THERE is very little about the difficulty of Christian unity which is not known to those living in religious communities. A common home, a common purse, a common purpose — nothing grants immunity from the irritations and disputes that arise when living in proximity with others. Most Religious recognise that the lifelong task of aligning oneself with Christ is best done communally and with the encouragement of others; but the very existence of binding vows suggests a wisdom that knows about the times when pleasure and mutual support are not enough to keep people together.
It was fortunate, then, that the organisers of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity chose to draw on the experience of the community of Sisters at Grandchamp, in Switzerland. Who better to lead the scattered Christian Church in its efforts to abide in Christ during a global crisis than an established religious community? This is not because they are free of the tensions of disunity and safe in a pious bubble, but because they know those tensions intimately. They know, too, the temptation to speak freely and warmly of unity, even to believe that one is practising it, while “the scandal of the separation of Christians”, as the rule of Taizé calls it, persists.
It is too soon to know how the enforced separation caused by the coronavirus pandemic will affect people in the long term. Perhaps the new survey, drawn up by Andrew Village and Leslie Francis, will provide answers. There is certainly evidence that points in different directions: of people dropping below their church’s eyeline, despite all the efforts online; and of others who have been drawn into online communities that span the world. Many have remarked on the blurring of denominational distinctiveness. This has been especially true away from the computer, in the vital work of supporting and feeding of those hardest hit in the lockdowns. It is a lesson — and a relief — that those receiving help from churches and Christian organisations have little or no perception of the divisions that exist.
There remains much to be addressed. The United States, as always, provides extreme examples of Christians divided along political, ideological, theological, and, most shockingly, racial faultlines. The closing of churches has had the effect of diverting attention from the institutional differences and liturgical quirks that usually occupy ecumenists and exposing the deep divisions in political outlook and lifestyle which are mostly overlooked or tolerated. Instead of comparing shades of theological interpretation of what happens at the altar, it might be time to start asking how Christians can vote for opposing political parties, especially when that opposition tips over into violence. The Taizé rule is as relevant as ever: “Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians who so readily profess love for their neighbour, and yet remain divided. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern.”