We should not fetishise Christian Unity
My friend Ed Watson has blogged about the increasingly dubious quest for Anglican unity. He rightly queries the desirability and realism of keeping gay rights supporting American Episcopalians in communion with the Church of Uganda that has supported its country’s draconian new anti-gay laws:
Here are the practical ramifications of Williams’ tenure: the Church of England has become ineffective at proclaiming and living the Gospel. It is bogged down in political infighting, with those on one side digging their heals in by threatening to leave and those on the other compromising for fear of their following through, such that even though the sentiments of the majority lean one way, the whole is paralysed. The Episcopal Church has to no small extent taken leave of Scripture, so defining itself in terms of conflict on these issues according to secular instead of Scriptural measures (both intra-nationally and international, it should be said) that it constantly lays itself open to the criticism of being little more than a fairly wooly social club. The Church in Uganda meanwhile has assisted with the passage of a bill which leaves those who practise homosexuality vulnerable to life imprisonment. The Church in Nigeria has been instrumental in provoking violence towards homosexuals.
On the one hand, then, we have ineffectual and spiritually empty institutions: on the other we have those supporting violence and hatred in the name of Christ (at least the Church in Uganda institutionally opposed the death penalty for homosexuality). Each side is waiting for the other to change its mind, and neither will. Those who disagree that homosexuality and the ordination of women are compatible with the centrality of Scripture in the life of this Church are threatening to leave, and it looks like the Church is either too afraid to let them or has bought into the idea that such a threat is a reasonable response to what’s being proposed and so should be allowed to set the agenda (this is without thought as to whether the ones threatening departure are more or less responsible for any division which might occur, or indeed thought as to the sense in which a Church that refuses entry to someone on the basis of their sexual orientation can lay claim to unity in Christ in and of itself). No one is benefiting from the so called unity of the Anglican Communion, least of all those Christ commanded is to love.
I’d go further than Ed who despite his reservations about Anglican unity, nonetheless, believes that “all things being equal (or, indeed, many things being a little unequal), a unified Church is better than a divided Church.”
I would argue that what unites Christians is that we are followers of Christ. It is a spiritual matter rather than an organisational one.
There are in fact good reasons for wanting there to be a multiplicity of Christian churches. As in many other matters competition between churches produces vibrancy. America’s free market in faith has lead to much fuller churches than the state backed monopolies prevalent in Europe.
It is also surely to be welcomed if there are Christian voices that can call each other out if they fall short.
This is not to say members of different churches shouldn’t co-operate. But this can happen on a case by case basis without a full scale merger. In fact, setting high standards for unity can potentially get in the way. For example, for a couple of years I was part of Oxford Street Pastors. This very worthwhile initiative which brought together people from lots of different churches to provide a service for the community and express God’s love. However, this would probably never have happened if we had first had to negotiate a common position on gay rights, the role of women, the correct approach to scripture etc. Looking past differences is often preferable to trying to massage them away.
The ability of the Anglican Church to contain within itself a great diversity of theological viewpoints is in many ways admirable. However, this cannot realistically be pushed ad infinitum. At some point it must reach a limit. For Anglicans who take human rights seriously, the rank homophobia and willingness to encourage state oppression of many African churches must surely mean that point has been reached.