Thought for the Week – Christian Unity

Lucy discusses the theological reflections that underpin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

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Lucy Winkett

There’s an old joke sometimes told in ecumenical circles which is a reflection on the different Christian denominations and their priorities.

It’s said that you can tell what Christian denomination’s church you’re in by going into the vestry (the vestry is the side room that most churches have a version of, where church equipment and resources are kept and the ministers meet before the services to robe, or to pray). If you go into a Roman Catholic vestry, you will see on the wall a picture of Jesus’s Sacred Heart. If you go into a Methodist or Baptist vestry, you will see a picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd. If you go into an Anglican or Church of England vestry, what you find on the wall is….. a full length mirror.

Apart from (in my experience) having a ring of truth about it, this observation does summarise what the Church of England is often accused of, which is navel-gazing, and internal debates taking over what the church should be doing, which is looking outwards and serving its communities.  Another pithy observation about church life is that the church is like a swimming pool. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end.

This week is an annual commemoration, called The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It begins today on 18th January, and ends on 25th January, which is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul (when, having persecuted the fledgling Christian communities that were forming, Saul became Paul, after a heart-stopping vision of Jesus Christ. He then became perhaps the most influential crafter of Christian doctrine and practice in the first years after Jesus’s death and resurrection).  This week, the two billion Christians around the world; Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Free Churches, making up every denomination on every continent and in every language; are asked to pray for one another, and to pray for unity.

This is clearly a good thing, and I would argue, more needed than ever in societies that struggle with finding unity of purpose sometimes in the enormous diversity evident in adjacent populations, belief systems, societal assumptions.  Praying, as Jesus did in the gospels that they ‘may be one’, is a yearning for connection that is also found in other world religious teachings. As interdependent human beings, we are called to know ourselves one not only with all other people but with all creation.

But unity is not uniformity. That is, there is a deep unity, rooted and founded in love, that not only tolerates difference but celebrates it, needs it, requires it, for the purposes of God’s creation to be fulfilled.  We do not all have to be the same to be one.

There is a tension here though. And that is between the principles of unity and justice. Recently I have had cause to re visit my own experience of being among the first generation of women ordained priest in the Church of England. The decade leading up to the vote in 1992 and then the ordinations in 1994 were tough years. As were the years that followed.

St James’s Piccadilly, through the 1980s and 90s was a pioneering voice in this debate, urging the church to ordain women to the priesthood which up until 1994, was only open to men.  As a young woman, I knew of St James’s, and came to visit the Revd Ulla Monberg here, to get inspiration. And later on, when I was personally facing a great deal of public opposition, I came to visit the Revd Mary Robins here, who died on Christmas day 2022. Both of these women are still remembered and honoured here by some of the longer -standing members of the church, as are the men who supported them. But nearly 30 years on, it is still true that for most of the 2 billion Christians in the world, they will never hear a woman, cis-gendered or trans, preach, or see a woman preside at the Eucharist.  There are fine lines between praying for unity, longing for justice, and respecting difference.  Women were executed and tortured for attempting to speak publicly in England’s churches during the 16th and 17th centuries. The first time the Church of England officially discussed the ordination of women was in 1918.  The first woman was ordained priest in March 1994. In some ways, from discussion to action, this is relatively fast. But it is a human lifetime. And for generations of women who lived and died, nurturing an unfulfilled calling to the priesthood, it was too slow, too painful, too late.

There are serious theological reflections that underpin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and one of them for me, is that justice is a theological principle not simply a secular one. And that justice for one is justice for all. And justice denied for one is denied for all. God’s justice is not always the same as human legalities, but it is founded in equity of identity before God, which is, again, a theological theme not just a legal one.

And so that is why I will be in Parliament this week, speaking at an event, as the House of Bishops meets this week to discuss how the Church of England will move forward in its conversation and practice following the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process.  The church will debate how to move forward in its ministry regarding people whose gender identity and sexuality are challenging a heteronormative consensus, challenging too an assumption that binary gender identity is the only possible reality for human beings. I pray that among the reforms the church might make, that life-long pledges of love in marriage will become open to everyone. And, in contrast to the current situation, that I as a priest might be allowed to take weddings for anyone who wants to make that beautiful and tender-hearted commitment to another person for life.

The church, not least the Church of England, has a compromised past, and a compromised present. Repentance and reparation are now on the agenda with regard to the transatlantic slave trade: £100million was pledged this week by the Church Commissioners in recognition of the advantage the church has gained from its investment in that shameful trade.

With reference to justice and unity, the past must be confronted, and the present debated, as long as power is held equally among the debaters. Large Church of England parishes close to St James’s Piccadilly, here in central London are more in step with most of the Christians in the world: they simply will not permit women to hold leadership positions, or teach on behalf of the church, or preside at the Eucharist.  While this is a position the national church allows parishes to hold, it is, I want to say unequivocally and straightforwardly, wrong.

But the future is a different prospect. It is full of possibility, hope, and new energy to bring to birth the just and joyful community revealed in this Epiphany season by the God who loves us and longs for us to be whole.  And how we act today is instrumental in helping to bring that new future into being.

So unity yes, uniformity no. But we can’t sacrifice justice on the altar of unity when it means not confronting the inequities and cruelties of which every one of us is capable.  Because when those individual cruelties and compromises find institutional expression, then we have fallen into structural sin. Which God’s uncompromising promise of forgiveness will teach us to confront. Then we are asked to repent, renew, and always, always, together, try again.

Pray for Christian unity. Pray for deepening mutual understanding and respect between people of different world faiths. Pray too, with the Scripture that Jews, Christians and Muslims all respect and honour, that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5.24).