Sunday, 24 January 2016

On Unity and The Primates

This sermon was preached during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and in the aftermath of the primate's statement on The Episcopal Church. It was given at an Evensong service on 24th January.

About 10 years ago, a website called The Ship of Fools held a poll to find the world's best religious joke. The winner was one written by the American comedian, Emo Philips:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"  He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"  He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"  Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
This week, Christians around the world have been celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week started on 18th January, three days after the primates of the Anglican Communion released a statement barring The Episcopal Church of America from being appointed to any internal committees, or taking part in any decision-making on doctrine or governance for three years. The reason for this reaction, which Justin Welby was keen to point out was a 'consequence' for The Episcopal Church, rather than a 'sanction', was the stance of The Episcopal Church in allowing marriage between same-sex couples. This decision was taken after a significant period of prayer and meditation on the theme of unity by the primates. It's hard to shake the feeling that something maybe went wrong.

Wait... not these primates.
(Still, at least any Facebook links to this sermon will have this as the picture...)

I think the primates were probably caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. There was a great deal of pressure from certain areas of the Anglican Communion to impose sanctions on The Episcopal Church for their stance, not to mention ever-present threats of walk-outs and splits. It seems that some areas of our communion (notice the word 'union' is part of that word) were prepared to break their own unity with the communion unless the bishops broke it first, by ejecting The Episcopal Church from our group. A compromise, of sorts, was reached, though, in doing so, much hurt has been caused.

I do not wish to get into which side is 'right', or 'wrong', or even who started the fight. Those of you who heard my sermon on marriage a few months ago will have an insight into which way my sympathies lie, but that is not what this sermon is about.

Instead, I'd like to talk about unity. It is a topic worthy of a sermon, indeed, it is an important enough topic for Christ to have prayed about:
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.'
I have to wonder, after the primates' meeting, whether the parts of the world who were paying attention to what happened know that the Father has loved them, even as he loved his only son? Did the actions of the primates show that to be true?

In the very act of striving hard for unity, has the Anglican Communion broken the prize it sought?

I am led to question whether the very act of seeking unity causes us, instead, to focus on our differences. In trying to find out what we have in common with our neighbour, it almost seems inevitable that, at the same time, we grab hold of the things that separate us. And, like our protagonist on the bridge in Emo Phillips' joke, the more we have in common, the more important to us those differences are.

In researching this sermon, I found a blog, which I'd like to quote from. The author of the blog says the following:
Often times... “unity” really just boils down to a mutually agreed upon list of beliefs and behaviors that are considered “safe” by everyone within the group. The controversial activities and hot-button topics are considered “off limits” so that everyone can be “unified.” But... is this really unity?  I have trouble thinking that “agreeing to not discuss certain topics” is what Jesus meant by “unity”... It seems that this is not true unity, but is a forced unity… a fake unity. a unity that is based... on a mutual agreement to not discuss certain subjects or do certain things when we are together...

Is this real unity? Hiding who we really are from other people just so we can get along?... this seems to be the most unified we Christians can get. There are so many differences of opinion on nearly ever subject under the sun and every behavior imaginable, how in the world can we ever be unified?
The author goes on to say:
The key to true unity is to make sure that unity is never the goal. I don’t think that unity can be a goal of Christian faith and practice. I think unity is a result of Christian faith and practice.  When we seek unity as a goal, we do things to try to discourage disunity, which ends up stifling and stopping the conditions required for true unity. When unity becomes the goal, we may end up with peace, but we will never find true unity. True unity requires openness and honesty, but if unity is the goal, then nobody can be fully open and honest. And without openness and honesty, any unity we end up with is fake unity.
I found a lot in that blog to think upon. I was struck by one thing as I did so. When Christ talked of unity, he was not instructing his disciples to be unified. He was praying that they would be. I wonder if that blogger has a point - unity is not the goal of Christ's disciples. It is something that we should pray for, but not work towards for its own sake. Christ gave us a model - pray for it, but, work towards something else; something that will bring that unity, as a shining effect of our actual goal:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Love is the key. Christ prays that we'll be unified, but he tells us how it's done. When we love each other, our differences no longer seem so important, and we can be united in them.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

The day the primates released their statement, 15th January, is also noted in history for a very good reason. 15th January 1929 was the birthday of Martin Luther King, who had a dream of equality, where children of all colours would join hands together in love. It is love that brings unity.

So here's my prayer, to conclude this week of Christian Unity. It's a simple one, but sometimes the best prayers are those so simple that anyone can understand them.

I pray that Christians, all round the world, of all communions and creeds, love one another. Then the world will know we are his disciples.



  1. Thanks for linking to my site and for letting me know in the comments about your sermon. I like this message as well and am sharing it with others.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you think it's worth sharing.