The ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ is traditionally observed from the 18th to the 25th January. It is a week when, here in the UK, member churches of ‘Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’ get together to celebrate our common Faith, and talk and pray about how Christian Unity can be further developed in meaningful ways. This year’s theme comes to us from the churches of Brazil. Brazilians, who have traditionally been tolerant of their various social classes and ethnic groups, are now living through a time of growing intolerance made manifest in high levels of violence, especially against minorities and the vulnerable. The logic that undergirds this kind of behaviour is competition for the religious market. Increasingly, in Brazil, some Christian groups compete with one another for a place on the mass media, for new members and for public funds. The Brazilian churches, however, have begun to recognise that intolerance should be dealt with in a positive way – respecting diversity and promoting dialogue as a permanent path of reconciliation and peace in fidelity to the gospel. Although the competition between churches is less obvious in the UK, we are well aware that competition and discrimination lie beneath the surface of our lives together. Jesus challenges us to acknowledge that diversity is part of God’s design, to approach one another in trust and to see the face of God in the face of all.
Sadly, the Baptist Church where Julia and I are members does not officially participate in the various events and services being organised for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in our locality, although as individuals we are free to attend these meetings if we want to. Although a growing number of Baptist Churches are affiliated to ‘Churches Together’ these days, I still question just how ‘enthusiastic’ Baptist-Christians are about Christian Unity? I suppose this is not surprising given the old adage that ‘If you put two Baptists in the same room … you will end up with three opinions!’ Unfortunately, the proliferation of ‘new churches’ in the last 30 years appears to have added to the problem, rather than helped, given that many of these churches are ‘restorationist’ in ecclesiology, that is, they believe and teach that ‘God has finished with the older denominations, and is restoring a more authentic New Testament church’ … namely churches just like them?
Reflecting on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminded me of the situation that existed many years ago when I first became a Christian in 1960. It just so happened that I was converted in a Baptist Church in West London. In those days the ‘ecumenical movement’ was fairly new and there was a fair amount of ‘suspicion’ right across the denominational board, covering just about everyone from ‘Evangelicals’ to ‘Romans’. As a teenager – converted as a result of what could have been called ‘hormonal evangelism’ – I tended to see the relationship between the various denominations, at that time, in terms of ‘romantic flirtation’? As Baptist we were in love with the Methodists (the Anglicans were a bit ‘out of our reach’ in those days) and although we had the occasional ‘date’ (usually getting together for a ‘united service’ on Good Friday and Christmas Day) we longed for a deeper relationship. We were so ‘besotted’ with the Methodists that we completely missed the fact that we had ardent admirers in the Congregationalists and the Independents who often fluttered their ‘theological eyelashes’ in our direction and would have loved to have taken things further with us, given the chance. Unfortunately for us Baptists, the Methodists were already ‘in love’ with the Anglicans and spurned our advances, dead set on pursuing the object of their desires. The Anglicans themselves, however, were not that ‘keen’ on the Methodists. Even though there were some people working very hard to ‘marry the two of them off’, the Anglicans were totally infatuated with the Roman Catholics and spent their days dreaming of a ‘rose tinted future’ together. All this was to no avail, however, because the Roman Catholics were only in love with themselves! Times (and ‘denominations’) may have changed significantly in the 50 plus years since then, but one cannot help but think, sadly, that something of this same ‘spirit’ still lives on today.
Personally, I am a self-confessed ‘ecumaniac’ – I believe that there is only ‘one church’, and that that ‘church’ consists of all those who have been redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary 2,000 years ago. It is this great truth that forms the basis of Jesus’ wonderful ‘High Priestly Prayer’ in John 17. The whole prayer is magnificent, and worthy of in depth study and thought, but the heart of the prayer is for the ‘church’ – for those who are truly Christ’s redeemed people – and particularly that ‘they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you … so that the world will believe you sent me’ (John 17:21). Any move that helps us to affirm this truth, and enables us to become that ‘one church’ is to be welcomed. Some years ago I was present at a Prayer Meeting where one brother started to pray for ‘God’s mercy to be poured out on our various denominations’. Unfortunately for him, he got his words a bit mixed up and actually prayed for ‘God’s mercy to be poured out on our various abominations‘? I thought at the time (and still believe) that he was nearer the truth than he realised! I deplore any kind of ‘one-upmanship’ by any church or denomination that has the audacity to suggest that they are better than the rest of us – whether that is the kind of Roman Catholicism that sees other Christians as ‘lesser brethren’, or the Anglicanism that pompously refuses to accept the ‘ordination’ of the clergy of non-conformist denominations, or the arrogance of the Restorationist churches who believe that God has replaced the historic denominations with them? These are only a few of the various ‘abominations’ that sadly abound, and I daresay that we Baptist-Christians can, at times, be just as bad – perhaps not least by thinking that ‘we are above these kind of things’? How relevant are the words of the Apostle Paul when he exhorts us ‘do not to think more highly of yourselves than you ought’ (Romans 12:3) and encourages us to ‘esteem others as better than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). Reflecting on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I was reminded of an old story I first heard many years ago, and puts the quest for unity amongst Christians into perspective.
Apparently there was once an old monastery, which had fallen on hard times. Its many buildings had been filled with young monks and its big church had resounded with the singing of prayers, but it was now nearly deserted. People no longer came to be nourished by the prayers and presence of the monks. Only a handful of mostly very old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts. Nearby, on the edge of the monastery woods, an old Rabbi built a little hut and came occasionally to walk in the woods.
One day, his heart heavy with the burden of the monastery and the failing of the faith, the Abbot decided to visit the Rabbi. After morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the Rabbi greeted the Abbot warmly. Across their differences, there were similarities. Both knew God; both knew the difficulties of keeping alive the faith in their communities; both were concerned for the welfare of those they served. The only words spoken were the mysterious words of the Rabbi: ‘The Messiah is among you!’ The Abbot and the Rabbi exchanged an embrace and the Abbot returned to the monastery, pondering the words of the Rabbi: ‘The Messiah is among you!’ Whatever could the Rabbi mean? Could Christ be cantankerous Brother William? Could Christ be mean and spiteful Brother Stephen? Could Christ be the one young novice, petulant and withdrawn, and still to be named? Who or where could Christ be? The Abbot pondered this all afternoon and all night.
The next morning, he called the few monks together and shared the words of the Rabbi: ‘The Messiah is among you!’ The monks were startled by this revelation. ‘What could it mean?’ each asked himself. ‘Is dirty and sloppy Brother John the Messiah?’ ‘Is moody Father Matthew or crotchety Brother Thomas the Messiah?’ ‘What could this mean?’ ‘The Messiah is among you?’ They were deeply puzzled by the Rabbi’s teaching. Days and weeks went by … and the monks began to treat one another with special reverence and respect. There was a gentle, wholehearted, human, yet divine, quality about them which was hard to describe but easy to see. They lived with one another as men who had found something special. They prayed and read Scripture as men who were always looking for something.
People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its lawns, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround this handful of monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery again and again – to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the Rabbi’s gift, a vibrant centre of light and spirituality in the realm.
Does this old story have something to teach us about the way to re-discover, and embrace, genuine Christian unity? I think so! The well of Christian Faith is indeed deep … and there must be a place for variety of belief and behaviour (I prefer to think of Christian ‘spiritualities’ rather than ‘denominations’). The way to true Christian unity, however, is not to be found in compressing everything into some standard ‘belief system’ but rather in setting the Risen Christ in the midst and looking to him. As E Stanley Jones once rightly suggested: ‘When we talk about what we believe we divide … but when we talk about Who we believe in we unite!’