The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a good week for us to be meeting together. Although we are all Anglicans here - as far as I know - we are Anglicans from various and different traditions. A little later we will participate in Benediction, during which some of us will believe with all our hearts that we are somehow even more in the presence of Christ than we are at other times. Others of us will be slightly bemused, and see the ceremony of Benediction only as a metaphorical guide to prayer. Under this one roof, to my certain knowledge, are gathering tonight people whose Christian faith is best described as Catholic. Others, have evangelical backgrounds, but might now describe themselves as 'central'. Others have an interest in Orthodoxy - myself included. Some like their music positively ancient...I know one choir member at least who considers anything newer than Mozart to be dangerously modern. Others take real joy in singing the latest anthems of living composers, or even the odd upbeat, rock 'n' roll chorus!
This, for me, is the heart of what it means to be Anglican. We belong to a church which systematically and deliberately attempts to be a communion in which people of different opinion, styles and preferences can nevertheless gather under one roof...all declaring a common belief in Jesus Christ. We don't always get that right - and clearly there are huge tensions between us over issues like sexuality and the consecration of women bishops. (Isn't it interesting that the primary issues which divide us are usually about sex?)
For many years, the Churches Together movement has been a beacon of hope to those who lament the divisions in the church around the world. But, unfortunately, after 30 or more years, the flame of the Churches Together movement is beginning to wane. Those who have spent half a lifetime or more desperately praying for the visible Unity of Christ's Church have, in many places, begun to wonder whether God is deaf to their prayers...or perhaps whether God has a different plan altogether in mind. There remains, of course, a hard core of ecumenicalists who work hard to bring churches together in common worship and action - and I take my hat off to them for their diligence and commitment. There are some great examples of projects out there in which churches of all hues combine their resources, time, and people for the common task of building the Kingdom. Perhaps the best local example is the Churches Homeless Action Group, which this year raised nearly £14,000 from the churches of the city at Christmas. The college at which most of our priests are trained by this Diocese - STETS in Salisbury - is a course which brings Anglicans together with Methodists and URC trainees, to learn from each other's experiences.
But, these wonderful pieces of work remain the exception rather than the rule. The church remains divided, across the world, because we seem unable to give each other the benefit of the doubt over a wide range of doctrinal and ecclesiological issues. Should the church be ruled from Rome? Women bishops? Gay Bishops? Gay people? Where does our authority spring from - the Bible, or Tradition, or Reason, or Experience, or a combination of any two or more of those four. Styles of liturgy, the place of Mary, praying to the Saints, whether or not to follow a lectionary, or simply preach on what the Spirit suggests. Hymns or choruses? Organs or guitars? Robes or everyday clothes? The real meaning of the Eucharist...a simple memorial, or a transubstantiated real presence of Jesus, whose flesh we really eat as spiritual food.
And that's just for starters. I could go on for a very long time. And I imagine that for the world outside these doors...those who have not chosen to worship with us tonight, the very real temptation must be to proclaim, with Shakespeare, 'a plague on all your houses!'
Into this maelstrom of confusion comes tonight's reading from Paul's Letter to Titus. It's a very short letter - only three chapters long, covering just a couple of pages...and it often gets overlooked. But on this Sunday during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it has the capacity to speak volumes.
In the letter, Paul writes to Titus, whom he has appointed as the Bishop of the Island of Crete. It is clear from Paul's text that he is very concerned about divisions which have already begun to erupt in the early Cretan church. Paul describes the 'many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers' who, Paul says, 'must be silenced since they are upsetting whole families'. (Tit.1.10-11). He goes on to describe them as those who 'profess God, but then deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for any good work' (Ti.1.16)
What is Paul's remedy for this problem...this problem of rebellious factions? His advice to Titus is essentially two fold:
First, as we heard in our reading, Paul encourages the Cretans to live Godly lives. Men are to be 'temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance' (Ti. 2.2). Paul then goes on, in the context of his time, to give others lists of good behaviour for women, (young and old), young men and even slaves. Much of those lists might make us wince a little today....although I quite like the idea of young women having to be submissive to their husbands! (Ironic Joke!!). But the underlying point which Paul makes is clear: being a Christian means living in a way which becomes 'an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10). Our lives should be those which look like polished jewels - ornaments - on the crown of faith. Put another way, as the Apostle James wrote in his letter, "Faith without works is dead" (Ja.2.26)
A Christian will be judged - by God and other people - not by what they say or profess, but by the kind of lives they lead. Remember Paul's words to Titus...there are those who 'profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions'. (Ti.1.16)
Paul's second point to Titus is the most important of all, in the context of a discussion about Christian Unity. He says this, in chapter 3 of the letter: "Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless." (Ti.3.9) Paul goes on, even more forcefully..."have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned". (Ti 3.11)
Wow. Those are strong words. "Have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions. They are perverted and sinful."
These then should be our watchwords when dealing with any other Christian. True Christians are judged by the kinds of lives they lead. Paul encourages his readers to be those who are 'obedient, ready for every good work, speaking evil of no-one, avoiding quarrelling, being gentle and showing courtesy to everyone." (Ti.3.2).
That's why we are here tonight. Even though some of us might have personal theological qualms about, for example, the ceremony of Benediction, out of gentleness and courtesy, we will kneel in contemplation before the Host when it is displayed, open to what God may show us through the practices of others.
That is why we are Anglicans: because out of a desire not to speak evil of anyone, and to avoid quarrelling, we will continue to worship side by side with people with whom we might profoundly disagree, for example, over whether or not a Priest or a Bishop can be a woman.
That is, ultimately, according to Paul, what defines us as Christians. We are willing to lay aside quarrel and dissent, finding ways to respect and accommodate each other - so that we can focus on the heart of our calling - to be 'ornaments to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10).
May we discover what it means to put our love for God, and our love for neighbour, above and before any doctrinal dissent. May we, by our lives, be ornaments for God...those whose attractive, loving, gentle lives of service draw others into a living faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
If we could all do that, I believe that the issue of Christian Unity would quite simply take care of itself.