The church was full (for once). The visiting preacher had drawn a big congregation. Children played in the far corner. We sat, ready to hear the preacher’s message about the importance of inclusivity. “Children shouldn’t be allowed in church” said the voice of someone behind me. “What are those parents thinking. They should be keeping them quiet.” And on they went. An argument broke out in The Peace. “When my children came to church, they were quiet. Such a shame they’ve spoiled a good service.” I received communion and left. It wasn’t the children who spoiled it.*
On visiting another church (in another team) a while back, I was talking to the vicar at the end of the service. He asked what I did where I lived. “I’m married to the vicar,” I replied. “Ah, there we have a problem,” came his response as he moved on to the next person.
Another time, another place. A Roman Catholic monastery. It’s Mass. I’m Anglican. I’m not allowed to receive that most special gift of bread and wine.
With the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on 18 January, the ironic fact is that scenarios such as the three shown above will be played out in many churches across the land.
Many organisations experience issues of unity and disunity. Social clubs, workplaces, political parties, campaigning groups… It’s natural when a group of people come together. There are going to be agreements and disagreements. There may be a unity about the purpose – but it’s often the variations which cause difficulties: ‘Oh no, we do it this way…’. The Church is no different.
Disunity can be found within the most respectable of congregations. ‘Power holders’ and ‘blockers’ sit alongside the ‘co-operators’ and ‘team players’. Local/parish churches being brought together under the guise of a ‘team’ struggle to move on from valued historical individuality and identity. And that’s without thinking of the disputes between and within denominations at a national and international level…
A week praying for Christian unity in such a seemingly disunited Church?
The Church (with a capital C) is, thankfully, not perfect. It comprises a very diverse group of individuals. It is open to all: believer, non-believer, not sure believer; people who do ‘church’ but don’t do God. (And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber once put it, ‘Be careful when you say, “All are welcome”. The problem is they show up.’)
Francis Chan wrote, ‘I don’t believe God wants our church life to be centred on buildings and services. Instead, God wants our churches—whatever specific forms our gatherings take—to be focused on active discipleship, mission, and the pursuit of unity.’
Thankfully, the Church (the people) finds its unity in the knowledge that Christian believers, in all their diversity, represent the presence of Christ on earth.
It is in that diversity that unity exists.
*Taken from A Story to Tell