hadlow with our Catholic sisters and brothers on Good Friday, holding up the cross and praying together, with no one burning anyone. I have also been delighted that St Mary’s is once again playing a full part in Tonbridge Area Churches Together. In fact, it was only last Thursday morning that we had a Zoom call between church leaders of the Anglican churches, the Baptists, the Methodists, Hillsong, the River Church, the URC and the Redeemed Christian Church of God. We all acknowledge and respect each other’s differences but all treat each other as being fully Christian, and we laugh together and pray together and events like Sunday Funday have been a great joint outreach.
But, sadly, sectarianism is not confined to history. In the memories of everyone here today we will be aware of division and hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and walls still exist between certain neighbour-hoods in Belfast. In Glasgow there are similar divisions and, back in the days when we had pubs, I’m sure that a Celtic fan wouldn’t venture into a Rangers pub.
It has also been fascinating watching the world of American politics through the eyes of faith. The evangelical Christians who endorsed former-President Trump could hardly have been more different in their words and prayers and behaviour from the Catholic priest who prayed at President Biden’s inauguration. Although I may be wrong, it is genuinely hard to imagine some of those evangelicals admitting that Catholics are properly Christian. In fact, that is not solely an American phenomena. I remember once going into a Christian bookshop in London and the person in front of me asked for a book by a particular author. The shop assistant whispered that they did not stock it because the author was a Catholic. The same shop also filed their books about Catholicism in the cult section. So, we must never assume that Christians here are beyond such things.
Even if we do think that we are beyond disunity with our fellow Christians here at parish-level the sad reality is that at denominational level there is still substantial division. I have already mentioned the upheaval of the Reformation and the fact is that the Catholic and Anglican Churches are still ‘out of communion’ with one another. Although the Catholic church recognises the validity of baptism in our church it does not officially recognise our eucharist as being properly consecrated, not least because it does not recognise the validity of Anglican ordination. A fundamentalist Catholic may well view me as a heterodox lay person, occupying their building and only pretending to celebrate communion. Harsh but logical.
Many of you will be familiar with the Methodist Church, which obviously grew out of Anglicanism through the ministry of Wesley and his desire to make disciples of people outside the structures of the Church of England. In many ways great strides have been made in healing the divisions between our churches – on a personal level, I work very closely with Sharon Lovelock from Higham Lane Methodist Church in the Chaplaincy at Hadlow College and there are many ‘Local Ecumenical Partnerships’ in which worship and buildings are shared, including at St Andrews in Paddock Wood. But still, despite many years of talks we have failed to properly reunite at a denominational level, largely because of different views about the authority of Bishops but also, I suspect, because people get wedded to their structures which become more important that unity. That applies both ways, by the way.
But what does Christian Unity mean, and when did dis-Unity start?
It is clear from our Gospel reading this morning that Jesus prayed that his followers would be ‘one’. And the purpose of this ‘oneness’ is so that the world may see their unity and believe in Jesus. In verse 21:
“so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
and in verse 23:
“that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Jesus doesn’t pray for unity amongst the believers just because it is nice to be nice but as a witness to the world – so that the world would believe.
I have atheist friends who, when they look at Christianity see thousands of different churches and sects and denominations and they say that if you guys can’t agree amongst yourself then how are you going to convince me? It’s a valid question and it seems to be the one Jesus was praying about.
But, despite even the prayers of Jesus, humans still have freewill and it is clear that divisions and disunity were a fact of Church life from the beginning. At the Last Supper Judas showed the ultimate disunity by betraying Jesus.
In the letter to the Corinthians St Paul is extorting the church there to put their faith in Jesus before their preference or loyalty to any church leader, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but it is clear that this arises from a situation of disunity where exactly this has been happening. Although it is deeply human nature to prefer some people over others Paul is saying loud and clear that our unity is found in our identity in Christ.
So, the Church in Corinth had some internal divisions going on, but it is also crystal-clear from the New Testament that there were all sorts of other divisions going on – primarily between the Jewish followers of Jesus, headed by Peter and James and the gentile converts being made by Paul. Although in today’s epistle Paul is seeking to heal such divisions it is also clear from elsewhere that he and Peter were not above sharp disputes from time to time.
Following the closure of the New Testament period Christianity spread around the Mediterranean and, for the first 1000 years of church history, it is a story of self-governing churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome, which had differences but which were always in communion with one another. However, when the Roman empire in the West collapsed and the Byzantine Empire in the East continued there was an ever increasing division between the church in Rome and the four churches in the East. This culminated in the Great Schism of 1054 when communion was broken between what came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.
Later, as mentioned, we had the Reformation and communion was broken between us and Rome and, since then, the history of Protestantism has been one of further division and even atomisation in which faith is only ever a personal matter and the whole concept of being ‘in communion’ with anyone or anything else seems meaningless.
It is sobering to think that the church which stood here in 975 would have celebrated a eucharist which was recognised throughout the Christian world but it is now not even recognised by fellow Christians in this country. That does not feel like progress to me.
Breaking with one another is always done, I am sure, with the best intentions. Either to seek to get closer to the true meaning of the bible, or to listen to a more inspiring preacher, or to take the faith to the people more effectively, or to attend a form of worship which speaks to us better or for a hundred other understandable reasons.
But if the Church is the body of Christ then it has always seemed to me that divisions in the church are wounds in the body of Christ. Do we contribute to exacerbating those wounds or do we seek to heal them, to be one so that the world may see and believe?
And so we pray for unity, which echoes the prayer of Jesus. But what would unity look like? I don’t think that it unity needs to mean uniformity – all looking the same and worshiping in the same way. Diversity, I believe, is fine – the body of Christ has many cells which work in different ways and for different purposes, but always for the good of the whole. A Christian in mid-West America is always going to be different from us as we are from a Christian in Armenia or Ethiopia. The body of Christ can cope with diversity.
But my prayer now and always is that we can be in communion with one another – that we can fully recognise and proclaim one another to be full members of the body of Christ – that all those who proclaim Father, Son and Holy Spirit are within the divine economy.
If the kingdom is divided against itself then it cannot stand. But if we are one, if we love each other and recognise each other and treat each other fully as members of the same body of Christ here in St Mary’s, across the breadth of the Church of England, and between denominations then the world will see and know that we are in Christ, that Christ is in us to the glory of God the Father.
So pray. Pray regularly. Pray for unity. And don’t forget that unity with others always begins with unity in your own heart.