The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      19th January 2020
Christian Unity
Andrew Penny

When we travel abroad, or even away from home in this country, we expect and even hope to find that people do things differently; we don’t want to be served Yorkshire Pudding in Rome. In my experience at least, globalisation has not taken us to quite that extreme, although every town of any size in France has an Irish pub. I’ve never, however, seen any Guinness being drunk in them.

These are flippant examples of multiculturalism, but some comparisons between our secular reaction to the strange or foreign may give us some help in thinking about and praying for Christian Unity- to which this week is devoted.

The first thing to say is that when we pray for Unity we shouldn’t be praying for Uniformity; we are praying that we may respect differences and value them. We are praying that we should understand and accept the integrity of other believers, as we hope to be understood by them. It’s emphatically not about conversion.

Similarly, moving to the secular sphere, the challenge is how to accept and incorporate the different ways that people choose to live and to see how our own traditions may grow and improve.

 “Our own traditions” is, of course, rather a give-away. Why should I think that my background and upbringing belong, or are any more linked, to the country in which I live than those of someone whose family arrived here rather more recently?

 Equally, while tradition is that which intended to give the feeling of ancient stability and security, it is in fact the traditions that adapt to circumstances that are alive and meaningful; it those that make real an essential binding characteristic that holds a club, society or even nation together, despite ephemeral change. The traditional respect for our monarchy, for example, although in many ways quaint and expressed in antics that outsiders and not a few locals would rightly regard as ridiculous, is nevertheless a powerful bond in our society. Despite its troubles (or possibly because of some of them- both sympathy and envy can work in quite perverse ways), and despite those bumpy rides, that tradition of respect has endured. The apparent nature of that respect has changed enormously even in my lifetime, but its underlying essence, the way in which we value our constitutional monarchy- and the particular monarch has not changed radically. It is a case of a tradition that has indeed been passed down the generations but has adapted to fit the current circumstances.

These are two ways in which the secular sense of ownership and fondness for tradition may help us to come to terms with multiple denominations in Christianity. Most obviously, the Christian church does not belong to its members, and certainly not to any group of members; it’s not ours to say any practice or belief is right, to the exclusion of any other.

 We do, of course, believe in Christian tradition, in the sense that we try to follow Christ and we profess to believe in an apostolic church, i.e. one in authority has been passed down, ultimately from Christ to the apostles and from them onwards. But the understanding of what following Christ means, and the nature of the authority he passed on, are complicated and changing, and there seems to me to be little reason to think it should only mean one thing to the exclusion of other interpretations. 

But if secular experience can help a little in explaining, and perhaps improving, our attitudes to other denominations there remains considerable distance between secular and religious experience. We are mostly tolerant, even welcoming of foreign customs-culinary ones especially. But when it comes to other denominations, and even, perhaps especially, difference within churches, there can be an almost visceral fear or, perhaps worse, a total indifference, towards different traditions and beliefs.

I shouldn’t overstate this phenomenon; after all this is the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Someone, at the top, some leaders, must at some point have thought things weren’t quite right and needed prayer to be put right. In a small but significant way Churches Together in Hampstead manage to do things together while respecting differences, and, most importantly managing proclaim the Gospel in what we do – not always proclaiming it very loudly, but with I believe a quiet significance. But ecumenical projects like these are comparatively uncommon and outside the experience of most Christians in this country. Some Anglican Churches in Hampstead feel unable to sit at the same table at Catholics and Unitarians (it does not, I may say, bother our Catholic neighbours at Holly Pace, who are equally a mainstay of the Baptists’ Contact club). But these initiatives have not, in my memory, really grasped the communal imagination or roused the corporate enthusiasm of this congregation, which is unfortunate.

Unfortunate, but to some extent understandable; religion arouses strong emotion. Faith should, I believe, be questioning and testing, but more usually it prefers to wallow in certainties which it knows cannot be assailed by reason; it’s belief not knowledge, and doesn't need to worry about logic. But the more certain it is, the more easily it is threatened – not so much by atheistic empiricism, but equally securely held certainties of other churches and sects (and especially, of course, the differing beliefs of those within the sect- as the Anglican Church demonstrates with such depressing consistency and regularity).

This is understandable but it it’s not tolerable; it’s not tolerable because it damages the Gospel. Praying for unity matters because it entails understanding how others believe and express their belief and it means respecting difference because the way others believe, and act can only help our own belief to grow and our own understanding and active outreach to be more effective. Diversity and difference are a source of strength.

So these apparent threats should be welcomed; they give us the opportunity to investigate our own integrity and to question the identity which we fear may be diluted or just swamped. That questioning can only be healthy; it asks what really matters, what it the essence of being Christian. As with our attitude to our monarchy, we will find that despite it battering -and battering as much from within as without, our faith in the Gospel grows. The peripheral becomes apparent as such; the silliness and shallowness of the critics strengthens the essential belief. But to see that requires openness to the new and different and a confident imagination to see what they mean for us. It is for trust in that openness and imagination that we need to pray for God’s help in this week of prayer for Unity. Amen.

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