Sunday 27 February 2011

A Modest Proposal For Christian Unity

(The first half of this piece is my article on The Importance of Christian Unity. I would recommend reading that first if you haven't already. It also has the slides I used when giving both halves as a presentation. (It can also be found directly below this article on my blog))

I've now explained why I think this issue is so important for Christians. But I don't want to finish with just a vague appeal.  In the spirit of personal commitment I also want to talk about the practical problems of achieving Unity. Fundamentally the change we need to see is in our hearts rather than in the external world. Not because external change is unimportant, but because only from our hearts can this change be achieved and sustained as a reality. There is no point just fiddling with external structures if we ourselves do not change.

However, with the scale and complexity of the problem we must also consider how to drive and effect this change in the meantime. The task is huge but with God's grace nothing is impossible, and certainly not something so close and dear to his will and heart. In this I believe there are broadly three areas that we must be constantly aware of.

The First thing is to recognize who our friends are. I'll explain what I mean.

One question that I haven't answered yet is who I'm including as Christians who could or should be reunited in One Christian Church. I don't think it's possible to give one binary answer to that question but rather to talk about those who are closer or further away from us in unity and doctrine. Most fundamentally, to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. The Bible says clearly that "no-one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit". This makes it clear that the Holy Spirit works within all those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and recognises them as Christian (in some basic sense).

Those who worship God as their Father and Jesus Christ as Lord form a group in humanity clearly recognisable as differentiated from those of other religions and ideologies. Even in the bad old days of sectarianism this was recognised, with those who confessed Christ, but were considered to get serious things wrong, called heretics, in difference to those who weren't Christians, who were labelled infidels. In fact it is possible to go further than this. Almost all denominations recognise the possibility of those who, as the Catholic Catechism states, "through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ" also through the grace of God reaching eternal salvation, whether or not they have ever even heard the name Jesus Christ.

It is definitely possible to be more precise than this vague statement about "Jesus is Lord" though. All the 4 major Christian families I mentioned before: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Non-Trinitarian share in this heritage, that Christ is Lord and God is our Father. Taking out the Non-Trinitarian grouping though, which is the most different, both internally and to the others, we are left with Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic. These three groups constitute Trinitarian Christianity and share a huge common heritage and similarity compared to which their differences are, truthfully, small and often downright invisible to those from outside their communities not versed in the history of the conflict.

Most basically we share the concept of the Trinity, a belief in One God in Three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We share a belief that the man Jesus of Nazareth who walked in Judea 2000 years ago is also God Almighty, the Son of the Trinity. We believe he is both fully God and fully man; that he is the single most important man who ever has or will live, and that he came to bring eternal salvation to all mankind. We share a common, complete Scripture, the Old and New Testaments of 66 books and we believe this Holy Bible is the authoritative and divinely inspired word of God. We trust in Jesus' Apostles to have recorded and transmitted the truth about Jesus and we take their interpretation as authoritative. We share our fundamental standard of prayer: the Lord's Prayer, and the three historic creeds (Nicene, Apostolic and Athanasian), with their detailed description of Christian doctrine; the two fundamental sacraments of Baptism and Communion as necessary to the Faith, and various other ceremonies such as Marriage and Burial. We all share a historical basis in Judaism, as well as at least 400 years of history, a joint heritage of early Christian Saints and Holy Men, the folk memory of the persecution of the early Church under the Roman Empire, and the eventual victory of Christianity. We share core theology of the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing strength and truth, of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and of the importance of Good works to faith, and the mission of all Christians to "make disciples of all the nations" and to make the Kingdom of God a reality on this earth. And I could go on for some time.

This Trinitarian Christian community numbers about 90% of Christians. There is a further subset of this group though that shares even more than this. All Orthodox, Catholics and some Protestants share a common heritage of how Christians should be organised based on the Apostolic succession. We share a belief in the importance of the threefold ministry of Deacons, Priests and Bishops; the Apostolic Succession of Bishops in a line going back to the Apostles and Jesus himself and the importance of Tradition (with a big T) as a source of doctrine and interpretation. (As well as doctrines such as the real presence, veneration of Saints, Liturgy, etc, etc.) And this further subset makes up about 70% of Christians. It is also possible to go further and identify which group within this diversity are closest to each other, and have the most in common down to a fineness. But we would be here forever and it is multidimensional question, so as I mentioned before there is no one clear measure to rank people by or standard to judge with.

Now, I do not by any of this mean to make little of, minimise or ignore the differences that do exist between Christians and Christian groups. These issues are often serious, important and deeply felt. But rather to put these differences in the context in which they truthfully exist. Genuine dialogue and work towards reconciliation cannot occur on the basis of ignoring differences or abandoning one's own beliefs, but rather in being honest and open about the differences and the similarities that do exist between groups, and neither ignoring or minimising either. We will never move forward without a genuine willingness to change and compromise and no church or person within the body of Christ is perfect. We all have our sins and our mistakes, in the past and today, and without the willingness to admit this there can be no progress. But this does not mean that we can start the journey by abandoning the Truth we currently hold. You never get anywhere by watering down or avoiding the Truth because that is the very thing that we seek to unite around.

Friday 11 February 2011

The Importance of Christian Unity - A Cry From the Heart!

(This is the first half of a two part talk I gave about Christian Unity.  The 2nd half can be found here on A Modest Proposal of Christian Unity.  The slides I used when giving this as a presentation are at the bottom of this post.)

Some of you are hopefully aware that a few weeks ago was the official Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011. The idea of this week is what it says on the tin, a period where Christians will devote themselves to praying for God's grace in achieving unity and fellowship among all Christians, as Jesus intended and prayed on the night before he died in the garden of Gethsemane.

Christian Unity is something I feel very strongly about.  It is impossible to seriously doubt that Christians are divided, and that once we were united.  We were together when Jesus was here, and after he left us the Bible tells us that "all the believers were together and had everything in common" and that they "broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts".  But over time that unity and love between them was broken.  Over the two thousands years since then the Christian community grew and grew beyond all imagination, across centuries and continents, until today there are Christians in every country in the world and 30% of humanity at least identify as Christian.  But sadly this unity and love and closeness we once had is now gone.

If you wanted to make a list of the different types of Christian you could start with breaking them down into Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Non-Trinitarian.  Each of these groups number in the hundreds of millions, and internally bear various similarities of origin and structure.  But even these are families of organisations bearing certain similarities rather than single christian communities.  The Roman Catholic church is the closest, constituting 95% of the Catholic strand, but even here there are other groups.  The Orthodox can be broken into Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Church of the East, the first two of which are themselves communions of a number of, generally, nationally organised Churches.  The Protestant strand is famously disunited, being constituted of hundreds to thousands of organisations, from a huge number of individual independent churches to world-wide families of Churches such as the Anglican Communion. Non-trinitarianism is a vague term for a range of 'churches' who reject the traditional Christian theology in various ways, including Mormons, Christadelphians and extreme 'Liberal' Theology. They are disparate and generally widely different though united by their rejection of the Trinity, and by all being a relatively modern offshoots from the other Christian groups.

This gives the most basic breakdown of the wide range of groups and organisations that claim descent from the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and are based on the joint declaration that 'Christ is Lord'. It is however the most basic of explanations. To properly list all the organisations that fill up these categories would take an encyclopedia all on its own. It would take another one to explain all the (generally far smaller) groups and individuals who don't easily fall into any of these categories.

With the passing of 2000 years and the journey through civilisations, languages, continents and the troubles of war and politics, it is not surprising that some differences and arguments would have emerged between a body that now numbers 2 billion people.  But there is more to the division than a natural floating apart.  At times and in places it has been marked by a brutality, a disregard for others, arrogance, xenophobia and hatred, and too often sectarianism masquerading as principle.  Some of its greatest divisions have grown almost by accident, for reasons that few can recognise even today, but have then gone on to grow into chasms that has led to so much trouble and pain.

Looking back through history our greatest hurt and damage has so often come about not because of any action by those who hate us and Christianity but by our own disunion and inability to work together and love one another. Arguably our greatest loss, the conquest of the Middle East by the Muslims, 1300 years ago, would not have been possible if it were not for the fact the native Christian populations welcomed the Muslim armies, because it freed them from their Government, which had persecuted them because it belonged to a different Christian faction.  And so the land that is now Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, which were once Christian, were lost, and are now overwhelmingly Muslim countries.

Civil Wars are always the most brutal, and for centuries our divisions have led us to do terrible things to each other, and to entrench hatred between nations and peoples.  And in doing so we have disgraced the Gospel and reduced the power of our witness.  Our message is lost and the world laughs at us.  Once upon a time people said about us, these Christians "look how they love one another", but now they say, these Christians, how can we listen to them when they cannot even agree with each other?  How can they talk about how we need to love when they cannot even love each other?  And they ignore the name of God and Jesus Christ because we fight among each other.

I have a great belief in the importance of Christian Unity.  It has always been something I have thought about a bit ever since I became old enough to understand that we were divided. I couldn't understand why.  But it was not something that bothered me a great deal, I just got on with life, went to Church, sang, prayed, thought, played, studied and grew from a child to an adult.  Then something happened.  Firstly, I had begun reading more about the historical events of our splits and divisions, and how many seemed so ridiculous, and how even at the times of the splits themselves, no one involved had meant such lasting divisions to happen.  I also had begun hearing about the persecution of Christians around the world, who lived in countries less fortunate than ours, where they could not worship God in peace.  And that made me think.

And then it was Christmas of my 1st year at University, and I was at home, and I was washing my hands, of all things, and my mind was wandering, as it does from thing to thing.  I was thinking about my faith in a vague kind of way, but then suddenly my thoughts accelerated tumbling from topic to topic and then in an instant I was hit by a profound religious experience.  A message from God hit me like a punch to the chest and for just a second my mind opened with perfect clarity, the breath caught in my chest and my eyes saw straight through the room around me. In that instant I was utterly convicted of my sin, I felt it in every part of my body. It was the strangest thing, it felt like my body was pulling apart into pieces, like I had lost several limbs all at once and I felt the loss.  And it came into my mind from somewhere precisely what the pain was, and precisely what the sin was I was convicted of.  The pain was the pain of the Body of Christ divided.  It was the pain of Jesus Christ felt from his body being torn apart and his children being separated and distant from each other in their hearts.  And what was that sin I felt fully convicted of in that moment?  It was the sin of Convenience!  The sin of neglect!  I had never broken from my brothers and sisters; I have never encouraged division or sectarianism; I had never operated from an assumption that my kind must know best about everything, or that someone else could have nothing to offer because he was different to me.  I had done nothing.