How can we be a united church?
Have you ever heard someone say, “Let’s agree to disagree?” The phrase, typically coming at the end of a heated discussion, means that you have decided (after all) not to kill each other over the impasse. And shocking as this may sound, churches are not always the havens of unity we might hope they would be. Yes, it has been known, from time to time, that church members have been in disagreement, however the problem is not so much the disagreement, but when the disagreement leads to quarrelling or infighting, for as we will see, it is possible to disagree and still be in unity with one another.
This week, in the Church in England, with which the Anglican Church in Bermuda aligns, areas of disagreement have come into focus. Firstly, there was the appointment of a bishop who does not support the ordination of women to the priesthood, and secondly, the college of bishops, after a five year process, decided not to affirm same-gender marriage. They did, however, affirm blessings of non-marital covenantal relationships. Next month, if their proposal gets ratified by the whole church, then ministers, like me, will officially be able to perform blessings and thanksgivings for same-gender marriages, civil partnerships, and committed friendships. In Bermuda, this is a big deal, as despite same-gender marriages not being permitted under civil law, I will be able to give thanks for them and ask for God’s blessing to be upon them.
Clearly, within the wider church, there is still disagreement as to what constitutes marriage, and despite this being painful to members of the LGBT+ community and its allies, the Anglican Church remains united. The wonderful thing about the Anglican Church — its strength, if you will — is that, with mutual respect and love, it holds together people with radically opposing views, and this holding together of diversity is the very definition of unity.
Paul, in his message to the church in Corinth, confronted divisions in the community. People were using phrases such as, “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, “I belong to Cephas”, or “I belong to Christ.” Every sentence started with the word ‘I’ and they were putting themselves first — before God, before each other, and before their Christian community. I once challenged myself to go a single day without starting a sentence with the word ‘I’. It was impossible, an indicator that my life was revolving around myself, and a wake-up call to my own self-centredness and pride (another word with ‘I’ in the middle).
When we disagree, if we are secure in our position then we do not need to win over anyone else! One of my good colleagues was an evangelistic atheist. He even ran a website debunking religion and Christianity, yet we had mutual love and respect for one another. Sadly, he died, but before he did, he admitted that I was an anathema to him. I was the stone in his shoe and the grit in his custard. How could an articulate, thinking, intelligent person believe in God? It was irrational, and yet, here I was!
Disagreements that lead to quarrelling and infighting cause fractures in relationships and the breakdown of societal groups. Take politics, for example. As soon as a party is not unified, it begins to break down. Politicians have their own agendas, but they must be unified as a party to succeed. A friend of mine is transgender and his father could not accept his new identity and, tragically, they are no longer speaking to each other. Their family is broken and fractured, and the pain it has caused is traumatic.
The Apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth to be undivided and united. Have you noticed how people or nations seem to rally when they have a common enemy? For example, in Bermuda, when there is a hurricane we all rally to help each other and it does not matter what age, race, gender, or social standing we have.
The word ‘unity’ is found in the word ‘community’ and communities cannot exist without unity. As unity is holding together diversity, communities cannot exist without diversity, therefore diversity, rather than something to be feared, is something to be celebrated.
Disagreements do not have to be divisive, and the Anglican Church, on matters of human gender and sexuality, seeks to hold all diverse opinions together in unity. That does not mean we do not continue to seek justice, just that we do it from within a place of unity, rather than divisiveness.
Therefore, we must embrace diversity where we find it, learn from each other, and listen to one another. We must remember that we are gifts to one another and that we are stronger together than apart. Each person represents the wonderful creativity and diversity of God, therefore the more diverse a church congregation, the richer the community. A community or church that seeks out people like themselves in terms of race, age, or gender, is not a community but a homogeneity.
The Apostle Paul reminds us to focus, not on ourselves or our own wants and needs, but on our love for God and for one another. It is not our views on marriage, equality, or politics that unite us, but the person of Jesus Christ.
I am often asked the question, “Do I need to be part of a church to be a Christian?” and my answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” Why? Because the very point of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — an expression of God’s love — was to draw us unto a community of oneness with God and with each other. Jesus, in John’s gospel, prayed that those that believed in him may be one, and that they may be brought to complete unity through God’s love.
Our churches should be expressions of diversity, communities united through our relationships with Christ. Today, if you feel like you do not fit; if you feel like you think differently; if you have different opinions on religion, politics, church, ecclesiology, art, or science; if you feel like you are the wrong shape, the wrong age, the wrong colour, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, the wrong social status, or the wrong nationality, then rejoice! You are a blessing to your church community and what makes your church your church.
This week, let us do all we can to be united under Christ and to love God and love each other as God loves us.