13 May 2018
Christ Church Cathedral
The ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday are marked within the Australian churches as a week of special prayer for Christian unity.
As we reflect on the challenges faced by all Christian communities in contemporary Australian society, it may be worth reflecting on our complex history of relationships between the churches. The good relations which we enjoy and appreciate these days have not always been the norm, and indeed it may be worth asking just how serious we are about Christian unity.
We can perhaps trace the history of our ecumenical relationships through a series of four or five stages. The fifth and final stage—unity—is yet to be achieved, but the other four have been part of our shared journey.
Breaking down the wall of hostility …
REJECTION: During this phase of our ecumenical relationships, each major Christian church liked to pretend that it was the only valid church. Catholics dismissed Anglicans as not a valid church, while Anglican dismissed Presbyterians or Methodists as not a proper church, and so on. Marriage across denominational lines was almost impossible, and considerable suffering was experienced by people whose families happened to include people from more than one Christian tradition.
COMPETITION: Once it became impossible to maintain the fiction that only the church to which we belonged was an authentic church, then we moved into a stage of competition. In this phase we each sought to consolidate our historical privileges and attract new adherents from other traditions or from the wider community.
COLLABORATION: Since the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948 there has been a move towards formal collaboration, at least between certain subsets of the churches. The conciliar movement gives de facto recognition to the validity of different expressions of Christianity, whether they are due to cultural and ethnic factors or variations in beliefs and practices. Some church groups found even that level of recognition too much to embrace, with the result that rival councils of churches now exist with the Australian religious scene.
COALITION: In response to various forms of humanitarian and social need even churches that disagree on key beliefs and practices have sometimes found that we can form a coalition to address issues like alcohol abuse, gambling, refugees, and so on. But around issues such as marriage equality there was no grand Christian coalition, since the churches adopted opposing views on the question or chose to leave people to follow their own consciences. In such cases the differences within the one religious community can be greater than those between different communities.
UNITY: There remains the hope of structural and visible unity among the churches, but it seems to be a fading dream. The test for our commitment to genuine ecumenical progress may be how we respond to this challenge from the late Bishop Michael Putney, formerly a colleague of mine in the Brisbane College of Theology. Bishop Michael argued fervently that we should “only do separately those things which we cannot in good conscience do together”.
Here and now
We have some real challenges here in this city when it comes to ecumenism.
For the most part we pretend that all is rosy, but in fact that far from the case.
Every time a new Christian community starts up, it is an act of schism and a new rip in the fabric of the faith.
At the heart of these new fellowships or missions is a belief that none of the existing churches provided an acceptable way for that group of people to serve God’s mission in this city. The others are so wrong about so many serious points of belief or practice that true fellowship is impossible to maintain and yet another new church needs to be created.
And the city looks at us with disdain, while the Lord weeps.
The Christian witness is fragmented and our resources are diverted into buying new properties, erecting new buildings, and engaging new clergy.
Is the Christian church actually any smaller in Grafton than it was 25 or 50 years ago, or are we just so fragmented that almost all of use are smaller inside our half-empty new churches?
But let’s look closer to home. Even within our own Anglican Church we are divided in ways that detract from the mission God has called us to do. We cannot even work together we each other on opposite sides of the river for fear that we might lose something that matters more to us—it seems—that providing a strong Anglican voice in the city of Grafton.
I do wonder how the respect for the Christian churches in Grafton might be improved if our neighbours saw us acting out of such a spirit of mutual acceptance rather than competing for some marginal advantage to the perceived benefit of our own institutions.
Let’s pray that God will make us—Yes, us!—so uncomfortable about the lack of unity within our own church and between the various church communities of this city, that we actually do something to make a change.
As a start, I suggest we embrace the word of Bishop Michael Putney and resolve “only [to] do separately those things which we cannot in good conscience do together”.