Is it time to abandon the dream of Christian unity?

Are there things that are more important than Christian unity?

Clearly, many Christians think so.

These things are principles – matters of faith and truth – as believed in by Christians at either end of the theological spectrum.

Catholic and reformed: Pope Francis with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and his wife Caroline.Reuters

Arguably, the present crisis began when The Episcopal Church in the United States, which led the way in ordaining women, continued down the path of ordination and consecration of gay priests and bishops. Clergy have also been authorised to perform same-sex weddings. 

Now, in the latest conservative response to these liberal developments, there has been an irregular ordination of a bishop in a conservative Church of England parish in Newcastle, helpfully blogged and reported on by Ian Paul. And as our own Harry Farley revealed exclusively this week, plans are well in progress for schism in the Church of England.

The arguments for Church unity stem from John 17: 21–23 

Jesus was speaking in the presence of the disciples, after washing their feet the day before his crucifixion. 

He said, according to the King James version, 'That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.'

Does this mean unite around the Church through the figure of Peter? If it does, surely it follows logically that we have no other option than all to become Catholic. 

Or could it mean we should simply unite around Christ – his word and gospel?

One way to deal with the present crisis would be to think outside the disintegrating box of ecclesiastical unity and embrace a more generous concept of unity in the figure of Christ.

This need not necessarily mean schism in the Church of England.

It could just mean a differently-shaped Church, with a more fluid structure that was forgiving of difference. 

If the last few decades, and the rows over women's ordination and homosexuality have taught us anything it is that that the Church of England, despite its claim to be both Catholic and Reformed, is more the latter than the former. And once we accept it is part of the Reformed or Protestant church movement, any pretence at unity of the kind that a Catholic interpretation of John would demand really has to be abandoned.

The energy that goes into worshipping the idol of unity is so shockingly wasteful.

Why does it actually matter if the Anglican Communion becomes a federation, thus allowing for greater diversity at either end? Why not go down this Lutheran road?

Surely Christian unity should mean being one faith, rather than being one in a body that did not even exist at the time of Christ. I dread to think what Jesus might have to say about the Church – the many churches that already exist independently of each other despite this near-universal lip service to Christian unity – were he to return today. 

Let Newcastle -– and anywhere that wants to – get on with its consecrations. Let the Church lawyers pursue any who break canon law if they wish. Let people at either extreme who want a particular bishop to give the leadership they need, have their bishops. 

The important things facing us today include striving for peace in the Middle East, working out how to survive, and helping the world to survive amid the startling changes taking place here and across the Atlantic, not to mention the Korean peninsula.

Jesus, if he came back today, would surely be more concerned about the shattering political and social upheavals taking place around the globe than who was the latest person, male, female, gay or straight, to get a pointy hat.

Jesus spoke about being one in him and in the Father. Just before the unity passage, he said that in his father's house, there are many mansions. 

It is time to stop pretending that we can ever realistically aim to be united in just one Church. There are already many Churches, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can all learnt to live with it, make the most of it and turn our attention to the Gospel issues that really matter for the future of our society and our souls. 

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