Last week was the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. It is the church that I have belonged to since as long as I can remember. It is the church that I was ordained in 16 years ago, and it is the church that I love. For a good several months, however, I have watched comments fling about online, I have read blogs and articles, I have listened to people speak at each other rather than converse with each other. The issue: Changing our cannon on marriage. Make no mistake, despite the election of our new primate, despite the good work done in supporting indigenous self-determination, this was the main issue at Synod. This meant that when it hit the floor of Synod, speakers quickly piled up. Tensions were high, emotions were hot, veiled insults were flung, and in the end, a vote was cast. Yet in this me vs you way of governance, this vote insured that there would be no winner for our church. And, although a frequent theme of this year’s synod was UNITY, when the issue of the marriage canon came, it was clear that church unity was far from people’s minds.
At this point I should be clear that I was not actually at Synod. While I watched the live feed as much as possible, I could only view what the camera showed me. Still, over the past week I have thought a lot about church unity and about what embracing church unity might mean for the Anglican Church of Canada. And so, it is on the matter of unity, with some references to General Synod, that I offer this blog.
An important understanding is that unity is not something that we necessarily bring about by being the same. Unity is not the same as uniformity. In fact, I would say that unity is not actually about us. The more we focus on ourselves, and the more we try to force some unity by way of our own actions (or vote), the more we move away from the true unity of the church. Why? Because we are not the creators of unity. Jesus holds the unity of the church together. Thus the unity of the church is a gift to the church. That is, the church can only understand itself a united body as it focuses on the good news of Jesus, feeds on the body and blood of Jesus, and is empowered by the spirit of Jesus. The unity of the church is a function and by product of the church’s identity in Christ Jesus.
Jesus unites us. This probably sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest of things can be the most profound. It is the presence of Christ the unites the body of Christ, this means that unity doesn’t dismiss our differences, or our brokenness. In fact, within the unity of the church (held by Christ) I am free be completely different from you, as different as iPhone to Android, Stampeders to Roughriders, Yahoo to Yee-haw. What is more, embracing a Christ-held unity can mean that I am allowed to think that you are wrong, or mistaken, and you can think I am wrong. However, if Jesus is your Lord, and Jesus is my Lord, then together, Jesus is our Lord. Unity exists with You and I, we and us, resting in the hand of Christ Jesus.
Our expression of unity is rooted in the primary call of our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” We heard this passage last Sunday in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-32). Jesus commends the expert of the law who cites this as the “way to eternal life.” “Do this and you will live” Jesus says. As we who read religious blogs are probably aware, this appeal to loving the Lord, flowing into love of neighbour, isn’t just something that sounds nice doctrinally but doesn’t mean much practically. That first phrase was part of Shema, a passage in Deuteronomy that the Jewish people, as a nation, were asked to recite daily. The Shema spoke fundamentally about who Israel were as a people. They were the Lord’s chosen. They were people who lived their life with the presence of the Lord. The Shema reminded them that the Lord defined what they were passionate about, defined how they thought about things, defined what they gave their energy to and what they avoided. That same call is true for us. Jesus commends it to us. And so, if we are ever asked: “what is the church about?” or “what is that which unifies the church?” we should say that we love Jesus with all our passion and prayer and intelligence and muscle. This is the foundation of everything we are to be as a church.
The sad reality of our history is that we often make the church about so many other things. We have made the church about social justice, or about conservative morality, or it’s about progressiveness and liberation, or about the colour of carpets and the dangers of hymn-book revision. Don’t get me wrong, some of those things may be well and good… they just do not create unity. Again, the unity of the church is held by Jesus because Jesus alone is the unity of the church.
Now before we smile and say “absolutely” we need to recognize there are radical implications that flow from this. The love of the Lord leads to love of neighbour. Referring again to the parable, there was a long-standing rabbinic practice that linked the Shema and the command to love our neighbours. That being said, there was a debate about who constituted one’s neighbour. One interpretation saw the command in Leviticus 19 as a call to love only the Israelite neighbour. Love your neighbour, as you love yourself… because they are essentially just like yourself. This is why the expert asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?”
(As a side, can I just say, I love the humanity in this. We do this don’t we? We often attempt to justify what not to do, define to whom something does not apply. Peter asks Jesus: “I only need to forgive 7 times right?”; The expert request: “tell me who I may legitimately not love.”)
To think this way is to think that the love that we have for God, and the unity that Jesus creates within the body of faith, is only to be expressed within certain circles or toward certain people. It’s designed for people like me, who look like me, or think like me, or vote like me. In response to this flawed way of thinking about the other, Jesus gives the most extreme example of understanding another’s humanity. In her commentary on the passage, Amy-Jill-Levin notes that in order to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan you need to ask yourself “is there anyone, from any group, whom we would rather die than acknowledge.’
Leading up to the General Synod, in blogs, articles, and comments, and then later during the Synod itself, I heard statements that I can only interpret as a refusal to acknowledge the other. I quote:
“Why do you have so much hate in your heart?”
“How can these people call themselves Christians and vote this way?
“The Bishops clearly don’t love everyone.”
“These people don’t read the bible rightly.”
“People who agree with the marriage change have a different understanding of Jesus.”
When we make such statements, I believe the heart of Jesus breaks and he weeps over his church. Such statements mean we think the unity of the church occurs when others agree with my side of the argument. Love your neighbour only as they are like yourself. The danger in all the statements above is that it pushes us toward excommunication. After all, it’s not that much of a leap from saying “they have a different understanding of Jesus”, to saying “they don’t belong in my church.” If we so distance ourselves from the others, to deny any sort of unity in humanity, or faith, then we will never be the good Samaritan. We will never embody the sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to.
What if the entire church is lying bloody on the road, feeling beaten up by controversy, and insults, and mudslinging. What if all of us, regardless of what we think about a host of things, is hurting. What might it mean for us to love the church the way the Saviour loves the church? The love of the good Samaritan didn’t try to change the wounded man. In fact, the Samaritan was willing to be inconvenienced in order to heal the wounded man. This is the radical, Christ-like, ‘I’m willing to bear the scars of the cross’ type of love that the unity of the church calls for. Can we embrace someone who voted differently than us? Can we share communion together? Can we allow the Spirit of Jesus in us to see the Spirit of Jesus in them? We have seen this radical unity in the history of the church and we need to see in now.
What we are called to, what we need to be refocused on, is not a unity centred on ecclesiastical polity, or watered-down theological politeness, or appeals to social agencies or structures, or some human call for us to think the same way. We are called to a robust and radical understanding of unity that transcends all our human brokenness, pride, arrogance and waywardness. And let’s be honest, all of us are broken, prideful, arrogant, and wayward at times. We are called to the unabashed witness to of the power of Christ to unite and heal. We are asked to testify that unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy overcomes despair.
Love the lord your God with passion, prayer, intelligence and muscle, living that out to those who are fundamentally different than yourself. This radical call is far weightier that just a religious soundbite. Jesus says to the expert in the law, he says to us, “Go and do likewise.” And before we say ‘Yea but .. .’ Jesus stops his sentence right there. Jesus doesn’t give any more clarification on the issue so neither should we. We act this way, radically, boldly, faithfully, because we trust that the Spirit will inspire the community of faith to treat us in similar fashion. This isn’t about one side giving, and the other side receiving. It is about all us giving and receiving the Spirit of Jesus together. Because when it comes down to it, the unity of the church isn’t something that we try to bring about by our decision making; it is something we receive by Jesus alone, and it is a quality that ultimately Jesus alone will protect.