Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

theology and unity - archive

week of prayer for
christian unity



Sunday 16 January 2011
Sunday Worship

Preacher: Rev Bob Fyffe, General Secretary, CTBI
BBC Radio 4 link to external website


The little boy ran home from school, proud to have been allowed to go for his first haircut on his own. He was happy, but boys from another local primary school had chased him and thrown stones. Reaching the sanctuary of home, he asked through hot tears "mummy what's a wee Proddy" (translated - a little Protestant)
Last September and nearly fifty years after that childhood event in his home town of Dundee, the same boy stood, within arm's length of the Pope, the Archbishop and the Moderator. He witnessed at close hand, Church leaders mingle and walk out of Westminster Abbey as genuine friends. Unthinkable even twenty years ago.
Those who seek the unity of God's Church have come far and achieved much. Today there are many hundreds of local initiatives at the beginning of this week of prayer for Christian unity.

That story is my own and it is an example of how that movement for unity has transformed things for the better in the time since my childhood. It is not merely that churches have become more friendly with other churches on a superficial level. It is this movement that has helped to overcome some deep rooted enmities that have scared communities, transforming churches to be more open to each other. And this has not only changed them, but changed the society around them, making the lives of individuals and families more peaceful, settled, at ease with their community - is this a foretaste of what Jesus meant when he said "I come that you might have life in all its fullness".. Ecumenism, this seeking after God's unity and wholeness, is therefore not about ecclesiastical cosy-ness but about deep and profound changes to our imperfect attempts to be the Body of Christ, and so changing our selves, freeing us to change our society and our world. But we have so much further to go, and so much more to achieve.

With the gift of hindsight I now realise that those boys throwing stones at me had as much idea of what "a wee proddy" was as I did. But I also recognise that the task of constructing collective identity, often requires an adversary, an "other", the "negative", the "not me" against which to define oneself. In this process of defining the "other" we have in our recent history witnessed the holocaust, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Whether national, ethnic, racial or religious grounds have been claimed, the underlying message has been "we have no need of you".

But this narrative and definition denies that you and I are made in the image and likeness of God. We are all God's children, no more slaves or free, no more black or white, no more Jew or Muslim or Christian or evangelical or liberal.

This unity, this oneness is not for ourselves alone, but is a necessary working out of our calling. To be divided as Christians is to offer poor witness to the world. In recent times, it was Dietrich Bonheoffer who witnessed to the confessing Church in Germany, saying that it needed to express that essential unity in its stand against evil. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that a divided Church wasn't strong enough to overcome apartheid. ‘And just this week, in Tucson, Arizona President Barack Obama, in the wake of the terrible events there, spoke inspiringly of his vision of unity. He said that "at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -- at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -- it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds".

But the call to Christian unity MUST BE more than a dream. The living out of these high ideals that helps others see that faith can be a source of hope. To reach out and embrace our fellow human beings and see something of God in each one regardless of wealth, or status, or power, or fame - for us to be recognised as Christians by how well you and I have loved, that is our task.

In these days when churches are so consumed by issues to do with Churches, it is a powerful witness for Christians to be in the world. Isn't this where churches in neighbourhoods and communities need to be creating dialogue, need to be offering space to listen, engage and heal memories. Isn't this exactly the place where Christian voices need to be heard saying to neighbours "I have a need of you".

Unity, listening, hospitality and generosity are needed too as we see those suffering around our world today. The flooded districts of Brisbane and its surrounding towns, the climate chaos that has this week brought suffering to Sri Lanka, Brazil and other places these images remind us that we should now feel a global responsibility and connectedness.

Closer to home, within our own nation, we are faced with difficult times too. We need safe spaces where people can cross boundaries and frontiers, often of OUR own making in order to meet each other and, in that space, ask fundamental questions. Only as a united people, as the whole body of Christ can Christians stand shoulder to shoulder, and overcome the great concerns of these days in partnership with everyone of goodwill.

But we should also confess that we have become too good at reducing the beauties of the vastness of God into tight contained doctrinal packages that have been used to define the "other", the "negative", the "outsider".

But the God of our yearning is indeed that outsider. He was born in a stable because there was no room. He found no-where to lay his head, he died at a crossroads, surrounded by thieves and sinners. The God we know through scripture and the Holy Spirit is that "other", that outsider, that cornerstone that the builders rejected. The God, that we meet face to face in Jesus, is the outside God, out in the community, out in the still ruined streets of Haiti, out in the war torn countryside and the tribal sectarian battlefields.

Christ looks for the common ground as a hinge to community. It is up to each Christian to swing open that hinge, to be that place of giving and receiving, that place of renewal and unity.

We cannot, we must not allow our children to be reared in situations where, like me so many years ago, they run home to ask "what is a Protestant, what is a Catholic, what is a Jew or a Muslim". The starting point for our Christian witness is for the Church to become that expression of unity, that model of acceptance and welcome and hospitality that is rooted in God. Where these hopes and dreams are bound together, communities become places of deep exchange, where together we become all that God intends for us. To BE the whole people of God.



Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011
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