What Kind Of Unity Do We Seek?

We are, ironically perhaps, in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Every year from January 18 (the feast of the Confession of Peter) to January 25 (the feast of the Conversion of Paul) Christians around the world are asked to pray for the unity of the church. Historically this observance has had as its intention the reunion of the various separated branches of the church — Catholics with the Orthodox, Anglican with Lutherans, Presbyterians with other Reformed churches, etc.

However, today it must be said that divisions within the churches are more troubling (and seemingly more intractable) than divisions between the churches. Witness the recent meeting of Anglican Primates which called for The Episcopal Church to suffer the “consequences” of our recent move toward marriage equality within the church as well as within the state. Or, the more subtle (but perhaps more worrying) moves by conservative Roman Catholics to sabotage Pope Francis’ progressive agenda, or evangelicals split over everything from immigration to women’s equality.

I have worked for the unity of the church for most of my adult life — as a parish priest, as a diocesan bishop, as our presiding bishop’s deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. I have sought to do this under the banner of Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel according to John (from which the title of this web log is taken):

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20)

A recent commentary on the Fourth Gospel suggests that Jesus’ prayer was not intended for some kind of institutional unity (since it is unlikely that he came to establish a church anyway, but to renew the Judaism of his day) but rather for a kind of mystical oneness with God. With all the language of “mutual indwelling” in this chapter (“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” 17:23), the author may have a point.

Certainly, the main point of Christianity (and all religions, in one way  or another) is that we may be “at one” with God. At its best, that’s what the word “atonement” means — at-one-ment. And Pope Francis has reminded us this week that the closer we draw to God, the closer we will draw to one another.

So, as I grow older I must admit that I am no longer as concerned about, or even interested in, what Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold once called “ecclesiastical joinery.” I am interested in exploring what it means to be “one with God” and, as I live into that reality, to find that I am increasingly “one” with every other human being, every other creature, every other precious part of the created order.

For, as Paul is reported to have preached in Athens, “In (God) we live and move and have our being, as some of your own poets have said.” (Acts 17:28)


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