Unity for the love of God

Yesterday was not a great day for Christian unity. But sometimes good things come out of not such good days. I hope it was one of those.

Under the gaze of intense public scrutiny, from both Christians and the mainstream media both UCCF and Bristol CU changed their positions yesterday. And they did change, even if they were presented as clarifications. Bristol CU moved from a position of only allowing women to speak in certain rather restrictive circumstances, to now committing to open up all their speaking engagements to men and women. For UCCF a former position of not having a position seems to have morphed into something more robust, stating that it would be “wholly against the UCCF basis of faith and the advice of UCCF staff” if a CU devised a policy not to have women speakers for some or all events. That’s not the same as not having a position, and while I welcome the change, let’s be frank and call it what it is.

**Update** All is not as simple as this! Pod from UCCF has been in touch and defends the absence of a change of policy. UCCF have always held that the Basis of Faith as the only requirement for speakers, and for CUs to prevent a speaker on other grounds goes against the unity at the heart of the basis of faith. From the sounds of it, rather than a formal change in policy, it is a more robust application of it. **End of update**

A lot of talk went on yesterday and most of it was fairly respectful and gracious, most of it was from people committed to the witness of the church as well as the full use of all people and their gifts and talents. I think there is a place for public debate, and I don’t think all church matters and discussions of theology and practice should be decided behind closed doors or in private. Light is brilliant and shows up what might be wrong and we should not be afraid of the light.

Even so, I worry that as the world looked on yesterday, as the papers ran their stories and journalists sought out a fresh angle, what was shown was not a body of believers committed to working together for mission but a gang of factions, each desperate to get one over another.

And I spent a lot of time thinking about unity. Thinking about what unity looks like, what it requires, and what it is for.

What is unity for?

Unity is for mission, it is so that the world may see. It is not to provide a warm and cosy feeling. It is not to impress the world. It is not to do away with differences. It is not to suggest that all roads lead to God.

It is so together we can present Jesus to the world.

What is unity?

Unity is not being a doormat. It is not compromising on everything in some false attempt to keep everyone happy. Nor is it an attempt to sideline secondary issues in order to focus on core doctrine and mission, because that logic leads to a lowest common denominator when those who are most conservative or keen on the status quo win out. Take for example the issues of women speaking or the exercise of spiritual gifts. The logic that all are happy receiving teaching from a man but only some are happy with a woman teacher, so we’ll just have men, is a false unity. So to is the idea that because we all agree that the Holy Spirit enables us to understand and receive the teachings of the Bible we’ll stick to just that because some might not agree that the Holy Spirit speaks today through prophetic revelation.

Unity is tough. It is being fully aware of our differences and agreeing to work together. It is loving each other more than we love our own doctrine.

Unity is not about creating or maintaining a monopoly. That’s another thing that sometimes bugged me with the CU when I was at university, the idea that they were the bastion of unity and everyone else were dissenters and trouble makers. Maybe I put it a bit strongly, but a strong idea of unity does not try to take over or incorporate those who think and operate differently. It finds a space to exist together and work together.

What does unity require?

Unity would not take any effort if we all already agreed. And if would be nothing more than a saccharine soaked beauty-pageant-esque call for world peace if it had nothing to unite around.

Unity is also not the same as working together. I am willing to work with just about anyone, and I think churches and Christian organisations should show willingness and initiative to do so. I work with people whom I disagree on many things but we come together for a common cause. We come from different places, and ultimately our goal is different, but for a segment of the journey we can help each other out. To give it a technical term, it’s called co-belligerence.

Unity requires a common goal, but it also requires a common cause behind reaching that goal. The UCCF Basis of Faith is similar to the Evangelical Alliance’s, but with a couple of important differences. Probably chief among these is the commitment of UCCF to the infallibility of scripture compared to a concept of the Bible as supreme authority and fully trustworthy for faith and conduct in the Evangelical Alliance’s basis of faith. The challenge for UCCF is that not only is it an evangelical organisation, of which it should be proud, but it requires a standard for unity that some evangelical Christians might not agree with.

The question, and the challenge, is what level of core agreement is essential, and what draws too tight a circle? At what point do we stop working together because our differences have become too great? And who judges if and when those differences become too great?

It is easy to say that mission is our common cause, but that is hard to do. I have seen on the ground the challenges of churches working together in evangelism. What happens when people commit to following Jesus, which church do they go to? I’ve seen jointly run Alpha courses run aground because of differences about baptism.

Unity requires a humility that this is a hard road to walk and we haven’t worked out all the contours. It requires a humility to accept when we get it wrong, often when we are too eager to prove that we are right.

Why unity?

We work together because the church is the bride of Christ. We commit to overcoming but not dismissing our differences because we are called to be united. We are committed to unity because we want the world to see Jesus, and to see the difference He makes. And that makes it worth the effort. It makes it worth the heartache, the headaches and the disagreements, it even makes it worth the rather messy and not always wanted public disagreements.

It is hard, it is challenging. It will frequently be frustrating and we will often get it wrong.

And when it all goes wrong, when we want to tear each other apart, instead we fall over ourselves to serve one another out of a love for God and a commitment to make Him known.

50 shades of purple – should women be bishops?

Sometime conflict is essential. Sometimes it is even healthy. It can lead to better solutions, and in the debate and discussion it can occasionally bring people together. I blogged last week about the conflict in Gaza, as well as the way it was reflected on twitter. Hot on the heels of this conflagration comes another, this time a little closer to home and thankfully without violence.

Tomorrow the Church of England General Synod decides whether women can become bishops. I wasn’t going to get drawn into the conversation, I didn’t want to be just another voice either calling for one thing or another, or join the chorus of drowned out pleas for peace and good will.

I’ve been a part of churches where women are encouraged to be full part of every area of ministry. And I’ve been in others where certain roles are considered to be the preserve of men alone. I’ve also been in churches which said one thing in theory and the practice looked very different. And to top all that one of the most revolutionary moments in the life of the church I grew up in as a child was the decision that women didn’t have to cover their heads in meetings. That was over twenty years ago.

I’m also not a part of the Church of England, for just under a year I was part of a Church of England church, but I never settled and the bits I liked least about it were the few times it adhered to it’s more Anglican aspects.

The combination of this background, an aversion to arguments, and the fact I work for an organisation that represents churches on both sides of the debate helped me keep my thoughts to myself.

This isn’t really about the question of whether women should become bishops, and the debate tomorrow isn’t either – although if you chose to tune in you will certainly here their proponents vocally making the case. There is a strong majority within the Church of England backing the move so the question at the heart of the measure to be decided is how to allow women to the episcopate while ensuring that those who have theological objections to women holding positions of church authority are able to continue with good conscience in the church.

The problem is both groups think they are right.

And that’s where arguments and discussion, and the most delicate of negotiations fall down. Because those who want women to be bishops see this as an issue of justice, of fairness, of faithfulness to scripture, and those who don’t cite the biblical arguments with equal abandon. It does little for the way the world looks at the church, and more importantly, little for the words we say for the authority, clarity and perspicuity of scripture.

There are two arguments put forward, one for equality and one for difference between the genders. Those two don’t have to contradict, in fact I would fully subscribe to both. They are therefore canards in this debate. Both claim that they are right, and moreover that they have divine backing for their views. This is a route that gets dangerous pretty quickly.

The challenge facing the Church of England is whether they are prepared to work to sustain a broad church with bishops, clergy and congregations who hold significantly different understandings not only of the role of women but their understanding of scripture. Because while this is the presenting issue it is not the only division within the church. Nor is it that those opposing the change are the only ones that take scripture seriously, many backers of women bishops would argue that it is their opponents who misuse the texts they quote to support their backing of the status quo.

If the unity of the Church of England is vital then it is important for all those who disagree to give ground and accept that for a solution to be found that succeeds in maintaining unity no one is going to get everything they want. But that’s life. It really is. If you bring any group of people together to work at a common cause there is a need for compromise and negotiation. The difficulty in the church is that for so long it has been a recluse of unity from a world of divergence. It has clustered closer and closer around what it agrees on and lost sight of the many differences that are conveniently ignored.

I pray that the church would be as one. And be as one so that world would believe. I pray that the Church of England, and the wider church, will make it through their deliberations and the fallout, however it may fall, with a commitment to work together for the sake of the gospel. And to be honest, you could have skipped the rest of this post because that is all that really matters.