One of my favourite novels is Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. First published in 1813 it is a romantic novel that charts the emotional development of Elizabeth Bennet, who learns the error of making hasty judgments and comes to appreciate the difference between the superficial and the essential. The comedy of the writing lies in the depiction of manners, education, marriage, and money during the British Regency period. Mr. Bennet of the Longbourn Estate has five daughters, but his property is entailed, which means that none of the girls can inherit it. His wife has no fortune, so it is imperative that at least one of the girls marry well in order to support the others on his death. The novel revolves around the importance of marrying for love, not simply for money, despite the social pressures to make a wealthy match. Pride and Prejudice has become one of the most popular novels in English literature, with over 20 million copies sold, and paved the way for many archetypes that abound in modern literature.
In a strange twist of subject, I recently found myself thinking about pride and prejudice as I reflected on the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Like many other churches, in many other places in the UK, we did ‘something’ in Knaphill to show that although we are churches from different denominations we are not rivals but ‘different departments of the same store’ (as someone once put it). We held a ‘united service’ in our chapel (since it was the smallest building and would therefore look reasonably full on the day), café style to make it more informal to show that we all get on quite well together, and all the ‘usual suspects’ who are keen on ‘ecumenical’ stuff turned up as usual. There were probably about 30-40 people in all. We held the service a week late because we couldn’t all agree on a mutually ‘convenient date’ during the actual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I am guessing that the picture I am painting will have a familiar ring to it in many places up and down the UK.
I found myself thinking back to when I became a Christian at the age of 16 in 1960. I was converted because of ‘hormonal evangelism’. I went along to my local Baptist Church (invited by a neighbour) and stayed because there were lots of young people around my own age, including a lot of very attractive young ladies. Of course, there was far more to me becoming a Christian than this. I liked the Pastor, enjoyed his teaching, thought about what he was preaching, and eventually committed my life to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it was ‘hormonal evangelism’ that drew me in! Like any other group of young people that spent a lot of time together, various ‘romances’ broke out amongst us on a regular basis. With one or two exceptions they never seemed to last very long – a few weeks at the most – primarily because the girl that you fancied actually was keen on someone else, and vice versa. Louise liked John, but John liked Jean, but unfortunately Jean fancied Steve who only had eyes from Susan … and so on!?
This situation was similar in a lot of ways to the ‘ecumenical situation’ that existed in my home town in those days. There was an Independent Church that would liked to have had closer ties with us as a Baptist Church. The problem was that we didn’t really fancy the Independent Church but really liked the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church, however, only had eyes for the Anglican Church and largely ignored us Baptists. The Anglicans, however, were deeply in love with the Roman Catholics and wanted a meaningful relationship with them. The Roman Catholics, however, were only in love with themselves!? Although we are living in very different days today compared to the 1960s, I sometimes wonder if ecumenically things have changed all that much in the intervening years.
I am sometimes asked as a Pastor, ‘What is the worst sin we can commit?’ Now, of course, we cannot categorise ‘sin’ in this way. Even the smallest sin is enough to separate us from God. I guess, that for many Christians however, sexual sin would come high on the list. For me, however, the sin of ‘pride’, especially ‘spiritual pride’ is the greatest of sins. It caused the archangel Lucifer to ‘fall’ in the first place (Ezekiel 28; Isaiah 14) and start this whole sorry mess that humanity finds itself in today. This is why the Apostle Peter (amongst others) warns us about the danger of pride (1 Peter 5:5). We can all be guilty of the sin of pride – individually and corporately. There is a story told of a Christian woman who told the great Baptist preacher of a bygone age, C H Spurgeon, that she had not sinned for a whole month! ‘You must be very proud?’ Spurgeon responded. ‘Oh! I am!’ replied the lady in question. Corporately, I am not just thinking of some of those numerically large churches, or ‘theologically sound’ churches, that refuse to have anything to do with anyone else … numerically small churches can be just as ‘proud’ stubbornly maintaining their ‘independence’ rather than working together with other local churches.
And yet, and yet, the future – if the Church in the West is to have a bright future – has to be ecumenical. And it has to be an honest ecumenical relationship involving a mutual recognition of the validity of each other’s genuineness, Sacraments, Ministry, and so on. Anything less than this is simply a matter of ‘pride’ (however much we may argue to the contrary). As Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970, has written: ‘I am convinced that the only future of the church, the one Body of Christ, is ecumenical and shared. Each of our traditions have preserved and fostered one or other jewel in the huge crown that is the Cosmic Christ; only together can we make up the unity of the Spirit, as we learn to defer to one another out of love.’