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Unity requires more than ‘being nice’

21 January 2021

The language of diversity is not enough to overcome divisions between and within the Churches, says Paul W. Thomas. New thinking is needed


Pope Francis greets the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Vatican, in 2017

Pope Francis greets the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Vatican, in 2017

DISUNITY is a “thorn in the flesh” of today’s Church. That description comes from St Paul. Although he never identifies the “thorn” which troubled him, some scholars suggest that he might have been referring to hostile opponents in the Church. He prayed three times for the Lord to remove it, but nothing happened; so, instead, he resorted to a theology of God’s power shining through human weakness.

We have prayed considerably more than three times for the Lord to heal our divisions, but they have remained firmly in place. So, perhaps, like Paul, we need to devise a theology which can put a positive twist on this persistent problem?

Down the years, the Church has deployed several different strategies to bolster its unity. An early and long-lasting approach was to see dissent as heresy and condemn its perpetrators to punishment, both temporal and eternal. The ecclesiastical machine rarely faltered, and the misinterpretation of the command “compel them to come in”, in Luke 14, made Christianity the most murderous religion in human history.

The 20th century brought new initiatives. Christians of all traditions were very aware that the thorn was tearing the flesh of the Church, compromising its visible unity and undermining its message of reconciliation. The Churches needed to talk — and they did. A series of Commissions and Covenants followed, none of which brought universal harmony or lasting consent.

Then, the tack changed again. All the churches in the West faced rapid decline; mission leapt to the top of the agenda. There was a lot of talk about the New Testament concept koinonia, which translates as communion or partnership, and Christians of different traditions were encouraged to find a degree of unity in shared activity, especially where that was seen to have a missional focus. For a while, the thorn did not seem to dig so sharply. But society was changing rapidly, and would soon present the Churches with new challenges.


THOSE challenges belong in the sphere of morality. We might have been able to move our attention away from Christian belief to Christian behaviour, and thereby display more of the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17, and Paul commended repeatedly in his Epistles; but it is precisely in the sphere of behaviour that our deepest divisions look likely to appear.

We have had a glimpse of it in the response of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, to the Living in Love and Faith project (News, 1 January). But relations with other Communions have already cooled as divergences over sexual morality have appeared.

Tolerance in this sphere seems much harder to come by. If behaviour is sinful or unbiblical, runs the argument, then it is bound to cut a person off from God; they cannot be regarded as “in Christ”. There can be no process of “reception”, because to accommodate their standards is to play fast and loose with the truth, to dishonour God, and to compromise the gospel. There is the danger of moral contamination and falling prey to the wiles of the devil.

When the stakes are that high, agreement is impossible, no matter how much talk there might be of indaba and a genuine willingness to listen. Separation is the only solution. Thirty years ago, Archbishop John Habgood predicted that the deepest divisions in Christendom would exist between those whose moral outlook was conservative and those who took a more liberal stance.

The language of diversity will not cover this kind of divergence. This time, the thorn will destroy any semblance of unity.


SO, WHERE do we go from here?

First, towards a better understanding of conflict. The Graeco-Roman words for peace emphasise “truce”; the Hebrew word emphasises “transformation”. Achieving the latter makes conflict inevitable, as we strive to create conditions which allow flourishing at all levels of existence. Being nice won’t do it; we need to feel the pain of repeated rebuffs on the path to reconciliation and restoration.

Second, in becoming a Church less sure of itself — less sure of its monopoly of the truth or its power to heal. There is plenty of salvation outside the Church, where God is always at work. If we were willing to acknowledge that, and form better partnerships with other human groupings of good will, we would become more approachable, attractive, and accessible. We would be doing mission in spite of ourselves.

Third, in letting our drift into the margins and a state of liminality reveal new possibilities. Those who live there — musicians, painters, poets, journalists, etc. — often experience a communitas: a unity which transcends the divisions which separate others, in normal society. Perhaps the same would happen to a weakened Church, and new patterns of togetherness might emerge.

In short, disunity could be the key to the renewal of the Church, at least in the West.


The Ven. Paul W. Thomas is the Archdeacon of Salop in Lichfield diocese.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began on Monday of last week (News, 15 January).

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