The Broken Body

The Church - 8

The Broken Body
The Challenge of Christian Unity
(John 17:9-24)

The longest recorded prayer of Jesus is his prayer to God for the unity of his followers, so that ‘the people of this world will believe that you sent me.’ In this address, Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, expresses his dismay that more Christians aren’t concerned about the negative impact of their disunity, and shares the different levels, from local to global, where unity needs to be worked out. First given at St Albans on 10 October 1999, this message was repeated at a combined churches’ gathering in nearby Ashurst a week later, 17 October.

As a child I remember attending the Keswick Convention at Pounawea, in the Catlins district of the southernmost coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The banner over the speaker’s platform was ‘All One in Christ Jesus’. Expressing the fellowship of Christians from all kinds of church backgrounds, that motto has had a great impact on my attitude to Christian unity. I experienced from childhood a genuine unity with other Christians.

Later this was enhanced by involvement during my student years with the New Zealand Inter Varsity Fellowship (later renamed Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship), especially at their outstanding annual conferences. In 1971 my wife and I looked after the guesthouse for a while of the Community of the Transfiguration, an ecumenical monastic community based at Roslin, in Scotland. Later still I was employed as an Ecumenical University Chaplain, working with Christians of every variety, from Catholic and Anglican to Brethren, Quaker, and Pentecostal.

Growing up I could therefore never understand evangelical suspicion of the quest for Christian unity represented by the Ecumenical Movement, and I often found myself a lone evangelical voice supporting Christian unity. Today the situation is almost totally reversed, and I find it equally hard to comprehend how the ecumenical vision seems to have been lost or abandoned by many of its erstwhile supporters.

The Lord’s Prayer

Unity was one of the great concerns of Jesus, according to what should really be known as ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. What we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’ is in fact ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’ - the prayer he gave as a model for us. But the prayer recorded in John 17 is truly our Lord’s own prayer. It reflects his concerns for his followers, just before death removed him from them.

Unity is not Jesus’ only concern in this prayer. He is concerned for the total welfare of his followers in a hostile world, whom he is about to leave as he returns to his Father. So he prays for us to be kept safe from the world (11-12), to be protected from the evil one (15), to be sanctified or dedicated to God in the truth (17).

The Basis and Purpose of Unity

Evangelicals and liberals each seem to uphold half-truths when it comes to Christian unity. Evangelicals emphasise the importance of spiritual unity, but often avoid the hard challenge of working this out in visible unity. Liberals maintain - or used to maintain - the importance of visible unity, but in practice have often minimised the importance of unity in spirit and in truth.

Jesus joins what evangelicals and liberals divide. He says unity is both spiritual and visible. The basis of our unity is spiritual. It is the unity of the Godhead. We are to be one as Jesus and his Father are one. ‘Keep them safe by the power of your name . . . so that they may be one just as you and I are one’ (11). ‘I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you’ (21). But the purpose of our unity is visible. It is to impact the world. ‘May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me’ (21).

Jesus says that both the basis and the purpose are important. ‘I gave them the same glory you gave me, so that they may be one, just as you and I are one: I in them and you in me, so that they may be completely one, in order that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them as you love me’ (22-23). The basis of our unity comes from an intimacy with God, from sharing God’s own life and the fellowship of the persons of the Godhead.

The purpose of our unity is to demonstrate a quality of unity that the world doesn’t normally experience and yet desperately needs, at every level - in marriages and families, in local communities, between social classes, in cities and nations, and between nations. This is not a faceless, depersonalised, prescribed uniformity. What Jesus is praying for is a genuine unity in diversity, a rich diversity of persons united in an unbreakable bond of love - just as the Father, Son and Spirit, distinct persons, are one in the Godhead.

This unity needs to be worked out at various levels:

1. Local

For local unity to happen among Christians and churches, ministers, pastors and Christian leaders need to begin to get to know one another, humble themselves, pray together, and support one another. From that basis of personal friendship the trust grows to stage combined local events and win cooperation between local communities of Christians.

In my first parish, Hornby Presbyterian Church, Christchurch, we experienced a major church split after an elder took a number of fellow-elders and church members to found a new church round the corner. The experience nearly broke me, testing but finally proving my convictions about Christian unity. In the worst of that dark time I was visited and sustained by the prayers of the local Anglican vicar, the local Catholic priest, and the local Catholic Sisters of Mercy. That might not seem very special - except that my congregation had previous stood aloof from the other churches of the area, and had no dealings with Catholics. From those prayers grew a weekly interchurch pastors’ prayer meeting. From those meetings grew a series of significant inter-church events. And from that experience grew a trust that overcame many hurts and barriers between local Christians - including between myself and the pastor who led the church split. One of the greatest rewards of my ministry was when all the churches of the district, from Catholic and Anglican to Brethren and Pentecostal, met together for my farewell from Hornby in 1987.

2. Church and Parachurch

Partnership of local church with translocal ministries is very important in our time. The proliferation of groups is a reflection of the cultural diversity of our society and the diverse and specialist ministries necessary to reach it or meet its needs. It needs generous-hearted leaders to build bridges of trust and network together with understanding and cooperation. This is similar to the way the Catholic Church has maintained unity over the years by devolving a great deal of autonomy to its various religious orders.

3. National

With the loss of influence in my own country of the Council of Churches in Aoteoroa New Zealand (CCANZ), there is a vacuum at national level which is scarcely being filled by recent meetings of heads of churches, or informal networks like those represented by the three Vision New Zealand conferences. National level unity needs a lot more work. I personally believe that the Presbyterian Church has an important role to play in this, as a bridge between the more national and historic churches (Catholic and Anglican) on the one hand and the more independent or gathered churches (Baptist, Brethren, and Pentecostal) on the other.

4. Bilateral

At present, in attempts to achieve Christian unity at the global level, more seems to be happening through bilateral discussions between churches, than under the auspices of the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Movement. On 31 October 1999, Reformation Day, an international agreement on justification by faith was celebrated between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, settling the major issues over which the Reformation took place, 482 years to the day after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the church door in Wittenburg.

There are other important discussions occurring, for example, between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and between Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. When I was at the Church of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh recently, I suggested to them that the greatest contribution they could make to Christian unity would be to open dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church - the only church - other than too many quarrels among ourselves - we Presbyterians have ever quarrelled with.

5. Global

In the important quest for Christian unity throughout the world, I feel troubled that an indispensable ingredient has been ignored in ecumenical discussions. This is the foundational role and place of the Jewish people. In Romans 11:18 Paul uses the image of a tree. ‘You don’t support the roots’, he says, ‘the roots support you.’ He reminds us Gentiles that we are branches, who do not have an independent existence but are supported by the root, the Jews. The Ecumenical Movement and earlier attempts at Christian unity have attempted to unite the branches synthetically among themselves. But the only way for branches to be united is organically through a living attachment to the root and trunk of the tree.

My theology Professor at New College, Edinburgh, Thomas F. Torrance, a strong advocate of the Jewish basis of Christian unity, has this to say on this matter (‘The Divine Vocation and Destiny of the Jews in World History,’ in David W. Torrance, ed., The Witness of the Jews to God [Edinburgh, Handsel Press, 1982], p. 92):

This is something which it is more imperative than ever for us to take seriously, namely, that the Christian Church is Church only in that it is grafted like branches onto the trunk of Israel, and that it is the trunk that bears the branches and not the branches the trunk (Romans 11:18). Since this is the case, the deepest schism in the one People of God is not that between East and West or Roman and Protestant Christianity. The bitter separation between the Catholic Church and the Synagogue that set in after the Bar Cochba Revolt in the second century . . . was one of the greatest tragedies in the whole of our history, not only for the people of God but for all western civilisation. . . . . The proliferation of schism, whatever may be its alleged justification, must surely be traced back ultimately to the radical split between Gentile Christians and Jews. Only with the healing of that split in a deep-going reconciliation will all other divisions with which we struggle in the ecumenical movement finally be overcome.

We must pursue unity at all these levels, if we are to be true to the prayer and longing of Jesus that we his followers may be one, so that the world might believe our message about him.

Rob Yule
Reformation Day, 31 October 1999

© 1999, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand