In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I remember a particularly hysterical Sunday evening spent with the church youth group in the parish where I grew up. I was I suppose about 15 or 16 and one of about eight or 10 young people who used to gather on Sunday evenings for social activities and Christian teaching in the living room of our youth leader. We were looking at today’s first reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and Janice, our splendid youth leader, had managed to hold the group together pretty well and keep us on track until we got to the verse: “if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” And at the thought of an enormous globulous eye charging about not being able to hear anything, or a huge human-sized ear crashing into the furniture because it can’t see what’s going on I’m afraid even the 15 and 16-year-olds regressed quite impressively and doubled up with laughter on the floor of Janice’s living room.
We then started drawing what we imagined these Corinthian Christians might look like, over here an enormous foot kicking a Christian over here who is just a nose, and so on.
But of course we had got the point of what St Paul was saying precisely. We might not have been articulating theology in a particularly mature manner, but we had sensed instantly the ridicule in Paul’s language. Paul is trying to explain to his rather complicated congregation in Corinth, who seem to be really struggling quite hard to work out what it might be to be a church, that unity is not at all the same as uniformity. God does not call us to be a great army of feet, or a… I don’t know what the collective noun is for lots and lots of ears, but he doesn’t call us to be that either.
Today is the seventh day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week of prayer is actually an octave, it’s eight days not seven, and it stretches from the 18th to 25th January, which are the dates of two ancient feasts of the church. 18th January, which we don’t actually observe in the Church of England, is the feast of the Chair of St Peter. That is the Feast Day that celebrates the relic in St Peters’ Basilica of the throne supposedly used by Peter as first Pope. 25th January, which is a much more universal festival, which we will keep here tomorrow with a choral Eucharist, is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. The day when we remember the great persecutor of the very early Christians having his life transformed by the experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
The really interesting thing about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is that it began as a traditionalist Catholic octave of prayer for the reunification of the church with Rome. In other words its original intention was a week of prayer that the non-Roman Catholic churches would return to the Roman fold. It was only rather later, in the middle of the last century, that the week was taken up far more widely by the churches of the Western tradition as a week of prayer for the unity of the church more generally.
What does unity mean? What does it mean to be united? The issues about which the Church of England has been asking itself recently, and on which the Dean preached last week, are all about the difference, or rather not the difference but the tension, between truth and unity. In other words if I want to be united with you, how much do we have to agree on? And at the moment we are struggling hugely to agree on issues of human sexuality. And actually they’re not issues of human sexuality in the end, they are issues about how we read the Bible, they are issues about our attitude to the status of the written words which we read in order to learn more about Jesus. Just as a side note, it’s worth remembering that in our gospel reading this morning Jesus actually misquotes the prophet Isaiah, presumably for his own preaching purposes. If you compare the text from Isaiah to the text in Luke chapter 4, there are notable and significant differences. So even for Christ, the biblical text appears to have the potential to be slightly elastic.
But this thing about unity is far broader than church. The question of whether or not we belong together comes up over and over again in society. Any organisation that has membership criteria makes a decision about who is in and who is out. Who gets to make certain decisions, who enjoys privileges, and who does not. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party raised some of those issues, because of the fact that the huge number of the people who voted for him had paid £3 for the privilege, so were they really “proper” Labour Party members? Rather more horrifically we see this conversation being lived out in violence and persecution in a variety of countries not that far away from us at the moment, where issues of belonging and rights to participation result in displacement, murder, and refugees fleeing across the face of our world.
How would you define membership of your local community? You might be thinking about this country, you might be thinking about a smaller designation of community, perhaps your town, or perhaps the group or organisation with which you most naturally identify. We are all members of multiple and overlapping communities aren’t we? Just off the top of my head I am a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Association, the alumni associations of Cambridge and Sussex universities, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Cats Protection Society, the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. And there are loads more. And all of them I guess have membership criteria. And I sign something once a year when they asked me for money to say I still belong.
I don’t think I have ever signed anything that says I belong to the church of God. I don’t recall signing a piece of paper at any point that identifies me as a Christian, or for that matter as a member of the Church of England. And I rejoice in that. I signed a bit of paper when I arrived here saying that I would obey the Bishop of Salisbury and the statutes of this cathedral, but that is not at all the same thing as signing something to declare my belief in God, or my allegiance to his church. Because when we come down to it, unity in the body of Christ is not like the Cats Protection Society or the Labour Party, it’s like a body. And to return to that giggling group of teenagers in Janice’s living room, I can’t imagine the eye signing a bit of paper to say that she wanted to be connected to the brain, not least because the eye wouldn’t have a hand with which to do it!
Christian Unity is not to do with uniformity. It isn’t, fundamentally, to do with uniformity in tradition or practice, and it isn’t to do with uniformity of doctrine either. When I left my home parish I went to the University of Sussex and I used to worship in an Anglo-Catholic church during the week, and on Sundays in an ecumenical chapel on the campus in the morning and at the Salvation Army in the evening. And I loved it. And I didn’t realise that there was anything odd in that practice. People began to tell me that it was odd and started to point out the differences in belief and practice. That wasn’t instinctive from me, I had to learn it. I became inculturated. And in many ways I regret that.
As the table is laid for the family meal of bread and wine this morning, we are going to sing a hymn from the Anglo-Catholic tradition which contains within it the lines:
For all thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;
make thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace;
And at the end of the service we will sing a splendid hymn from the Baptist tradition, with one of the finest tunes I think in the entire repertoire, even including the top F, which contains the vision of the Church triumphant, the final unity which is the promise of the book of Revelation where all are gathered together around the throne of God, and “myriad, myriad human voices sing” to their king.
Unity, the scriptures seem to imply, looks like a choir singing polyphony. It looks like voices joining together, individual voices, individual parts and lines, often overlapping or juxtaposing each other, to create a unity, a sequence of chords, phrases. A song.
And if we could shake off this desire for uniformity, we might more easily find that unity, and in that unity engage with those concepts which Christ was interested in when he went home to his own congregation, and we might more readily sing a song not about biblical interpretation or the intricacies of what human love looks like, but more about good news to the poor, release to the captives, and the lifting of oppression to set all people free.