I have been pondering the nature of unity of late. From the new president’s inauguration speech, to the pleas of the National Cathedral when they invited a conservative evangelical to use their pulpit, unity is the new trend. We want it very badly. (It has crossed my mind that what we actually want is boredom, and a break from the constant existential crisis, but I digress.)
This makes sense—unity has long been one of the particular loves of the Anglican world. I remember being told in confirmation class, as a teenager, how we were the only American Protestant church that didn’t divide during the Civil War, and wasn’t that lovely? Because we believed in maintaining unity so much! This went into the file of the Elizabethan Settlement, and the utility of the prayer book—both things which allowed for people to believe whatever they wanted, so long as we could all stay together, because staying together was Most Important. So it likewise makes sense that in this time of increased division and tension, some in the church would see it as their duty to facilitate this unification. Let’s bring people together! We are good at that. We are the party-planners of the Christian World! EVERYONE INTO A ROOM, AND FIND THE DEVILED EGGS.
But, if you will recall, gentle reader, then came 2003, but really, 2006—and the limits of staying together were illustrated. It became apparent that we could not, in fact, stay together at this particular party when the presiding bishop was a girl, or a bishop in New England married another man. What 250 years had not done to us, some cooties managed to do, and the church split.
And yet, there was that the insistence again—that this was a horrible tragedy because our goal was to maintain unity. Everyone should be together at our party! And unity, as it played out, appeared to be making sure everyone at this party stayed put, and did so happily. So it was important to appease everyone here. Regardless of the cost. Maybe some barring of the doors. But this is our party, and Jesus says you can’t leave.
If we want to get dogmatic about it, the emphasis on church unity is scriptural. Jesus prays, in John’s gospel, that “they may be one, as you and I are one”, and so from that, the church has taken our instruction. See? We should stick together!
What has become apparent to me, however, is how quickly unity transforms from a means into an end. When Jesus is praying, he is asking God that his followers to come may be united in their proclamation of the Gospel, so that their witness isn’t diluted. He’s not merely praying that God would have them all stick together forever….just because. Unity is a means to an end.
We tend to forget when we envision unity, that Christ doesn’t call us to unify around ourselves. We’re not the thing the church is meant to point to. Who cares if we manage to create an organization where everyone gets along always, and no one dissents? That’s not a church; that’s a cult. (Or the mob. Either way—call the authorities because you have a problem.). What we are called to do is come together around Jesus’ good news—and that necessarily entails making people mad. Often people inside the church.
Back in ye olden days of 2003/2006 when the splits were happening, we spent a lot of time worrying about the people we were losing. And we lost a fair number! Buildings and real estate, and angry parishioners. Hearts were broken. It was rough. People celebrated Ash Wednesday in August. The party broke up, and there was lots of crying, and it was awful.
But what we didn’t talk about enough was that other people came.
Some people left, but God sent us others, who for the first time could believe in a God of love because of our welcome. God sent us people who needed the gospel we were beginning to gingerly understand. God sent us people who had been longing to hear about how all people were beloved of God, and were necessary to the salvation of creation. God sent us so many amazing people, because we—for a moment!—were beginning to head towards the gospel.
In all of our Episcopal cultural emphasis that Church-is-a-party-everyone-should-stay! We forget that this world is not a party for a great many people. This world is a horror show for a lot of people. For a lot of people the world tells them that they are worthless, that they are despised and wrong, and that God is out to get them. For many—In fact, I’m going to say, most—people, life is not a choice of parties to attend, it is a series of traps to avoid. A series of hurdles to overcome. For those people? They don’t need to know that Mary Sue is willing to sit next to them under protest, because Party Manners. They need to know that this is a place that fully and firmly offers them safety and salvation in the name of Christ, and will work with them to make the rest of creation that way, too.
For people of color, for LGBTQ+ folks, for women called into leadership (and/or just called to be very opinionated), we do not need another party, full of smiles that may or may not be fake, and passed appetizers that may or may not be leftovers, while the real good stuff gets eaten by the important guests. We need a church. We need a church that comes together around the gospel, not around an agreement about how nice to be to its members, and how nice they should be to each other. We need a church that proclaims us as beloved of God, that celebrates what we bring, that honors us in safety and that stands with us in solidarity against a world that frequently would leave us for dead.
The besetting sin of the church is not disunity—the besetting sin of the church is our trading this party we like to pass off as church for the fullness of the gospel. We aren’t called to offer people a party—we are called to offer people salvation in the name of Christ. We are called to offer them life abundant, and all too often, we hand them a stale sandwich, and tell them to be nice, because they’re lucky they got invited here at all.
It makes no sense to me to unify as a church. It makes no sense to me to unify for the sake of this party. It only makes sense to me if we are unifying around the gospel as we understand it, having discerned and listened together for Christ’s call to us, and having borne witness to the work the Spirit is doing in our midst. We aren’t throwing a party—we are throwing a new world, and Christ calls us to it.