Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Price Unity?

Titus 2.1-11

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.



  1. Interesting, but ultimately misguided (IMO). the vote on Women bishops is upon us and I for one would rue the day that Unity trumps everything else. The time has come for the hard decisions. It may be that the best thing for the CofE is a schism. A bit like a warring couple, sometimes a break is the best thing for the children. (i'm sure that analogy will bring a lot of discussion in itself).

    My sexuality as a gay man, or the gender of a women priest is not a matter of Doctrine that needs to be discussed. We're passed that. The dissenters who still cling to the idea that Jesus instituted a straight, male run church and that it should remain so for ever, are living in the past. God may be unchanging (another topic for discussion), but God's people are not, and neither should His church be. To say that we (gays and women) should lay aside our quarrel and dissent to find ways of accommodating eachother is, at this stage in the game, offensive. To be blunt, if this were an argument about race or disability, say whether a black man in a wheelchair could be a priest, there would be no discussion. Of course he could.... assuming he's straight. Gender and sexuality are NOT choices, neither are race or dis/ability. There is NO doctrinal discussion to be had on these issues. If the dissenters in the Church can't accept this change for the GOOD, they should pack up their tents and banners and go. If their cause is Just, then people will follow. But i don't believe they will.

    Unity does NOT trump everything else. Justice however...

    1. Hi Russell,

      Thanks for the thoughts. I hear where you are coming from, and I hear very much the pain of your position. I too pray for Justice. You know, I hope, that I agree with you entirely that the church should not be run only by straight males. Unfortunately, I think you are wrong in saying that 'we are past' doctrinal discussions about such things. You and I may well be past them, but many are not.

      As you know, I'm off to West Africa soon, and will be spending time with committed, faithful Christians in a fast-growing church who would profoundly disagree with my position on sexuality and gender in church leadership. To pretend that such opinions are now minority opinions is simply unrealistic. The VAST majority of the world's 2 billion Christians would, in fact, argue that you and I are heretics for believing what we do. That, for me - and I suspect even more for you - is an awfully uncomfortable place to be.

      My argument is that we will never win the argument through separatism. The history of the church is largely a history of how small groups (with minority opinions) have split themselves off from the mainstream, and then effectively died out (or at least been systematically ignored). (How many mainstream Christians could tell you anything meaningful about the Quakers, Ana-baptists or Mennonites?) Schism doesn't work as a strategy for changing minds and hearts. Dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance are the only way of bringing about change (IMO!). It is interesting to note that Jesus never argued for a separate religion. He regularly attended the Synagogue and Temple, worshipping alongside people with whom he profoundly disagreed on all sorts of doctrinal issues. He threw the money changers out of the temple...but he never stopped worshipping there himself.

      That's why I continue to count as friends people with whom I utterly disagree on such topics. I worship alongside people in this very Cluster whose opinions about women and gay people I find abhorrent. But I stand a much better chance of persuading them to change their view if I do them the courtesy of assuming that they are not idiots, and that however much I might disagree with them, their argument arises out of the way they see (or have been indoctrinated into seeing) God.

      As for your idea that 'if their cause is Just, people will follow'....again, I believe that history is a vital teacher. People didn't follow Hitler or Bin Ladin because their causes were inherently Just. They followed them for all sorts of complicated reasons - fear, poverty, revenge, fundamentalism, brilliant marketing etc... Justice had very little to do with it!

      Instead of Schism, I argue that we should focus elsewhere... specifically on living holy lives, on charity, and on what St Paul suggests: being 'ready for every good work, speaking evil of no-one, avoiding quarrelling, being gentle and showing courtesy to everyone.' (Ti.3.2). St Paul was a man of his time in many ways (especially his views on homosexuality and women!). But I believe his instincts regarding the building of effective Christian communities was essentially right.

      I guess we are not going to agree on this. But that doesn't mean that I think you are wrong to argue your case!

  2. the problem with

    "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"

    is this: it will always be a debate which is on 'their' terms (their= the anti-women, anti-gay, Forward in Faith leaning part of the church). As a straight male priest, sure you can attend Mass at the Church of the Ascension, kneel side by side with their vicar and disagree with what he's saying. You can disagree and debate till the cows come home, but he won't bar you from celebrating the Mass with him because of it. But your female colleagues couldn't do that at his church, he wouldn't allow them to take part in the Mass in the first place. And if you invited him to St Mark's for Mass, he wouldn't come if a women priest was presiding. He wouldn't lay aside his convictions for the sake of unity or hospitality.

    the difference between your approach and mine, I think, is that I do not see this as an intellectual matter of doctrine. You are, of course, perfectly at liberty to be friends with people you disagree with, I disagree with many of my friends about many things. That is entirely different from legitimising their point of view publicly and with all the force of 2000 years of Christian tradition in the celebration of the Eucharist. Rest assured that your friends wouldn't do the same for you...

  3. Dear Bisto Boy,

    I think the question you raise is essentially this: "How do we change minds?"

    One of the key differences between us, I suspect, is that I once shared the same views as our traditionalist friends. But, through the patient intervention of liberal friends, I was able, as a grew up, to change my mind and views.

    If I have understood your position correctly, you are essentially arguing for an approach to changing minds which says "so long as you hold different views to mine, I will have nothing to do with you". That, I would argue, is the way of misunderstanding and further conflict.

    The 'Listening Process' of the Anglican Communion suggests a different way. It asks that all people of good faith should listen to each other.

    I would, again, want to point to the example of Jesus. He attended synagogue, and took part in the liturgy - including reading the Scriptures (cf Luke 4.16ff). By doing so, he participated in worship with people who believed, for example, that women should not be educated in the Scriptures, and that only men should worship in the Synagogue. At the same time, as we well know, he drew women into his inner circle - teaching them alongside his male disciples. He worshipped in the Synagogue and Temple - but he also taught in public places.

    I would want to argue that my approach is similar. I worship alongside my traditionalist friends, whilst also worshipping in the inclusive environment of my own parish. I continue to listen to views that I profoundly don't share...but invite those who disagree with me to listen to my position too.

    By the way - for the record - I think you do my colleague at the Ascension a slight dis-service in assuming he 'wouldn't come if a woman priest was presiding'. I wouldn't presume to speak for Fr Mark (he can do that for himself if he wishes on this Blog!). But I do know traditionalist priests who would participate fully in worship led by a woman, even to the point of receiving the blessed bread and wine. (This happened at my training course at STETS). Whilst doing so, they would say that for them, the Eucharist was, theologically speaking, an Agape, not a Eucharist. For them, the experience was diminished theologically, but still valuable as an act of worship with fellow Christians who believe so much (but not everything) in common.

    I beg you not to make the assumption that all traditionalists are homophobic misogynists. Some, of course, may be (that's for them and God to judge)...but most, in my experience, hold their views painfully and uncomfortably, knowing that they are at odds with the prevailing liberalism of Anglican Christianity, but unable yet(!) to change their deeply held theological views about the nature of God.

    It is the duty of all Christians, I think, to confront different opinions with grace and patience. Consider Mother Margaret - the woman priest in our parish who regularly worships at local traditionalist churches. By doing so, with enormous grace, sometimes wearing her clerical collar, she gently reminds traditionalist congregations that there are other 'integrities' at play in the Anglican church. (She is currently leading a Julian Prayer group at St Saviours, for example, with the explicit support of the local traditionalist parish priest).

    Oh dear...I have gone on a bit, haven't I? Suffice to summarise like this: I would argue that few minds were ever changed by being shouted at from the sidelines. Minds are far more likely to be changed through dialogue. If I refused to participate in the worship of traditionalist churches, I might 'make a point' about my view of their theological position. But no dialogue will take place, and no minds (mine or theirs) will ever move in a new direction.

    I wonder if anyone else wants to participate in this discussion?

  4. "If I have understood your position correctly, you are essentially arguing for an approach to changing minds which says "so long as you hold different views to mine, I will have nothing to do with you". That, I would argue, is the way of misunderstanding and further conflict. "

    you have, i'm afraid, misunderstood my position. My position is not one of avoiding dialogue or even not meeting with people who don't share my view. It is though, a belief that in the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist, where the definition of Priest is truly put to the test, there shouldn't be a compromise of integrity. Humility, patience, modesty, grace and hospitality may make us want to put aside our differences of opinion on such matters as the gender and sexuality of priests. But conscientious objection in this situation, to my mind, is far more powerful. Maybe it's the activist in me that's talking, but in the debate on women bishops and Gays in the church, it is the Christian Right who are actually the ones who have "shouted from the sidelines".

    here are very different attitudes in the Church on the issues of Women and Gays. The feeling about women is nothing to do with a "prevailing liberalism" and much more about timing. The CofE's general view on Gays is far from liberal in my experience, and increasingly less so in the last decade. Whilst I completely respect and applaud you for your Damascene conversion (sorry, that was facetious, but i couldn't think how else to put it),

    "through the patient intervention of liberal friends, I was able, as a grew up, to change my mind and views" );

    I have to point out that you have the luxury of having nothing to lose in this debate. For Women and Gay people in the church, these endless debates about so-called theology are painful because they affect us as real PEOPLE and are not just abstract, intellectual differences. Real People die over these kind of issues, in Africa for example: It's time for the Anglican church to take a step to one side or other of the fence and stop dancing around one another. Let us say what we believe, make the tough decisions either way, and then let those who disagree, make their choice about where they want to go from there. The continued sword fighting is more damaging than making a clear decision.