In the Anglican calendar today is the celebration of the Conversion of St Paul. It also happens to be the climax of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I will be preaching at a service this evening (and, therefore, missing the end of the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup game…) and will be tackling the hard questions about Christian Unity. After all, Paul himself was not averse to alienating some Christians and giving a hard time to those whom he felt were wobbly in their faith and adherence to him.
What does go to the heart of Paul’s writing is the need for Christians to ‘repent’ – which literally means ‘change your mind’ (from the Greek ‘metanoia’). In Romans 12 he writes of the ‘renewal of your mind’ as part of the commitment of mind, body and spirit involved in being a Christian. It is blindingly obvious that Christians must lead the way in changing their mind in relation to other Christians (and God and the world) in order to demonstrate that conversion is an active process rather than a magic event.
This is particularly poignant when considering Christian unity in a world where such unity looks more like a remote fantasy than an achievable vision. But we could also see the diversity within the Christian Church as something to celebrate. As long as humanity exists there will be different (and developing) cultures, languages, traditions, stories, histories and understandings of identity – and that is not just obvious, it is also wonderful.
At a press conference in Kazakhstan in 2003 a young Russian television journalist asked me if I could foresee the day when there would be a single world religion and everybody would live in peace. I responded by saying that such a ‘totalitarian’ vision was not very attractive! The post-Soviet younger generation was still harbouring romantic notions of ‘unity’ without reflecting on what it might actually involve.
I cannot imagine what Christian unity might actually look like. Certainly not uniformity of culture, liturgy, language, governance, etc. I am not sure that I can even want to see a unity of hermeneutics – a single way of reading the Bible and interpreting it afresh in each new generation. What would that involve in practical terms and what would it look like to the watching world? (It seems to me that inspiration of the Bible must include a recognition of its hermeneutical difficulties and the ‘wide space’ it gives to difference; that is, form matters as well as content.)
But, like Paul in Romans 8, I can see unity being worked out in a guiding vision that is not fixated on the Church, but a plethora of Christian communities displaying enormous differences of culture, etc, but grasped by a common vision that the Church exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake. Christian unity must surely be a means for the world to see what the character of God is about – reconciling love, rooted in costly forgiveness and joyful defiance of all that kills and destroys (resurrection by the God of our hope), and able to love one another despite difference as well as because of it.
Paul insists that Christians must model how to ‘repent’ and change our minds… in the humble pursuit of becoming Christlike. Christians who repel others who think differently may have to ask what ‘mind changes’ are necessary if the prayer for unity is to be answered. Of course the Christian Church has limits on what counts as Christian and argument should be robust and clear; but winning the argument should not be the ultimate goal and confident humility should describe the mode of debate.
I simply don’t see that the Christian Church – in any of its dressings – has an ounce of credibility in the eyes of a suspicious world if it pretends to a gospel of reconciliation while treating its own brothers and sisters as if they were enemies. I don’t dare ask anyone else to ‘repent’ unless I first am willing to subject my own mind to a change. Which, actually, is exactly what Paul did in the three years after his conversion when his worldview underwent the most agonising transformation.
I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to ‘lead’, they usually mean: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear you say’. The same is true of repentance and unity: we often unconsciously want everyone else to change their mind to conform to mine and want unity that has everyone doing it/believing it my way.