Is our worship really “diminished” by the lack of Christian unity?

“I was dismayed, but not surprised, to hear so many calls for ‘unity’ after Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election,” writes political historian Dr Robert Crowcroft of Edinburgh University. He expounds:

…”unity” is not a good in itself, and to call for it is little more than tribalism of the most unthinking sort. Patriots should not “unite” with people who back Britain’s enemies abroad and who pursue a style of politics at home that is little more than malice in the guise of virtue.

To fixate on “unity” reflects the same problem that landed Labour in its mess: a pathological, increasingly pathetic, fixation with “betrayal”…

His context is Labour’s intra-party political division and the apparently irreconcilable ideologies which necessitate (he advocates) schism. He frames it in manichæan terms: Blairite patriots versus Corbynite enemies abroad: the choice is simple, ‘for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?‘ (2Cor 3:14). Unity which is born of tribalism is “unthinking”, he avers. It is “malice in the guise of virtue”, and so schism becomes a moral course of action; a political imperative. A party which is divided is simply never elected to government: ‘And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand‘ (Mk 3:25). Better two sects abstaining from meat and the worship of demons, than one church wrapped in scarlet headgear pretending to be a white Buddha.

In comments made during an ecumenical discussion at the World Day for Peace in Assisi last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a forthright plea for Christian unity. “If we do not suffer together, we do not know the meaning of the ecumenism of mercy,” he said. “When they kill us, they do not ask if we are Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic or Orthodox; we are one in Christ for them. So why are we divided when they are not killing us?” There he sat, confidently representing his Anglican tribe, speaking alongside the absolute leaders of other Christian denominations – Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic…

What does ‘unity’ mean in this context? When Jesus prayed ‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me‘ (Jn 17:21), did he impart a vision of one empire under one emperor belonging to one Church under one God? How much blood has been spilled in that pursuit? Was he talking about the Church and not the world? How do you achieve visible spiritual unity without actual temporal peace? And how do you gain temporal peace with warring spiritual sects? Were not the great ecumenical councils of Nicæa, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon as much to do with uniting a political empire as defining theological heresy?

Is spiritual division necessarily wrong when it concerns what might be termed the “betrayal” of eternal salvation? If one Christian preaches the sufficiency of Christ crucified once and for all, while another preaches Christ and him crucified over and over again, is such a dispute over the manner and meaning of that salvation a question of “malice in the guise of virtue”? Is it a dispute worth having? Is it a schism worth sustaining? Perhaps, more importantly, does the lack of visible unity mean that “our worship is diminished and our capacity to grow close together with God is reduced”?

Dr Welby is concerned with the primacy of love and mercy over doctrine and dogma, not least because ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another‘ (Jn 13:35). But is worship ‘in spirit and in truth‘ (4:24) not enhanced by the sincerity of our faith and the conviction of our division? For sure, our Christian witness to the world may be impaired, but is our “capacity to grow close together with God” really reduced by our reluctance (failure?) to acknowledge the pastoral primacy and moral-dogmatic supremacy of a pope?

Far from being diminished, surely our worship is enlarged and amplified by the conscience-affirming voice of Jesus which speaks of love with truth, and of truth with mercy? Love and mercy may ignite candles of peace, but what manner of peace is it without a thirst for truth? Do we help the poor and suffering by bandaging their wounds without applying antiseptic? Do we heal their souls with whispers of love and unity? Must we pretend that all doctors are equally good and uniformly qualified to administer the water of life to those who thirst for righteousness?

Christian division – indeed, all religious division – is borne of an authentic religious attitude. The world is very good at spotting hypocritical kisses, false hugs and fudged compromise. No matter how much we may pray and long for the visible unity of the Church, Jesus articulated the sheer impossibility of its fulfilment this side of Glory: ‘ thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee…’ No matter how humble, loving, peaceful and reconciling Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis may be (and they both may be with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II), they are never going to be homousion – of one substance – with one another.

The Triune God may be the ultimate eternal model for Church unity, but, in the meantime, let us rejoice in our theological difference and embrace our ecclesial diversity. And thank God for the freedom we have to walk in spirit and in truth: our denominational differences are legitimate, and should not be dismissed with indiscriminate, ecumenical, post-demoninational enthusiasm. If we can avoid bitter destructiveness and petty factionalism, the lack of Christian unity won’t diminish our worship one bit.