The current headlines from the recent gathering of the Primates (senior bishops) of the Anglican Communion — that The Episcopal Church (based in the US) is to be excluded from key aspects of the Communion’s life, as a result of its decisions regarding the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage — raise a question that deserves serious consideration: What does unity really mean in the life of the church?
Over the centuries, Christian people have often, it seemed, confused unity with unanimity. They have assumed that in order to be united, people must agree about certain things. That list that must be agreed to tends to include both matters of doctrine and morality. The list has shifted over the centuries, but it has never gone away. When groups of Christians have been unable to sign on to the list du jour, fracture of relationship has been the result — along with the formation of new denominations.
The results of the recent gathering of Anglican Primates appears to be simply another iteration of this history. The majority of the Primates have a list of doctrines and morals which must be signed onto, in their view, in order to have unity within the Anglican Communion. And the very top item on the current list seems to be a certain view of marriage and human sexuality. Since the Primates, and the churches they represent, are not unanimous with respect to their views on these issues, the result is fracture of relationship — a deliberate distancing of The Episcopal Church from the other churches of the Communion, and the very real possibility that other churches will end up being treated the same way as they move toward The Episcopal Church’s position.
This idea of unity as unanimous agreement is, it seems to me, false; and particularly so for Christian people.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Pauls observes, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” What Paul is pointing us toward, I believe, is that the locus of Christian unity is not based on unanimous consent but rather on the conviction that Jesus is Lord, a conviction that is ultimately enabled by the one Spirit.
While this is not a term I normally use — generally because of the conservative theological connotation it has acquired in the present day — to say that “Jesus is Lord” is simply to say that Jesus is the one on whom we rely to bring us into a salvific (which is to say, a healing) relationship with God. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to express our loyalty to his proclamation of the kingdom of God, to say that he is the one whom we follow and whom we trust to bring us to God. This is the unity of the Christian church: to claim this central role for Jesus in our lives as we seek to “work out [our] own salvation”. And Paul is clear that anyone who is able to say this does so “by the Holy Spirit.”
There is no doubt in my mind that this is something that all of us in the Anglican Communion are able to do. We have each and all entrusted ourselves to Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God. This unites us to one another and, indeed, to Christians around the world.
But having entrusted ourselves to Christ, we then embark upon the life-long journey of understanding exactly what this means. As we continue to contemplate the life of Christ and to listen to his proclamation of the reign of God, we must work out what his life and his proclamation mean for us in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. Just as we see Christ as the incarnation of God in a human life, so we must figure out how to incarnate the reign of God within and among us. And while it may sound straight-forward, the actual process of incarnating that reign is far more art than science, and can be quite complicated. Because for anything to be truly incarnated, it must — by definition — become fully and deeply embedded in its time and place. The consequence of this incarnational truth is that Christians in different places will enact the Gospel differently, and will reach different conclusions about what it means relative to any given issue or situation. This is simply because the act of incarnating the reign of God inevitably involves dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and its diverse inhabitants.
This, it seems to me, is how Christians who all are seeking to be faithful can arrive at very different points of view. What we must learn to see is that these different points of view all begin at the same place: a commitment to following Jesus into the heart of God.
We have tended over the centuries to want to find our unity as Christians by making everyone adopt the same point of view about pretty much everything. The persistent divisions within the Christian community give us all the evidence we need about how well that has worked. Nevertheless, we continue to nurture a fantasy of a universal church where everyone will be on the same page.
We need to come to terms with the fact that Christians have really never been on the same page with respect to lots of things, and it is unlikely that we ever will be. But we can find unity in something we have, in fact, all always agreed on: that Jesus is decisively the one whom we follow, and we trust him to lead us to God. Rather than beating each other up about the different ways in which we incarnate that commitment, we would be far better served by rejoicing in the many and diverse ways we incarnate that commitment.
In the midst of the rejoicing, however, it is equally important to recognize that Jesus does give us a standard that must apply to all our efforts to incarnate the gospel, regardless of time and place. When asked for the bottom line of his teaching, Jesus answers, Love God with your whole heart, body, soul, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself. However the gospel is incarnated, whatever conclusions we draw from our commitment to Christ about how we live in union with God, we must be able to affirm these principles positively. Our incarnation of the reign of God must reflect a deep and abiding love for God, and it must reflect a deep and abiding love for our neighbor. When Jesus himself was asked to define that word “neighbor”, he said that the neighbor was the one among us who was in need.
We must always bear this standard in mind, and we must constantly and honestly reflect on our own incarnating of the Gospel and ask ourselves, “Is this expressing a whole-hearted love for God AND a whole-hearted love for my neighbor, the one near me who is in need?” When we find that it is not, then we have an obligation to re-align our following of Jesus.
Incarnation of the reign of God is far more messy than most of us would like it to be — but it is the task and the truth to which we have been called.