Since I have been working for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, a body which exists solely to assist cooperation, action, witness and understanding among its member churches – Anglican, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – you would expect, I imagine, that I would give an unequivocal ‘no’ to the suggestion that working for Christian unity might be a waste of time. But I am not inclined to do so. Not straightforwardly, anyway. As someone involved directly in the ecumenical movement I have learned a fair bit about the problems of ecclesiastical joinery and Christian cosiness, so I do not intend to miss this opportunity to warn you about them and to suggest some different ways forward!
The ‘problems of unity’ are well illustrated by the story of Colin Morris, who now works for the BBC but who is a former President of the British Methodist Conference and former Secretary of what used to be called the Methodist Missionary Society. He was also involved in the protracted negotiations which resulted in the formation of the United Church of Zambia – and as its first head he lived with its results.
In what was still northern Rhodesia when he first went there, Dr Morris, a missionary and minister, was passionately concerned with the life and death trials of the majority of ordinary people, and with their struggle to gain full human dignity and democracy. The movement for Zambian independence was one he committed himself to wholeheartedly, sometimes to the chagrin of those who disliked his boat-rocking association of the Christian message with political activism.
Colin Morris’ work was premised on the belief that the real cutting edge of the Gospel lay in furthering the work of God in the world, not in tinkering with ecclesiastical structures. The greatest affront to Christ and the greatest hindrance to faith in his situation, he said, was not the voluntary separation between Christians of different denominations (inconvenient though that might sometimes be), but the brutally enforced division between black and white people. This was the disunity that needed addressing first. He instinctively lived out the true meaning of the New Testament word oikumene, from which we get our term ecumenism. This is not to do with ‘Christian unity’ for its own sake. Rather it comes from two words which mean something like ‘living together in the big household’, and it refers primarily to God’s concern for the salvation of the whole world, and only secondarily to our share in that.
So, taking as part of his crie de coeur St Paul’s injunction that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Epistle to the Galatians) Dr Morris preached a series of sermons on the incompatibility of racial discrimination with the Gospel. Far from promoting unity, this message set believer against believer and reduced an affluent, almost wholly white Copperbelt congregation from hundreds to a mere handful in just four Sundays. Only after a false unity had been demolished could the truer (but smaller) unity of Christ appear. These powerful addresses were later published under the title Anything But This – ‘this’ being the awkward demands of the Gospel in a situation of sinful division.
Colin Morris also wrote an incendiary book about the vocation of Christian people called Include Me Out (Epworth, 1971) after he found a copy of the Methodist Recorder – full of reports about the perilous state of Anglican-Methodist unity talks back in Britain – on his doormat. What angered him was that outside the door lay the body of a young Zambian who had died of hunger. How on earth, Morris asked, can we Christians get our priorities so wrong that we end up putting far more effort into reorganising our own church structures than into practical care for our neighbours – those whom Jesus described as ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ (St Matthew)? Similarly, echoing back to his sermons against racism, what use is church growth if it simply allows us to baptise other divisions which really are offensive to God – those between rich and poor, black and white, young and old, women and men?
All this comes from several decades ago and it is very uncomfortable, but I believe we need to hear it afresh. Colin Morris went on to work deep within the structures of the church. But he did not lose his nerve on these tough issues. In his 1976 Methodist Conference presidential address he supported a positive and practical approach to the Christian unity questions on the table at that time. But he also warned, in typically colourful fashion, that:
Any ecumenical arrangement based on an alliance of careless Catholics, apathetic Anglicans, pallid Presbyterians, bathetic Baptists and mealy-mouthed Methodists is likely to produce a united church so feeble as to have no effective backbone and so accommodating that it would probably want to invite the devil into the Trinity just so that it didn’t cause anyone too much offence. Moreover the Gospel it preached would probably have insufficient nutritional value to satisfy a starving pigeon. (Bugles in the Afternoon, Epworth 1977, quoted from memory.)
To put it more prosaically – unity has to be based on a sharing of strengths and gifts, not on weakness, vacillation or the desperation that leads to mere compromise. It has to be done in such a way as to strengthen the church and the Gospel, not to weaken it. And it has to be done for the nourishment of the world God loves, not for the survival or sanctity of believers alone.
In a recent article for the Methodist Recorder (1 February 2001), Colin Morris challenged us again on these questions:
Throughout my ministry I’ve been told that the scandal of Christian division is a prime cause for the failure of the Gospel to be heard in out time, yet I have never met anyone who said that he or she would have become a Christian were it not for denominational differences. Indeed it is evangelical churches and groups who how least interest in union schemes that are enjoying the most dramatic increases in membership. Consumerism has eaten into the very soul of our society as people shop around for their spiritual as well as physical needs. The world is no more sold on a single church than it would be on a single television channel, superstore or political party. I have never really understood what is meant by the ‘sin’ of disunity. Certainly, backbiting exclusiveness and factionalism are sins, but they are much more likely to be found within rather than between denominations. The glory of being human is that we enjoy a wide diversity of tastes, aptitudes and perceptions about everything under the sun, yet the claim is that if our apprehension of God is not uniform, we are in error…
…I am no sectarian, and none of this should be taken as an argument against current proposals for closer association with Anglicans or any other body of Christians. If the Methodist Conference so decreed, I would settle down happily in a disestablished Anglican Church, but for me it is a matter not of high theology, but of practical obedience… [Union schemes are] fine provide we always keep in mind that mission is about God making all things new, not the churches trying to sew together leaking old wineskins.
All this is finely put. But I want to suggest that we need to go even further. Christian unity is not the end result of a process of cooperation or ecclesiastical engineering – it is a gift. We the People of the Way are one in Christ. The challenge is to find out what shape (personal and structural) that oneness needs to take for the sake of the world as it impinges on us in our human communities, and how simultaneously it can do justice to the huge range of insights and gifts which exist within and across our different church traditions and structures. This requires reconciled and reconciling difference, not unity in a homogenising or totalising sense. For catholic Anglicans that insight is both an opportunity and a bit of a threat, given our often rather narrow understanding of ‘catholicity’ (universality). But it is actually what the ‘churches together’ approach to ecumenism – cooperation and dialogue on a shared pilgrimage at all levels – can be about, at its best.
However, we need continually to remind ourselves that ecumenism is fundamentally about God’s desire to bring about the transformation of the whole creation, the oikumene. So anything we say and do has to be said and done in a way that actively demonstrates and speaks of the Gospel for all – that is, it needs to offer healing for a sick world, peace for a warring world, love for a tortured world, and justice for a divided world. Not for nothing is redemption at the heart of this. Maybe that means that we as church, ekklesia, those ‘called out’, have a particular vocation to model a better way, the path of Christ, with and for others. To show by the way we handle our own divisions and disagreements, for instance, that it is the peace of Christ that moves us forward. To be what we are truly called to be – the household (but not the home) where the Crucified and Living One is made visible.
As a practical example we might consider the hard work of those in Ireland who were prepared to work across deep communal and church divides at local level, often in unspectacular and unpublicised ways. They helped to create the conditions for a fragile (but still vital) national peace process. More broadly, Christian involvement in the Jubilee 2000 movement to cancel the crippling, un-payable debts of poor countries resulted not only in headlining an obscure but important biblical notion, it also assisted and strengthened unity among those from different religious traditions. These are examples of the way in which mission becomes the focus for a kind of unity that serves the purposes of God rather than acting as a mere ecclesiastical distraction.
Finally, Britain today is a diverse, money-driven, secular and yet also spiritually hungry place. However, those who are doing the seeking are deeply suspicious, if not downright hostile, to received religious institutions and interpretations. This means that many of our inherited ways of ‘being church’ will inevitably have to be thrown into the melting pot of God’s larger ecumenical venture, if they are not to disappoint and disappear. For it is increasingly clear that the church of today is dying – while the church God will give us tomorrow is perhaps only just being born: and not necessarily where we see or expect it. At the moment those who are making the running on experiments in ‘emergent church’ are mainly evangelicals. It is now time that Christians of catholic and other persuasions – people whose theology, ritual sense and willingness to listen as well speak enable them to engage with all dimensions of human experience – started to take similar risks.