Let there be no divisions – Unity Week, Brexit, House of Bishops…

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This last week we have been praying for Christian Unity. That is why last week the clergy in the city centre moved round one place and swapped pulpits. I went to Westgate New Church and Fr Adam from St Peter and All Souls Roman Catholic Church came to preach here. The limits of this show of unity were displayed in Canon Rowan having to come to lead the service because only clergy authorised by the Bishop can take services in an Anglican Church. The same has applied when I have gone to St Peter and All Souls. It is about authority, the Reformation, some doctrines and good order of the church. Actually with Safeguarding awareness this has probably got stronger, since we are explicitly banned from allowing anyone to take services here who do not have the bishop’s approval – even clergy from another diocese have to be cleared first. I had to be cleared to go back to Leeds to officiate at our son James’ wedding last June. 

In our Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-18), Paul was clear. There are to be no divisions among the Corinthian Church, and by extension, among us. We are to be united in the same mind and purpose. He then goes on to say that they have identities associated with particular leaders that are getting in the way of their unity in Christ. It is Christ who died and rose for them, and it was in the name of Christ that they were baptised. This is the root of our Christian identity. Everything else is secondary. And yet we make it primary. It is a sin to be lamented and so we pray and work for unity.

This is a noble sentiment, but the differences are over quite profound disagreements of what authority looks like, how sacraments are seen, who can be baptised and even who can be blessed. And these disagreements exist within the Anglican Church itself let alone between us and other denominations. St Paul’s appeal, ‘Let there be no disagreements’ is both a challenge to reconcile and work to resolve the differences as well as being a bit naive. Differences of perception matter and it is through them that we grow and move forward, that things change. When the established view is hurting some, then it needs to be challenged and while that works through there will be disagreements. In these moments it is important to remember this passage, that Paul reminded the recipients of his letter that they are to hold to unity in Christ, because whatever else that is the primary unity that they are to hold to. It is to define them. They then can’t just write off those who are different to them, even if they want to. They belong together.

The House of Bishops this week issued what they called a ‘Pastoral Letter’ about Civil Partnerships, sexual relationships and blessings.  You may have seen reports of it in the press. It’s a bit technical but it has caused distress and hurt. It has upset a number of people, who are cross that it was issued. One reason is that there is a major study taking place into sexuality, relationships and how we live these out as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, as members of the same community of faith as brothers and sisters in Christ. The report will be published soon under the title “Living in Love and Faith”. It will inevitably expose some deep faultlines within our Church and there will be a period of discussion, debate and disagreement. Some of this will show the Church at its best and I have no doubt some of it will show us at our worst. In view of this, the Bishops letter crashed sideways into the process that is still underway. The last time this happened was back in September, over  a statement issued in their name on Brexit. It was later admitted that it had actually been the product of just three or four bishops and not all of them at all. There has been a hint from the Bishop of Buckingham that this has been the case again, so it is at best outside due process and this diminishes its authority and with it confidence in the House of Bishops. They have some repair work to do.

This is not good because it creates fertile ground to breed divisions and discord. The issuing of the statement and its tone seems to display signs of anxiety and fear, and I prefer to go forward in faith and hope. I have my moments when I can despair, but deep down I know history shows that the march of change won’t be stopped, especially if it reflects the developing of a common mind on an issue – an idea whose time has come. It will come through and in God’s grace a new horizon will unfold before us. Yes, bad things happen, but justice and flourishing have a way of working through. I have the same view of the mistrust of the Government, whom I don’t particularly trust and they don’t seem to like being subjected to parliamentary scrutiny, so, whether you support the Labour Party or not, as the opposition they need to get their act together to elect the right person as their leader for all of our sakes. Good government flourishes when there is a capable opposition sharpening its whits. Power always needs the counter blast, the balancing voices who confront it with the awkward questions and observations that they would otherwise overlook or just ignore.

So looking ahead there are going to be some deep divisions opening up with the publication of the report “Living in Love and Faith”. It will open up different approaches to the bible, to how we take account of understandings from other disciplines, as indeed we must, and some very deep, visceral emotions that don’t want to be exposed because there are vulnerabilities there. And this is where we are back to Paul’s appeal over divisions and disunity. When we walk into the conflict we enter sacred ground because it brings us to the cross we all bow down before in humble devotion, as fellow pilgrims placing there the vulnerabilities we find it hard to admit are there, even to ourselves, and certainly don’t want to admit to anyone else. It is sacred ground as we walk on the vulnerabilities of others and ourselves and in such a place it is important to tread carefully otherwise we will end up injuring ourselves as well as those with whom we share the name of Christ.

At the end of this week we have another area of deep division in our nation as we exit the European political union. There are people in our congregation who passionately agree with what is happening and others who are equally passionate in their objection to it. This division is sacred ground and we are all, whatever view we take  brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to tread carefully with one another. 

‘Let there be no divisions or quarrels.’ Of course there will be, so remember that we share a primary unity, that of being united in Christ. With this when there are differences we stand on holy ground and need to tread carefully.

Sermon for Epiphany 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th January 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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