Leader: Unity agreeable to God’s will

by
24 October 2007

ONE WORLD WEEK, drawing to a close, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held in January: the one echoes and resonates with the other; and, during both, Christians of different denominations join for prayer and the voicing of lofty aspirations. But do they wholeheartedly mean what they say? What sacrifices, for example, are they willing to make so that others in faraway countries can enjoy a higher standard of living? And would those sacrifices be at a level that clearly implied that faraway people have equal value to them, and are similarly deserving or undeserving of the good things in life — and of an endurable future climate, and of equal political rights and stability? It is a modern version of the old challenge in the Prayer Book: “The remembrance of them [our sins] is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.” If it truly were, perhaps the communicant would not return so soon to breakfast; but the sinner needs an ideal as well as a rule.

Christian unity poses a similar challenge. “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom.” But what if peace and unity mean self-denial, putting up with the awkward squad, seeing your uncongenial neighbours make friends? At the moment, many US Episcopalians feel the self-denial to be all on one side. But, apart from its resolution about sexuality, the 1998 Lambeth Conference also passed a little-known resolution about the so-called Continuing Churches. Important questions, it said, were raised by their emergence; and it asked the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates’ Meeting to consider how best to maintain and initiate dialogue with them, “with a view to the reconciliation of all who own the Anglican tradition”.

At the Forward in Faith Assembly last weekend, there was talk of “gathering up the fragments” in the light of the Pittsburgh meeting last month. Primates in the Global South, wishing to do business with American conservatives, had urged them to lay aside their differences and speak together in the common cause. Since the 1970s, fragmentation and eccentricity — at least in the eyes of many English observers — have characterised disaffected ex-Episcopalians in the US, and their offshoots in other provinces. This has been damaging to individuals; but it has also no doubt been perceived as in the interest of the Episcopal Church. The evident danger of that point of view, as of the knitting up of severed friendships which apparently took place at Pittsburgh, is that it may lead to the kind of unity to whose questionable character theologians’ eyes have recently been opened by the writings of René Girard. It is also true in the Christian life, however, that motives are hardly ever unmixed; and it may be that even those most strongly opposed to the current movement towards “realignment” — a word used in preference to “division” — in the Anglican Communion will in the end decide that there has been more than political maneouvring at work.

It all points, perhaps, to the necessity of a purification of mind, heart, and speech — an integrity that is about more than just “Here I stand” — on all sides of the rifts in the Anglican and Continuing Churches. Whatever these various bodies look like next year, or in years to come, they may then find it easier to persuade the world that they have truth in the inward parts.

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