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That the 46,000 may be one

13 January 2017

EACH year, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, based at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, publishes a one-page summary of the state of world Christianity. The figures are only as good as their sources: the page requires several further pages of methodology. It remains, none the less, a laudable exercise. Sadly, the statisticians have dropped the column that calculates the daily change for each category, but it is still possible to estimate that an average of 2.4 new Christian denominations spring up each day, taking the global total in early 2016 to 46,000. Many of these are simply independent churches, lacking a national or even regional structure. No one could object to spontaneous responses to the Holy Spirit’s working — though one would like to see them drawing together with their neighbours pretty quickly. Many denominations, though, are created through schism, when church members decide that they can no longer tolerate the behaviour or beliefs of their co-religionists. Typically, in such circumstances, one party feels righteous and the other relieved; but the Holy Spirit is not fooled.

In their preface to Looking Forward to a Church Fully Reconciled, the collection of documents from the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II), the co-chairs write: “The reality of our divisions since the Reformation remains a scandal, when we think of Christ’s call to be one. . . . We believe, however, that the redeeming grace of God is never withdrawn and that the reconciling movement of the Holy Spirit abounds all the more in the midst of our schism and woundedness.” There is a pious paradox in this last sentiment, which, if uttered by a football manager, would translate roughly as “The worse our team plays, the more chance it has of winning.” It is, of course, wise to recall that Christian unity is the work of the Spirit, but all the evidence suggests that God does not impose unity on those who eschew it. Schism and woundedness can be opportunities for God to work, but they must first be acknowledged as such. All too often, members of a denomination sit comfortably in their adopted tradition, unaware of the glories, insights, and challenges they are missing.

We thus enter the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the same hopeful spirit as in the past, but with our eyes open. For those with energy and imagination (and transport), joint services with Christians of other denominations are a way to revive the friendliness that might have been neglected of late, creating a fertile ground for united enterprises and closer working in the weeks ahead. For others, though, it is just a morning or evening off. When patterns and places of worship seem so enduring and permanent, encouraging people to recognise disunity as a scandal is never easy.

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