The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended on Wednesday. During the week, in many places, there were services where Christians from different denominations joined together to celebrate what they have in common, laying aside those things that divide them. Now, I’d be fairly certain that if any of us were to spell out the difference between our denomination and one of the others we’d make a reasonable job of describing the essential character of our own, but a less good job of the other. Such has been the case throughout Christian history. But these considerations don’t just apply to Christians or to religions, they apply whatever ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’ we belong to and the difference they have to other similar ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’.
Anna and I lived for 25 years in the West of Scotland, in Ayrshire, where sectarianism is still alive and well and where even today the chances of getting some jobs may depend on your denomination, which might be revealed simply by the name of the school you attended. But I’m not sure that sectarianism’s actually got anything to do with religion, with denomination or with belief. It’s more about prejudice and prejudice often arising from ignorance of the ‘others’.
What we seem to be missing in our increasingly polarised culture is a shared humanity. That person who you or I are yelling at (literally or metaphorically), who has a different political, social or religious opinion than us, they’re actually human too, and you or I are no better or worse than them.
When we can learn to admit that we’re not perfect, that we make mistakes all the time and that we constantly change and evolve our opinions and beliefs … then we can begin to have more compassion for ourselves and begin to see ourselves as someone that’s lovable and worthy of grace and compassion, even though we’re not perfect and not living up to our own ideals. At that point we begin to see others, with differing views or opinions, with that same grace and compassion, no matter how different they are or how many mistakes they’ve made. Why? Because we realise that they’re a person, just like us, with hopes and fears, struggling to do the best they can with the resources that they have, the situation that they find themselves in and what they believe to be true.
Irene Butter, who as a child survived not one, but two holocaust concentration camps, perfectly summarizes these ideas in a single sentence: “Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen.” We need to remind ourselves of this whenever we come across another person who doesn’t see the world in exactly the same way that we do.
St Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God’s eyes. The human standards that say for instance: that my way of being a Christian is better than your way, that my way of worship is better than yours. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life. God places the greatest value on our service to others, even when service may mean suffering and rejection. In Christ we’re a new creation, even in (or perhaps because of) our weakness and vulnerability.
It great to hear people talking about unity, so long as they don’t mean simply that “we can all be united if you come over to my way of thinking”. That’s akin to my suggesting that the solution to Christian disunity is for them all to become Episcopalians – and you know what, I don’t think that would solve anything. We like most denominations can’t even agree amongst ourselves!
The key to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the word ‘Prayer’. Unity is something that we should fervently pray for, we might never achieve it, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, remembering that Unity isn’t Uniformity!!