Sunday, December 10, 2006

That They May All Be One

For many years I was an employee of the YMCA. The motto of that movement was (and still is) John 17:21 "...that they may all be one" - a part of Jesus' great prayer for the unity of all his followers. I enthusiastically embraced that concept when working for that ecumencial charity; and I still do today - despite my ordination into a particular strand of the worldwide Church.

In the last couple of weeks, the Pope has had ecumenical dialogues with both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew the First. It is encouraging indeed to see these different strands of Christianity working to set aside their differences, and find unity. (And of course it comes in direct contrast to the real battles for power currently being waged on the streets of Iraq between different factions of Islam).

One way of looking at Jesus' prayer for Unity is to argue that his prayer has already been answered, and has always been answered (in other words that there already is unity between all Christians who trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour). Certainly here in Emsworth there is remarkable unity between all the denominations of the town. Here Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, URC, Baptist and Charismatic churches all work exceedingly well together. Each of us has a particular distinctiveness about the way we worship - but we are all supportive of each other, and regularly combine our efforts for the greater good. (A number of our folks volunteer each week, for example, to work in the Emsworth Pastoral Centre, based in the Methodist Church Building).

It came as quite a shock to me, recently, to realise that from the perspective of the mega-churches (Roman Catholic and Orthodox), Anglicanism is a comparatively small, and somewhat insignificant fly in the pontifical ointment. That may not be entirely fair - the Pope did, last week, give considerable time to 'our' Archbishop. However, the Roman church is such a huge and influential body worldwide - whereas the Anglican church, even wordwide, barely gets a mention in the press outside of England. When the Pope travels - millions come out to see him. When the Archbishop of Canterbury does, the reaction is rather more muted.

There is even a sense in which we Anglicans need the Roman church much more than they need us. The influence of the Pope on the world stage is significant...and ensures that the Christian viewpoint is kept high on the agenda. If Anglicanism was to suddenly collapse tomorrow, the Roman church would sail on largely unaffected. The same could not be said of a collapse of the Roman church.

So, acknowledging all that to be true...why am I an Anglican? The reasons are numerous (including the fact that as a married man I could not be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in normal circumstances!) - but they boil down to this: I am very dubious about the power and influence which the Roman church gives, inevitably, to one man.

A 'good' Pope (however one might define the word 'good') can bring about substantial postive change with such power - but a 'bad' one can do a huge amount of damage. Anglicans are, in contrast, led by bishops, but governed by a council of bishops, priests and lay-people (the actually phrase is 'episcopally led but synodically governed'). This means that God's voice to one person can be tested by many - as advocated clearly by Scripture. In the Roman church, by contrast, the Pope may claim an infallible connection to God, with which no-one may legitimately argue. The evidence of Scripture is that God speaks to people in a wide variety of ways, and by no means always through the supreme leader of any institution.

The Anglican 'way' therefore gives a more reliable means of determining God's voice to the Church - even though the process of listening can be very painful for many.

But, with all that said - I continue to rejoice in being a member of a Worldwide Community of Christians, throughout the world, of all denominations. There is unity between us...praise God.

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