One of the things I learned as a vicar (and something I keep reminding clergy who move from one parish to another) is that you can learn the history, but you can’t share the memory. The problem, however, is that people in any community usually act and react from the unarticulated memory, rather than from the cold fact of history.

This notion has been renewed as I have listened and talked with people here in Virginia during the last few days.

Having flown in on Friday night to Roanoke, we spent Saturday in town visiting the art gallery and watching The Artist at a local cinema. On Sunday I preached at St Peter, Altavista, and in the evening at St John, Roanoke. On Monday we spent the morning at the offices of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia before being collected and driven to meet people in Waynesboro en route to Staunton where we were wonderfully entertained by the rector and his wife. Following a cheese and wine party with the Vestry of Trinity church, I even intruded into their Vestry Meeting (always good to see how other churches run their business).

After a very comfortable night – sleep matters with a schedule of constant new people and places – we visited Stuart Hall School and saw the wonderful Tiffany windows in Trinity church before driving to Lexington for a clergy lunch. This was excellent: generous hospitality and good conversation with good people. After a visit to the R.E. Lee Memorial Church, we went on a tour of the Washington & Lee University before visiting the Virginia Military Institute. Later we drove on back to Roanoke in time for dinner.

Wednesday saw us being driven to Christiansburg where we shared in the midweek Eucharist at St Thomas’s before meeting some young people (with educational and other challenges) on an inspired FutureWorks course in the hall. We then went to Blacksburg and toured Virginia Tech where 32 people were shot dead during a planned rampage by a student on 16 April 2007. We went from there to Radford University to meet students for dinner (and informal Eucharist) before spending the night with a brilliantly hospitable and friendly couple in town.

Tomorrow will see us visiting an art gallery with friends before having lunch with the local clergy and then being driven back to Roanoke to prepare for the annual diocesan Council in a local hotel. This looks to be a busy programme including some speaking, meeting loads of people and doing some stuff with hundreds of very motivated young people. We fly out on Sunday late afternoon.

So, why the ‘history versus memory’ stuff? Well, we have met some inspiring people and seen some beautiful and inspiring places. We have heard so many stories of life and faith from so many people. And we have been learning some history as we go. As I said to some people today, it is easy to feel that we ought to apologise for being British whenever we see or hear about the War of Independence. Here in Virginia, however, it is the Civil War that cuts deep and still shapes people. Yet, driving to our hosts from the university this evening I caught sight of a banner hanging in a house window in Radford that said: ‘Liberty or death. Get out of my way’.

It seems that the American default of holding individual autonomy to be inviolable leads to illusions of independence and power that ultimately tend to dehumanise. The tragedy of Virginia Tech hangs in the air (along with other violent atrocities) and calls into question all sorts of assumptions. Apparently, however, the right to bear arms is not up for consideration.

I am a guest – a visitor. I can’t share the memory that goes deep and has shaped the psyche of people and communities here. But, learning the history raises a raft of hard questions about what makes a society good. And the experience sends me away thinking about the power of a Christian gospel that calls for a radically new way of thinking and living. Today we celebrated the Conversion of St Paul – a conversion that, precipitated by an involuntary encounter with the risen Jesus, shattered his entire world view and broke him down to the extent that he took years of rebuilding his way of seeing, thinking and living.

Conversion is hard. Easily spoken of, but costly to endure. And always easy to propose to someone else.

 

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.