What is unity? I’ve had occasion to ask myself that a lot recently. When we pray for Christian unity, are we thinking that unity means we all agree, that we share the same opinions? Or does it mean that we can disagree with respect about the nonessentials knowing that we share the same foundation as beloved children of God? I don’t want to get political on us, but I continually hear one party complaining that the other is being so divisive and, if they win the election, the country will magically return to unity. How does that work? Does that mean suddenly all the followers of the other party have changed their opinions? I find that as we near the election, I get more and more concerned that our political divisiveness will become irreparable and that we will have lost hope in those things that bind us together as a nation. But, our political unity isn’t what this blog is all about.
We all probably remember that camp meeting song that goes “We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Easy to sing, not always so easy to live. This week, the Primates of the 38 Anglican Provinces have been meeting in Canterbury. This meeting is fraught with challenges because of the widely divided opinions held by some of the leaders in the Anglican Communion. For some, the questions at hand are not negotiable; they are part of the very foundation of their beliefs. Such strongly held convictions make unity a challenge, for sure. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has asked for prayer as they gather. In an article from Episcopal News Service (ENS), Welby commented:
As we approach the Primates Meeting we need to recognize that we’re going to be dealing with some very, very difficult issues – within the life of the Anglican Communion but also hugely difficult issues that are affecting the whole church of Christ and our whole world.
What I would ask people to pray for more than anything else is wisdom and love. That the love of Christ for each of us, for each of us who are sinners, each of us who fail, will so overwhelm us that we are able to love each other as we should. And wisdom that we may know the call and purpose of God and in love and wisdom serve his world in the way he calls us to.
A group of young adults from the Community of St Anselm which was launched at Lambeth Palace last year will be praying each day at Canterbury Cathedral as the discussions take place among the Primates. These 17 young Christians have experienced a similar challenge to unity as they have worked and worshiped together. “As a community we had nothing in common at the start of this year except the unrelenting desire to be shaped into the likeness of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father,” reported the Rev. Anders Litzell, Prior of the community. “So we have experienced on a small but personal scale the pain of division and disagreement. But we have also found real unity through the monastic virtues of humility under authority, mutual obedience, shared life and service to Christ in the face of the poor.”
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has also exhorted us to pray for this meeting. In a statement he made on January 7, Bishop Michael said: “I invite Episcopalians to join me in prayer for this gathering, that God will be fully present with us and that we may follow our Lord Jesus in the ways of His love and in so doing be part of God’s blessing to the world.” http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/01/08/anglican-primates-encircled-by-prayer-ahead-of-canterbury-meeting/
Some of the discussions will include topics in which there is much disagreement with the agenda set by those in attendance. These will include religiously-motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment and human sexuality.
Archbishop Welby has been hoping that a path towards reconciliation rather than schism might be an outcome of this meeting. He recognizes that “reconciliation doesn’t always mean agreement; in fact it very seldom does. It means finding ways of disagreeing well and that’s what we’ve got to do this week.” As we all may know from our own personal experience, disagreeing well is not easy and conflicting opinions have split friendships and families, as well as nations, for generations.
Schism in the Communion is certainly possible. Archbishop Welby addressed this when he commented to ENS: “A schism would not be a disaster – God is bigger than our failures – but it would be a failure,” he added. “It would not be good if the church is unable to set the example to the world of showing how we can love one another and disagree profoundly, because we are brought together by Jesus Christ, not by our own choice. This isn’t a formal club or a political party. This is something done by God.” http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/01/11/welby-urges-reconciliation-not-agreement-among-anglican-leaders/
As of this writing, the outcome remains to be seen. Will the world look on and know that we are followers of Christ by our love for one another? The world is watching!
And the world is watching us, too, as we live out our faith daily. How do we speak of those with whom we disagree? How do we model the behavior that we expect from our Church leaders? Are our own agendas more important than relationship with our brothers and sisters? There is much we can learn about our own walk with God from the experience of this gathering of the Primates if we are open to the Spirit’s still, small voice.
In the meantime, let us join in prayer for the work being done, for all those gathered, and most especially for Bishop Michael. You can follow the news from the meetings at this site where you can also find daily prayers and stories of our brothers and sisters around the Communion – http://www.primates2016.org/
Let us pray –
who prayed that we might all be one,
we pray to you for the unity of Christians,
according to your will,
according to your means.
May your Spirit enable us
to experience the suffering caused by division,
to see our sin,
and to hope beyond all hope.
Composed by members of the Chemin Neuf community from the prayer of the abbot Paul Couturier.
~ The Rev. Deacon Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee