Will the church ever be able to find unity in diversity?

Last week, more than 300 Christians gathered together in Edinburgh to mark 100 years since the historic World Missionary Conference, a meeting of some 1,200 Protestants predominantly from the North American and northern European mission movement.

The purpose of Edinburgh 2010 was to bring some very diverse Christians to the same table to discuss mission and unity, and while it demonstrated just how much progress had been made since 1910 – when only a handful of delegates were indigenous believers from non-Western countries, and women had very little participation – it also made plain how entrenched the differences are between the different denominations and traditions within Christianity.

We all know where the divisions lie so there is no need to label them again here. Suffice to say that while Christianity has become a truly world religion - the centre of the faith is no longer in the West - and that is rightly celebrated, there is a frustration and an admission among Christians that some very public divisions are hindering the church’s ability to witness effectively to the world.

Yet, if there’s one thing the Middle East crisis, the North Korean crisis, the financial crisis, and the seemingly endless social crises affecting Britain and other developed countries make clear, it is that the world is crying out for an alternative model. Are we, the church, able to offer that glimpse of how to do things differently? Are we, as believers in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, able to demonstrate with our actions and our words that love for others and keeping the peace are worth the self-sacrifice they demand?

As the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, pointed out in his address at the close of Edinburgh 2010, Jesus Christ is being put on trial in the court of the world and judged because of the actions and words of the people who claim to be his followers. The world is in desperate need of an example of reconciliation, of people who are willing and able to lay aside their differences, even considerable differences, for no obvious reason or personal gain, other than to show love to neighbour.

The conference ended with a Common Call undersigned by the delegates calling all Christians to be witnesses to Christ and committing them to continued dialogue and cooperation. It was indeed a very broad statement – it had to be in order to be acceptable to everyone at the table – Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Pentecostal, ecumenicals and evangelicals among others. Some may be disappointed in its broadness, yet the sentiment that it represents is important.

Edinburgh 2010 laid bare a healthy frustration among church leaders at the institutional level over divisions in the church and a deep sense that lip service to unity will not do, a sense that regardless of what kind of Christianity we may adhere to, we are called to witness to Christ as one body, not many bodies, and that we must continue to dialogue and talk with one another, even when such dialogue appears to produce very little that is new.

When Christians come together in 2110 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference, what will they identify as the legacy of Edinburgh 2010? If Christians do not continue to seek out what unites them, then the Common Call and the promises of church leaders this time round to continue building bridges will have meant nothing. It’s something that all believers – whether at the institutional or grassroots level- need to consider and persevere with.

We may not have all the answers right now, but the gift of Jesus Christ and the Bible to all mankind – and the fact that many still know nothing of Him - make it imperative that believers continue to find ways to fellowship together in Christ and come together wherever possible to serve others in His name and spread everywhere the knowledge of Him.

Edinburgh 2010 may not have been revolutionary like the 1910 conference was, but it did much to strengthen the bonds of fellowship and friendship among some extremely different Christians who just a few decades ago were barely on speaking terms. The significance of that in the bigger picture should not be overlooked.

If that journey continues – not only for those who were there in Edinburgh last week but also the millions of believers they represent – then one day our diversity, instead of bringing shame on the church, will be something that demonstrates the true power of the Gospel and the awesomeness of all that we believe.