In love and faith (and unity)

In my previous post, I gave a few initial thoughts on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project of the Church of England. I really want to encourage people of all views to engage with this process, the groups and the many materials that the C of E has put together.

I’d like to follow up by offering a few posts on thoughts I had during the course. These are offered tentatively – I know my own opinion but I cannot claim that I am right about everything. Perhaps foolishly, I’m going to start at the end, with thoughts from the last session of the 5 week course, which is about plotting our life together when there is profound disgreement. The Bishops openly admit: we disagree. Indeed, there is disagreement at all levels of the church and, with the best will, I cannot see any path by which one side will suddenly say, oh, I see, I was wrong. There is a process to go through, and even then? I do not think there is anything to be gained by an attempt simply to win the argument. More, there are different types of disagreement: is this so significant a disagreement that we cannot remain in communion with one another, or something milder? But the LLF materials note, we cannot even agree on what level of disagreement this is!

Into this, we are asked to reflect on John 17. The Bishops appeal to us:

If the work of the Spirit is to lead us to new vistas on our disagreements and new perspectives on our differences, it will be through enabling us to ascend the summit of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

In the LLF course, we are encouraged to read the chapter reflectively as a group. It is not the usual way I go about approaching the Bible, so I was a bit skeptical that I would get much out of it. I was wrong. I was surprised to find a set of thoughts coalescing in my mind, with something of an urge to write them down. I am always reticent about overclaiming in these cases: was it just my mind making connections that had been brewing beforehand, or something more? Some of the thoughts, but not all, carry elements of some of the reading I had been doing (Sarah Coakley books… worth another post maybe). Anyway, I wrote some of it down, and the next morning expanded it into a series of statements, which are below.

By way of introduction: John 17 is above all a prayer for unity in the church: about our belonging to the Father and to Jesus (and the Spirit?); about salvation; about glory; about being one with each other. But, you might focus on other elements – John 17 is also about being not conformed to the world, and about santification.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

John 17: 15-19 (NIV UK)

How do you hold together the need for purity with the need for unity? And, what if one person’s view of (what the Bible says about) sanctity is different from another’s? How can we grow together, searching for truth and allowing our desires to become aligned with God’s desires? These were the questions in my mind. Here are the thoughts that resulted.

Reflections on John 17: Unity and Sanctification

  1. All who know God and believe in Jesus are in Christ; they are my sisters and brothers, caught up in the unity of God: Father, Son, Spirit.
  2. We all should devote ourselves to sanctification by truth: to have our thoughts and desires refined and purified in the fire of the love of God, through the Spirit at work in us, and in the community of those in Christ.
    This is a costly calling for us all, and a process which lasts a lifetime. It requires discernment and discipline, faithfulness, honesty, hope and above all love. It requires that we speak and listen profoundly to each other. Do our lives and relationships truly reflect the faithfulness and love of God?
  3. We must accept and trust that our sisters and brothers in Christ are likewise striving to be sanctified by truth.
  4. Unity requires that we bless all our sisters and brothers in Christ, and that we offer our blessings upon the paths that they discern.
    This, also, is a costly calling for us all. It requires – it especially requires – that I offer to bless even when there is profound disagreement between us over what it means to be sanctified in practice. How do I know that I am right? Do I not have sins enough of my own to occupy me, instead of looking to the sins of the other? To withhold my blessing is to judge the other, to say that I know with certainty that I am right and they are wrong. Even when we disagree, we must bless. The only exception can be where we see abuse, or the imposition of power, or profound unfaithfulness. Such cannot receive blessing, because they cannot reflect the faithfulness and love of God.

Discussion

I have shown these thoughts to a couple of people. One welcomed them enthusiastically; one really didn’t. So I am aware of the potential for misunderstanding, and that not everyone will accept these thoughts. I’d like to try expanding on them a little, to avoid (if possible) being misunderstood.

First, I should admit hypocrisy: this is one of the Pastoral Principles. I did not find the above words easy at all, not when I thought about them properly. The honest truth is that I can be extremely judgemental sometimes, when I see something wrong, or that I disagree with. Try me on politics (but also, sometimes, try me on theology, or worship song lyrics). Parting with blessing, when I profoundly disagree, is not an easy or comfortable path for me.

Secondly, is this just describing a free-for-all in which everyone gets to make up their own morality and expect to be blessed, without reproach or correction? No, not at all. Maybe I should have strengthened what I say under point number 2, but I do not expect what is described there to be easy at all, if taken seriously. We need to speak and listen profoundly to each other, especially (but not only) those wiser than ourselves. We need to search the scriptures, and discipline ourselves. How can we align our desires with God’s desires? Within the second point is all the opportunity you might want for offering correction or guidance to a brother or sister who strays, if so they have, and if we are in a position to see more clearly than them. There is opportunity for accepting correction in return. If we take this process of sanctification lightly, then we deceive only ourselves.

But, honest speaking and listening to each other can only take place in the safe space of knowing that we will part with blessing, even if we disagree. This is what unity requires. To withhold blessing is to judge and to condemn, and we should be reluctant to do that (e.g. Matthew 7, Romans 12-15, etc.). To withhold blessing is to say that our disagreement is so significant that we cannot remain in communion, that there cannot be unity between us.

To insist on withholding blessing but also to insist that we will remain united can only be done from a position of power (pay attention to power). It is to say, we will have unity, but we will have it on my terms. This is to impose a false, brittle sort of unity. As a somewhat current analogy, it is a bit like the UK Government insisting that we all unite behind their flag-waving vision of Brexit Britain: we won, get over it, fall in line.

Isn’t there a place, though, for judgement in the church, for identifying sin and, where there is a refusal to repent, dealing with it? Yes – in apparent contrast to Matthew 7 there is also Matthew 18:15-17, and 1 Corinthians 5. But I’d note that in both these cases the immediate result is disunity: put them out of your fellowship. We should not rush to do this. I should add, it is not at all clear to me which group (that is, on which side of the disagreement) we should be judging, were we to attempt to do so. Don’t rush to judge too quickly, in case judgement falls back on you (and, once again, I admit hypocrisy here).

In this context, I found this recent post on the (largely Conservative Evangelical) Psephizo blog interesting. It sets out, from the Evangelical perspective, some thoughts on LLF: I was particularly interested in the sections on what LLF is trying to do, and whether it was right to try this. To some extent, the post seems to value honest discussion and not attempting to “decide the issues”. Though, of course, in the comments it is clear that a good number of people see a split as inevitable (the option of disunity), or would still seek to impose a brittle unity.

So: the Bishops are asking that we look for a path to unity amongst our disagreement, and I’m offering the above thoughts in that spirit. We are in a situation where there is disagreement at all levels of church, between people who take the Bible seriously. Shouting that “our arguments are better than yours” requires a very special kind of confidence. Unity requires that we bless all our sisters and brothers in Christ even when, especially when, there is disagreement.

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