The late Jamaican reggae singer, Peter Tosh, who sang alongside Bob Marley when he was part of the musical group, the Wailers, produced one of the best solo reggae albums of all time, Equal Rights, in 1977. One of the tracks on this groundbreaking LP, African, called on all Black people to recognise their African heritage. Although Tosh, who was a Rasta, was no fan of Christianity or the Church, he argued that those worshipping in the various Christian denominations must recognise the fact that while they described themselves ‘Catholics’, ‘Methodists’ or ‘Church of God’, they were
Tosh’s assertion was intriguing in that, though he reeled off a long list of Church-related denominations, he considered all to be Christian. What’s more, there was no sense of hierarchy or importance in this roster; they were all the same – a homogenous entity. As someone who works for an organisation that encourages Christian unity, I’m acutely aware of the existing theological and ecclesiological tensions between Christians that make real harmony a challenge. Moreover, having worshipped in a range of churches over the many years, I know to my disappointment that a certain spiritual or intellectual snobbery exists between denominations and traditions.
Some Christians (particularly those from traditional, conservative congregations) decry certain believers for being too ‘experiential’ – their church services are too excitable – and lacking intellectual rigour and reflection. Conversely, those accused of being ‘experiential’ argue that their detractors love to stifle the Holy Spirit by putting their ‘heads’ before their ‘hearts’ when worshipping God.
This can often be petty stuff, but it becomes serious when Christians refuse to engage with one another due to the positions they take on theological matters. For me, it is a real tragedy when it stops them from working together to address justice issues – particularly life and death ones, such as serious youth violence. I am cognizant that there are some doctrinal matters within Christianity on which it is difficult to have an ‘agree to disagree’ position. However, it is quite ironic – some would suggest contradictory – that those who have drawn these ‘red lines’ with Christians, maintain more of a readiness to work with non-Christians (those of other faiths and none) in the interests of being ‘inclusive’ and pursuing a ‘joined-up approach’, rather than work with those who share their trinitarian beliefs.
As I pointed out earlier, Christian unity is a lot easier said than done, but something for which we must strive. In John 17, Jesus makes the powerful case for unity, using His relationship with God as the blueprint for how His followers ought to live. In verse six we read: “I ask that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” And again, in verse 22, He adds: “The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one.”
If we really believe in the maxim of ‘stronger together’ when it comes to addressing justice issues, such as racism, serious youth violence,
asylum/refugee work, etc., we must be courageous enough to put aside certain differences and come together for the common good. That means focusing on the ‘big picture’ when seeking to forge alliances. What’s more, I would argue that the need to work together is an evangelical imperative that is posited on the desire to be the unified Body of Christ, which is a witness to the Good News we proclaim. It is a strange kind of witness to our world, if we who claim to follow a Saviour who reconciles us to God, cannot be reconciled with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
In November this year, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) will bring together representatives from its 40-plus member churches that include a range of churches from the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions, in an attempt to pursue and encourage the ecumenical agenda. While CTBI believes it is crucial that the churches recognise their unique histories, traditions and doctrinal emphases, this should not preclude them from finding ways to better understand and speak one another’s language. Ultimately, this process should lead to us being able to speak prophetically (with one voice) to a world that is desperately in need of the hope, compassion and love for which Christ died.