The gift of Christian traditions - a reflection on unity and diversity

To mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity , we invited Jo Jan Vandenheede, Pastor at the Gustaf Adolf Nordic Church in Park Lane, to preach at our Sunday morning service on Sunday 22nd January.

Here is his reflection on the readings: Psalm 133 and John. 15:1-9:

It's especially lovely to be here in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a very important week in the churches' - plural - calendar, a week to make the extra effort to encounter, pray and work together with different Christian denominations.

But there are 52 weeks in a year!

Kind gestures, inter-church statements, full communion agreements and prayer weeks most certainly have their importance and impact, but is that enough?!

An atheist blogger once defined Jesus' prayer in John's gospel:

...that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
— Jn. 17:23

as the most unanswered prayer in the New Testament.

The scandal and sin of the divisions among Christians since New Testament times remains a huge stumbling block for the Church's - singular - mission in the world; her disunity is the foremost reason for people not to take the Church seriously in her call for justice and peace.

The need to be taken seriously however isn't enough of a reason for the denominations to stop arguing and start cooperating more, it's to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness and life!

But do we need unity in uniformity to achieve this?

The longing for a unified or at least unifying Church is very understandable in a not so unified world; there's strength in unity and numbers.

Christians under attack in the Middle East however aren't being persecuted for their church-affiliation but for their Christian faith; extremists likely can't even tell the difference between Anglicans or Lutherans.

But is it institutional unification which strengthens?

Perhaps our vitality as separate denominations lies in the fact that regardless of our differences and arguments we are working together!

Unity in diversity!

Because what unites us, Christ, is indeed bigger than what divides us, and if there's anything that ecumenism for all its faults could show the world is that seemingly it's still possible, regardless.

Perhaps we should promote this a bit more: yes we're separate, but still we get along and cooperate...with ups and downs!

How's that for a model of hope for the world?! How's that for good news?!

For me, these sometimes fruitful sometimes not so fruitful visible words and deeds of unity or growing unity proclaim a surprising truth about the Church: Christ's Church is already one because Christ said so!

If the best fights are within the family than our interdenominational bickering might actually be a visible sign that Christians of all branches and brands are truly one in Christ. Then "...that they may all be one" (Jn. 17:21a) no longer remains an unanswered prayer but is a reality!

All who through Baptism become members of Christ's Body become fully and intrinsically part of Him, and as such fully and intrinsically part of all the other members; it's a bond which cannot be broken because it was promised and guaranteed by God himself!

The human body is a single organism but its external members differ even if some are more similar to each other than others.

It's the same with the Church, for example in many cases between Anglicans and Lutherans even though at times there's a lot of eye-rolling involved.

There's no need to be exactly the same!

By God's grace the Spirit breathed life into the Church and all her members received their own charismata, their 'gifts'.

Yet underneath it all, behind the scenes they're all one!

We profess "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" but do we believe it and acknowledge that it has already been accomplished?!

 This is by no means an excuse to be complacent, we're still commanded to pray and work for visible unity " that the world may believe..." (Jn. 17:21b); our God-given factual unity is our reality-check, our drive, our much needed perspective.

However, the demands from in- and outside the churches for more visible or even more structural unity are a joint burden for the various churches.

As such all different Christian traditions are in it together; it's our vocation to carry out the message of the Gospel and oppose anything that hinders that calling.

The scandal and sin of our divisions then become the great equaliser, there's no room for misplaced delusions of grandeur or superiority.

There's a website for Lutheran merchandise with the slogan:"Old Lutheran, the centre for Lutheran pride (but not too proud)"; it's a reminder that we need confidence not conceit.

It might seem somewhat like reversed psychology but our church-schisms create an unprecedented opportunity for humility, especially for the larger, more vocal and militant denominations; this lesson in humility is one our world desperately needs and the churches should be an example.

Each denomination is called to make its own worthy contribution to the Christian narrative; after all, it takes more than one spice or one herb to season a dish.

Paul's writing in I Corinthians 12 (:12-27) points at exactly that; there's no place for arrogance because each part has its equal role to play in the body, each church has its equal part to play in the Body of Christ, be it in theology, liturgy, the preservation or the reform of tradition or preaching, etc...

As such denominationalism might be the gift that keeps on giving!

Sadly Church history has proven that humility isn't humanity's strong point.

Karen Armstrong, one of the leading religious historians and commentators of our time, declared in 2008 that "People don't want to be compassionate, they want to be right!"

How can we then push our own traditions and own members towards more openness, interest and dialogue, what tools have we at our disposal, which gifts could we employ?

The Scriptures as God's communication to Creation should ideally suffice: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Mk. 12:31a) should be enough of a command or at least an incentive.

But denominational pride more often than not takes the upper-hand, and too often our own preconceived ideas, our own creeds and confessions trump the Scriptures.

But could those theological documents we cherish and adhere to in various degrees be potential tools for ecumenism? Could those 16-17th century writings actually offer us flexibility and creativity in our ecumenical relations today?

Augustine of Hippo (+430) is said to have written that "God triumphs on the ruins of our plans."; so in an ironic and unexpected twist could our confessional heritage with which our traditions attempted to entrench their positions actually be a helpful way towards more unity?

If you'll allow me to speak from my own Lutheran confessional belief and training:

The Augsburg Confession from 1530 is Lutheranism's founding document. Its article 7 states:

...The Church is the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike...

We're not all the same nor do we need to be in order to be one!

Assimilation isn't the same as unity!

For Lutherans outward signs are adiaphora or 'non-essential'.

Even if there's great willingness in the majority of world-Lutheranism to strive for visible similarities to grow, become more evident, more important and more active the question isn't 'how is this done?' but in the words of the Small Catechism 'what does this mean?'

These are my own tradition's contributions to the Church universal which I personally find in its confessional writings: 1) grace, grace and more grace; 2) don't speculate; 3) keep it simple.

It's all about priorities!

It's not about ignoring the visible but not to take it for granted either; while these external trappings might be helpful in fulfilling our shared vocation to preach and live out the Gospel, they're no guarantee.

In order to bring this to the ecumenical table, we need to know our own denominations and know them well; gnooti seauton, "know thyself" Socrates is said to have said.

Our world and our churches need to be educated because religious illiteracy is one of the greatest heresies of our time and detrimental not only for inter-church interaction but for the internal growth of each individual tradition as well.

We need to be careful though that our informed selves don't run off with us, because the downside of studying Church history is that we start to recognise a category for every situation and every person, and that would overemphasise once again our human-made divisions.

Also, when sharing our gifts we shouldn't get upset if other Christians aren't interested or impressed.

Likewise we shouldn't start copying indiscriminately; ecumenical envy and ecumenical plagiarism aren't helpful advisers.

The purpose of unity - for me - is not about promoting the largest common denominator nor a triumphalist stride against the presumed evils of secularism; for me it's sharing that great gift that indeed there's " Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all..." (Eph. 4:5-6a).


Jo Jan left us with this image, and some challenging questions:

  • How do you personally recognise / acknowledge other people's Christianity within them? What are your 'minimum criteria'?

  • What attracts you in other denominations and what makes you uncomfortable (Liturgy, doctrine, spirituality, organisation)?

  • What have you personally learned / taken on board from other denominations, and how not to go about it (e.g. prayer beads / rosary)?