Sermon: May 8 2016

John 17:20ff

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The first step is admitting that we have a problem.

It didn’t take long for us to start bickering, though I suppose it took a little longer before we split up for good…or ill. And now, here we are, with our various divisions: east and west, Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical, episcopal and congregationalist. It is impossible to count how many Christian denominations there are, but the point is that there are more than one.

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending otherwise. We are, they say, one in spirit, which just seems like another way of saying that we are not really one at all. The unity of the Church, they say, is an eschatological reality, which just seems like another way of saying that it’s not a reality at all.

Or rather, these are convenient slogans that we use to exculpate ourselves, to excuse ourselves from actually attempting reconciliation. But this is surely an abuse of theological categories. The Church is indeed spiritually united, but this is no reason to cease our ecumenical endeavours, any more than the real spiritual freedom of Christian slaves should have led us to abandon the abolitionist movement, as many slavers conveniently argued back in the day. The vision of the Church united is indeed an eschatological one, but this too is no reason to stop working toward it on this side of eternity; after all, all our moral visions are eschatological, and yet we strive to do better here and now, or we ought to, anyway. 

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending that it’s not a scandal, a crisis of Christian credibility. One among many, to be sure, but still, I think, a crucial one. The modern ecumenical movement arose out of concerns that denominational diversity would confuse the poor pagans and heathens in foreign, newly colonised, lands. And these concerns, while patronising, were not totally unfounded. Even growing up in Malaysia in the 1990s, I was bemused about how the evangelical Methodists were suspicious of the charismatic Baptists, and how both were suspicious of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics in equal measure. These Christians, they seemed to enjoy splitting up.

The broken-upness of the Church is a scandal and a crisis, and this is not least because balkanisation and insularity has never served any organisation well. Given the abuses of power that have recently been brought to much-needed light, one would think that this is a lesson well learned by now. Especially for an organisation so pruriently obsessed with the personal relationships and break-ups of individuals, it smacks of hypocrisy that we are not more concerned with relationships at ecclesial levels.

The first step is admitting that we have a problem. All the other steps involve doing something about it.

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Alas, so much of what passes as ecumenical activity–like so much religion more generally–is frightfully dull. It is difficult to get excited about gatherings of polite people trying very hard not to openly disagree. And it is not as though ecumenical groups are unaware of this shortcoming. Recently, I saw a headline in the News section of the Churches Together in England website that read “Boring but beneficial”, describing a new constitution for local groups. It was, I am sure, someone’s attempt at self-deprecating humour, but might have hit the mark a bit too well.

And yet, of course, we are woefully under-selling the modern ecumenical movement if we assume that it’s all instant coffee and superficial cordiality. As I have already mentioned, the modern ecumenical movement began as a missional movement. And this is not just to say that it was  concerned with evangelism or proselytism, which of course it was. Rather, it is to say more generally that it was an outward looking phenomenon. The goal was to be one for the sake of the world, not least when the world was torn asunder, first by the Great War and then by its yet darker sequel. The world is still torn, of course; and so the need has not changed, and our call is to come together to meet it. Therefore, the question with which we are faced is this: what does the gospel compel us, together, to do, in this time and place?       

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We–Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, ad infinitum–(we) disagree on moral and political issues: this much is obvious to all of us. But it is not as though the disagreements are only between denominations: even within our own churches there are diversities of positions on any number of ethical topics. And yet, here we are, regularly worshipping and working together for the sake of the world, at least on a good day, at least when we are not defensively gazing at our navels, at least when we are not threatening to split up ourselves. There is no denying our differences, but there is, equally, no point in fetishising them. 

The fact of the matter is that we agree on much. And, if so, we can do much, and should and must, do much, together. Complete ecumenical agreement has never been a prerequisite for cooperative social action, and may well be its consequence. There is a relevant piece of advice that psychologists often dispense to the parents of adolescents: we tell them to cook together, or to engage in some other kind of joint activity in which parents and children stand side-by-side, rather than face-to-face. This has a way of improving the conversation, opening both sides up to free and frank talk. Churches are, in many ways, like adolescents.

There is, in meta-ecumenical reflections, a tendency to worry that ecumenism descends into mere humanistic do-goodery, but this anxiety seems misplaced. Woe be to us, if the thing we worry about is doing too much good together. Whether feeding the poor together or caring for the sick together or tilting against the windmills of injustice, violence, and oppression together will lead to inter-communion, I cannot say: but it is not as though this kind of cooperation would be a waste of time, even if it didn’t. The poor will be fed; the sick will be cared for; evil windmills will be toppled. And we will have done this work of the gospel, hands joined, even if gingerly.

We agree on much, I don’t think it is pollyannish to say. We agree on more than we want to admit, perhaps. There is a vanity, as Freud used to say, in small differences. And if the freedom that Christ won for us is meant to achieve anything, surely it is meant to defeat the narcissistic insecurities that compel us to drive wedges between ourselves. The Pope’s response to Donald Trump’s immigration policy should burn our hearts also: “a person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel”.

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So, what now? We turn up, together. Maybe not to lowest common denominator prayer meetings and tepid talks in cold church halls, but to soup kitchens and protests and sit ins and refugee camps. The Churches Refugees Network, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, the Gatehouse here in Oxford, based just down the road at St Giles’s: there are any number of ways to work side-by-side other Christians in ways that that go beyond mere symbolism and tokenism. The afore-mentioned Churches Together website is a good source of information.

To be sure, not all our social action has to be through Christian groups, but our Christian ecumenical activity, if it is to have legs–if it is to get hearts racing and fists pumped–has to involve action. So, off we go. Go, in peace, together, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

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