Christian Unity…Is it Really Possible?
In the late 1950s the churches in Halesowen came together to form the Halesowen Council of Churches, The County Express reported on the first meeting saying that all the churches were part of the council except the Christadelphians and the Gospel Hall.
My wife and I had only recently joined the Assembly but I expressed my disappointment that we were not part of this new Council of Churches only to be told that we could not possibly join.
How things have changed, for more than thirty years we have been very active in what is now Churches Together in Halesowen having had two members who were chairperson and currently playing a major role in many of the activities. I passionately believe this is right. In January 1990 I was asked to write an article for the Halesowen Parish Magazine. Here is a slightly updated version of that article, I still believe with all my heart that Christian Unity is God’s will.
‘One year at the Skegness Beach Mission we sang a song that contained the line “We can love others like sisters and brothers.” When asked how many children had sisters or brothers about 40 put up their hands almost all claimed that they loved their brothers and sisters but when asked who ever quarrelled or fought with them they all put up their hands.
Jesus commanded His followers to love one another; He prayed that they might be one and that we should be brought into complete unity. The reason we are to love one another is that “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples”. We are to be one “so that the world may believe”. Lack of unity among Christians is one of the greatest hindrances to effective evangelism.
Jesus chose ordinary men to be His Apostles. His church still consists of men and women who are weak and selfish. He does not call special people to follow Him but ordinary folk who by His grace will one day become very special, while this process is taking place however unity is difficult.
Even as Jesus was instituting the first communion, intended to be a great expression of oneness Luke records that a dispute arose among them as to “which of them should be greatest”. Within weeks of Pentecost Greek speaking Christians complained that they were being neglected in favour of those who spoke Hebrew. When Peter preached in the home of a Roman soldier he was criticized, while some in the early church tried to insist that unless gentile believers follow the Jewish law they ‘could not be saved’. Peter and Paul had a very public row about fellowship. Barnabas and Paul split up after a dispute, while in Corinth the natural tendency to follow human leaders caused deep division.
In the days of the apostles however, the disciples did manage to solve their differences without tearing themselves apart. Today we have hundreds of denominations many of them centuries old. The situation does not seem to improve, one of my sons wrote a song which contains the line ‘every generation brings a new denomination,’ yet we still hear Jesus praying “that they may be one”. Almost all of the problems of the first century are with us today: language and cultural differences, the attitude that unless you believe as I believe and do as I do you are not a true Christian. We hesitate about having fellowship with people from other churches for fear of offending some of our own folk: the danger of following too closely certain prominent church leaders is still with us. There is criticism of those who try to move forward into new areas of worship and evangelism or a despising of those who find comfort in the old ways.
We pass judgement often without any real knowledge on other churches, some are said to be dead, others too shallow or over emotional. Have you noticed that the only New Testament church pronounced dead by Jesus had a reputation for being alive; another which was very poor was judged by Jesus to be rich.
The greatest miracle is that in spite of our divisions, weaknesses and failures, the Church of Jesus Christ has survived almost 2000 years and in this twenty first century is still the most powerful force for good in the world. The reason is that at the heart of all that we believe is not a dogma, a creed or a doctrine but the person of the living, risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is the hub, the different churches are the spokes. Like a wheel the closer to the hub the spokes are the closer they are to each other, the further away from the hub the greater the distance between them.
Real unity is not a matter of church leaders holding meetings and issuing joint statements. If unity is ever to be anything but a dream it must come from the pew not the pulpit. As by the operation of the Holy Spirit Christians from all the churches are drawn closer to Jesus, we shall find ourselves worshiping, praying and working together. We shall recognise the Lord whom we know and love in our brothers and sisters.
We are different – God has made us that way. Some will always find that they can worship using ancient liturgy, others prefer the modern choruses, some will read their prayers, others will extemporise; but should we allow these differences to divide us while the Christ within us is calling us to be one in Him? We are one, for every Christian is part of the body of Christ. The greatest need is for the world to see our unity.
Having a son who is a Methodist minister and a daughter-in-law whose father was the vicar of Peterchurch; another son who, with his family belongs, to a Baptist church while working for an interdenominational organisation; a daughter and son-in-law who are part of Hasbury Christian Fellowship at the same time my daughter works part-time for the Fellowship and also for the Congregational Federation, I can say that within our close and happy family unity is not only working but we are constantly learning from each other.’
Finding this article again after almost 24 years has made me ask have we made much progress? I believe we have! On Thursday I attended the first of this year’s services for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at St Peters Church Lapal. Although not an Anglican I found the service which celebrated the 50th anniversary of that church and also Ascension Day as well as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity very uplifting as I joined in an unfamiliar form of worship.
I have got to know many Christians from different churches and recognise them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. Working together Trade Point has been maintained, The Welcome Group has been formed. There is a great act of witness in the town centre every Christmas and Easter and every other year we come together for The Sunday Funday. These are just a few ways in which Unity is demonstrated. Above all we no longer feel alienated from each other but part of the wonderful body of Christ in Halesowen.
There is still a long way to go but we are beginning to see something of the answer to the prayer of Jesus “That they may be one.”