For the last 100 years or so at this time of the year, Christian churches of various traditions have observed an ecumenical initiative called the “week of prayer for Christian unity.” We are right now in the middle of that week for 2023—it runs from January 18-25. Christian unity is a challenging concept because I don’t think many of us have any idea of what it really means. Does it mean that all the individual congregations in a given radius should meet together every Sunday morning in a single location? Does it mean that different churches share clergy? Does it mean that different churches sign on to a common statement of faith? Does it mean that different churches operate under a common budget and share resources? Much confusion remains with these sorts of questions.
Another reason why Christian unity is challenging is that there are limits to how much of it we can tolerate, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves. How many of you grew up in, or spent significant time in, a church tradition other than Anglicanism? I’d wager that for a significant percentage of you who just raised your hand, you left your former church because you could no longer in good conscience remain. Perhaps frustration or woundedness forced you out. So what does it mean to pursue Christian unity with traditions that we intentionally want to distance ourselves from?
These challenges come to a head for us when we hear St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading: “all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you.” This congregation in Corinth was already, as early as the mid 1st century, deeply divided. Christian disunity is not something peculiar to our day, or the Reformation 500 years ago, or the great split between the Eastern and Western churches in the mid 11th century. Fault lines were present in the 1st century, almost from day 1. Paul knew that these divisions weakened the church and the Good News it stood for. So he made a plea to get back to the basics. Instead of being seduced by internal party politics, Christians should recover their primary identity as followers of the crucified Jesus.
Paul’s recommendation still holds importance for us in the present moment. As I was thinking this past week about what it might mean to get back to Christian basics, it struck me that the problem of Christian disunity has its origins in internal congregational disagreements. Before there were Baptists and Anglicans, before Catholics and Protestants, before Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, there were major first century conflicts between Peter and Paul, and within local congregations like the one in Corinth. Christian disunity is not just an abstract problem “out there” at the institutional level. Yes, the Anglican Diocese and the Catholic Archdiocese, for instance, clash on major issues that are probably insoluble. But the real problem strikes much closer to home. The point I want to make is that if Christians are to confront their disunity, then it’s important to be reminded that disunity has its roots within individual congregations, in disagreements and distrust between people who call the same place home. Christian disunity doesn’t begin with arguments between different churches. It begins, rather, with internal divisions within individual churches—just like Corinth.
In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we’re compelled to pray for strengthened bonds between churches. But if we’re really going to take Christian unity seriously, then we must also consider how each of us might be implicated in division right here at St. Aidan’s. Let’s face it: we don’t all agree on everything. We lean politically in different directions. Some of us have very particular tastes when it comes to church music. Some of us want the Communion rail reinstalled; others are ambivalent. Some of us want to be more reflective about the meaning of this space and how it’s used; others are happy to see this space used for an unlimited range of activities. Disagreements are not necessarily a problem. In fact, they can even be a sign of health and vitality. But when disagreements breed resentment and distrust, when disagreements rupture communication—that is when seeds of disunity begin to germinate.
Praying for Christian unity must begin with each of us asking ourselves, “How might I be contributing to disunity?” Again, unity does not mean the elimination of disagreement. But it does mean that communication is happening, that relationships are nurtured, that love is expressed. Perhaps there’s someone in this congregation who you haven’t spoken to in quite some time. There might even be hard feelings. What would happen if you reached out to initiate reconciliation? That’s a move of utter vulnerability, and it’s a step not easily taken. Perhaps this week, when we consider Christian unity, is as good a time as ever to consider that step, leaving the uncertain outcome in the hands of God.
This past week David Crosby died. What a remarkable musician and songwriter. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had such a profound multigenerational impact. Any fans here? Many of us probably know that, despite all his giftedness, David Crosby’s personal life was a roller coaster. He battled major addiction, which he eventually overcame, endured a liver transplant, and burned many bridges in his relationships. A few weeks ago I watched a 2019 documentary called David Crosby: Remember My Name. It features extensive interviews of Crosby and others close to him, including his bandmates. It was sad to watch because about 10 years ago, things began to really unravel for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Neil Young became very angry because of things Crosby said about his wife. Graham Nash and Crosby also began feuding over an issue that was never publicly discussed. It got so bad they couldn’t be in the same room and broke off all communication. The band effectively called it quits for good. People wondered about a reunion, but it never happened—and now it can’t ever happen. I don’t know if Neil Young and Graham Nash ever reconciled with David Crosby. But when he died, each posted a tribute to him, expressing sorrow.
“Life is short,” Mark Twain famously wrote. While much of Christian disunity is entrenched at the institutional level, there are forms of disunity that can be addressed right now, when each of us explores our relationships with others whom we gather with, sing alongside, and share bread with. Life is too short, death comes too soon, for us to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. So in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let’s pray—yes. But let’s do more. Let’s be active agents of reconciliation so that Christian unity might be more visibly manifest in our own lives.