The Bishop of Burnley on why unity matters in Wales and everywhere else


There is a very irritating rhetorical technique that Christians often employ when debating matters of faith and morals. You hear it frequently on the floor of Synods and in meetings of Bishops, and I know it well because I use it frequently myself. What you do is invite your listeners to look beyond the debating chamber to the world outside. “Look what’s going on around us,” you say. “Look at all the wars, and the suffering, and the sin, and the empty churches, and yet here we are as Christians arguing with each other about sexuality or gender or divorce” – or whatever the subject may be. “Isn’t it time we got over it and focussed on what matters, which is our mission to the world?”

On the rhetorical level it works beautifully. It can even sway a debate because it does ask a very potent question. Our nation is going through the greatest political and economic crisis in a generation. Syria is on fire, with aid convoys apparently adjudged a suitable target for bombing. Wealth inequality grows ever wider. The world is being cooked by our addiction to oil-based consumption. In Western Europe there is a crisis of faith, with fewer than half the population of our nation now identifying as Christians. What are we doing, this fine collection of minds, spending two days of our precious time re-running ancient arguments over the ordination of women and provisions for those who cannot accept the majority view of the church that has ordained them?

It’s a powerful line to argue. But it’s also misleading – indeed arguably dangerous – because it downgrades the vital importance of the relationships that as Christians we have with each other. Our unity as Christians matters, and not just for our own benefit. It matters for the benefit of the world that Christ came to save. In a world of sin and pain and conflict and confusion, our unity matters more than ever.

In the Letter to the Ephesians St Paul exhorts his hearers, “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.” (Eph 4.3) He emphasises the oneness of the Christian family, based upon the oneness of our Baptism and the oneness of God Himself. And why does it matter so much? Because, Paul tells us, “the saints together make a unity in the work of service.” (Eph 4.12) We are united in order to serve, united for the benefit of others. St John’s Gospel pushes the point even further as Jesus gives the Final Discourse to the disciples around the table of the Last Supper. In Chapter 17 we listen in to a conversation within the person of the Trinity and what does Jesus pray? “May they be one that the world might believe.” Or even more frightening, “May they be one even as you and I, Father, are one.” (John 17.21) The unity of the Christian family points to the very being of God. The Church composed of many persons making up a single body bears witness to the life of the Trinity, three Persons yet one single God. Our unity has a transcendent, eschatological dimension that it is almost beyond our imagining to grasp. The apparently mundane relationship that one Christian has with another has an eternal dimension; and our relationships point to the very being of God. Only when our relationships work can we be effective and fruitful witnesses to God; only when we are one will the world believe.

To seek to improve the quality of our relationships as Christians is not a distraction from mission. It is the mission, because our relationships point people to God. We seek unity and healthy relationship as Christians not because it feels good, and cheers us up a bit. We do it as a solemn duty, because the world will not believe unless we are one. It is an absurd irony that a Church which is at last recovering the centrality of the ministry of evangelism appears to be putting on the back burner the ecumenical project, and indeed even appears to be accepting the secular argument that if you can’t agree it’s best to break up. That is the opposite of the preaching of Jesus. We must make our relationships work, because they point the world to the God of peace and justice.

St Matthew teaches us two very important lessons about the nature of the unity that we should constantly be seeking as Christians. First, true unity delights in difference. St Paul talks about the huge variety of gifts that the Spirit hands to the members of His body, some apostles, some prophets, some teachers, some pastors, some teachers, and Matthew would appear to have had more than his fair share of those gifts. Inevitably such diversity of gift will lead to differences, to jealousies, to rivalries, and to occasional dissension. We read about such things from the very first days of the Church, and the honesty with which Ss Luke and Paul confront and describe such differences is wonderful. No spin or doctoring of the account there, and I’m sure there is a reason they include every detail of every argument. What makes the quality of our relationships matter is that we have to work at them because we are sinful human beings in need of redemption. They are counter-cultural, they are distinctive because we go on working at them long after most people would have given up and gone home. It is our willingness to be different and yet still committed to each other which points people to the unity of God. Difference is therefore not a weakness, but a strength. True unity delights in it because it provides the workshop for redemption.

Secondly, true unity includes those we would rather exclude. Why was Jesus so keen to go to Matthew the tax collector, and to mix with the marginalised: the sinners, the prostitutes, and with those whom society side-lined or hated? Because a sign of the Kingdom is that all are included. It would be very easy for the Church to splinter ad infinitum into ever smaller units of those who agree with each other so that, like political parties or supermarkets, you find the one that most suits your taste and viewpoints. But that is a market vision, not a Kingdom vision. A sign of the Kingdom is that we share bread even with those with whom we profoundly disagree, even those we find repellent or repugnant. Of course we might challenge them, and indeed we do so vigorously. But we go on seeking ways to walk together – not just because it seems a good idea, but because our unity points the world to the oneness of God.

So yes, it’s true that our nation is going through the greatest political and economic crisis in a generation; that Syria is on fire; that inequality is growing wider; that the world is being cooked; and that in Western Europe there is a crisis of faith. But let’s stop for a while and ensure that our own relationships as Christians are healthy and united – for then the world will see that it has a God of justice and peace: a God whom we meet in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

This homily was preached by the Rt Revd Philip North cmp on St Matthew’s Day – the eve of the Credo Cymru Conference “That Nothing Be Lost” (ND, September 2016) – at St Martin’s, Roath, in the diocese of Llandaff, in the presence of the Archbishop of Wales.