I am writing this letter having just attended the “Unity Service” at Harrow Baptist Church at which the preacher was the Revd Dr Ruth Gouldbourne, Minster of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church and Chair of the Churches Together in Britain & Ireland Faith and Order Reference Group. This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place annually between 18 -25 January concluding with the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, has taken on a certain added significance – against the background of “Brexit”, the inauguration of new President of the USA who has spoken of “building walls” and at the beginning of the year in which the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being kept.
The potential for division that all these three events present is challenged by our faith. In the opening chapter of the Bible we are reminded that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them: male and female he created them” Gen 1:27 All human beings share the divine image. St Paul writing the church in Ephesus declares that Jesus “is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility……. that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace….. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Eph 2:14-19 We are charged as members of the body of Christ to tear walls down and not build them up. Jesus prays for his disciples that “they may all be one” and “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:21-23 Lack of unity immediately undermines the message of reconciliation which is at the heart of the Gospel for it is self-evident fact that “if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Mark 3:24-25
In a divided world the challenge of the Gospel to find and reveal the underlying unity that binds all human beings together is paramount. It was heartening that the events to mark the Reformation began last year as an Ecumenical Commemoration hosted jointly by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in Lund in Sweden on 31 October 2016. It was attended by Pope Francis and the President of the Lutheran World Federation and it laid the foundations for the year ahead to be one in which acknowledging our differences and differing perspectives on history we can nonetheless celebrate our common faith in the one who is the beginning and the end, the creator, redeemer and sustainer of all.
There will be a number of opportunities this year to reflect further on the events which began with Martin Luther allegedly nailing his 95 theses to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 but it is worth taking to heart – more positively than some in the media – the words of the joint statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on this 500th anniversary in light of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
“Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them. This anniversary year will provide many opportunities to do just that, beginning with this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
We therefore call on all Christians to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ through our participation in the Reformation Anniversary, to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams (+Rowan) frequently reminded us that as Christians we are “forgiven sinners” – there is an essential honesty in recognising those aspects within us which contribute to continued division, to repent of it and to find ways of moving forward in our pilgrimage together.
Somewhat belatedly, I wish you all a very blessed 2017 – one in which we take seriously the call to break down the dividing walls of hostility
With every Blessing