SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER 2012

Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity. (Ps 133)

 

Well, sometimes. Pictures in the paper from North Korea suggest a nation unified under one leader, but at what cost to individual freedom? The Vatican has started its planned re-education of the Irish Church by silencing the Redemptorist priest and journalist Fr Tony Flannery. The vision is clearly that of a church unified in its obedience to the teaching of the Magisterium, but at what cost? In a time when creative thinking is needed in all Christian communities, this cracking of the party whip will stifle new initiatives. This is a vision of unity that will tend to exclude Catholics of an independent mind. It offers nothing whatever to ecumenical dialogue. And it reinforces the perception that the Christian religion is authoritarian, repressive, and unwilling to listen to other voices.

 

Part of the issue is the failure of nominal Christianity. The sort of casual relatively undemanding membership of the past is no longer much use. Many of the people who get christened and confirmed (in all our churches) have no real live connection with the community or acquaintance with the faith. And that poses the problem: do you continue to offer the sacraments, knowing full well that the level of commitment is very shallow; or do you refuse, unless the candidate shows a real attachment to the worshipping community? Do you go for less but “better” members? Our church law requires us to baptise where it is asked for, so in fact we (like our Roman colleagues) work very much with the “benefit of the doubt” and do our best to sow seeds and make contacts in the hope that even a shallow attachment may put down important roots. But the community cannot thrive, or perhaps even survive, if most belong at a distance, so to speak.

 

So there is a growing perception that the Church must demand greater commitment from those who would be members. “Demand” is a harsh word; one should encourage rather than coerce; but still we should be expecting Christians to learn and pray and attend and contribute and to live out their profession in action. At the very least parishes could be making these things possible for those who want to be Christian.

 

Unfortunately commitment is easily confused with conservatism. There is undoubtedly an advantage in the conservative model. It tends to be very clear about boundaries; who is in and who is out; what is true and what is false; what may be said and done and what may not. It is a nice complete package, and as it now usually puts one at odds with secular society, one gets all the benefits of distinctiveness. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but there are plenty for whom it offers a secure place from which to deal with life.

 

The other way is much less tidy. Boundaries are permeable; some people are both in and out; truth may be found in various places; and one may have to cope with serious differences of opinion. À la carte may mean a lack of commitment; or it might mean a sort of juggling act between truths known through scripture and tradition and truths known in the secular world. It is probably easier to be fundamentalist, either in favour of religion or against it; but the middle way of open Christianity – or Judaism, or Islam – also needs committed people.

 

 

 

 

Our readings this morning offer us various reflections on Christian community. It’s worth asking ourselves how we read them. The Acts reading paints a delightful, probably rose-tinted picture of the first Jerusalem community, all of one heart and mind gathered around the apostles, sharing everything in common. Do you read that as an essentially egalitarian picture, everyone equal, everyone making their contribution according to their gifts? Or do you see the presence of the apostles as the focus of unity? What is the nature of that apostolic ministry? Is it authoritative teaching and governance? Is it a ministry of witness and grace?

 

What of the reading from John’s Gospel, where Jesus meets the frightened disciples in the Upper Room and bestows his peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit? Do the disciples represent the entire community in embryo, or are they the first bishops? Given that Jesus bestows a commission and authority to forgive and retain sins, how is this authority to be exercised? Is this the sole business of the hierarchy, or does it belong to the whole community?

 

The reading from the First Letter of John poses another question, because it can be read in a very exclusive way. The author has “fellowship” with the Father and the Son, and invites his readers to share this fellowship by accepting his testimony and seeing things his way. An awful lot will depend on what you understand as walking in the light, or exactly what you understand to be essential to Christian belief.

 

Our Anglican way has evolved to be inclined to insist on a few essentials and leave a fair scope for different opinions. It’s a messy business and rather fragile. There is a fair bit of wounding and strain among our communities, and maintaining the delicate balance is difficult. At its best, we acknowledge the need we have of each other’s opinions and approaches, even the ones we most heartily disagree with. And somewhere in that awkwardness we learn a little more of God’s generous dealings with so many and different persons, and get little glimpses of a unity that is deeper than regimented uniformity.

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