Church Unity in a time of Coronavirus

Crisis brings out the best in us and the worst in us. I remember some wise advice many years ago from a pastor.

 “People mistaking assume that bereavement brings families together. But it doesn’t. It just exacerbates divisions that are already there.”

Similarly, a tragedy like Coronavirus will not magically (or mystically even) bring together disunited Christian tribes.

Where there already were good connections and  a sense of Gospel partnership and brotherly love between churches and pastors, those relationships have come to the forefront and we have been able to appreciate that unity which was already there,

Where there was already suspicion and a sense of division and difference, those tensions have been highlighted, not diminished.

This applies not just to different individuals and tribes but to specific issues. If we had agreement or had learnt to understand and respect each other before coronavirus then the same is true now. If we hadn’t reached that point before, we are unlikely to reach it in the middle of the crisis. It means I can have a positive light generating conversation on some things while sparks fly, heat is generated and not much light results when talking to the same person about something else.

The obvious examples here are about what constitutes a church gathering and whether baptism is permissible.  I think one reason for this is that we tend to make assumptions about our most deeply entrenched views and we see those assumptions to be obvious, non-negotiable and not debatable. So, we begin a conversation about the pragmatics of whether a zoom communication constitutes a church gathering and whether or not we can (never mind should) share in the breaking of bread in such a context but underpinning it are deeply held convictions and we assume that any reasonable person would share them.

I’m not sure what we can do on such things but here are a couple of thoughts. First of all, whilst it may be difficult, I still think we need to work harder at hearing and understanding each other. Those who are sharing communion are not seeking to innovate and undermine Scripture, nor are those holding back seeking to starve their churches. Of course we cannot ignore the fact that if I am wrong then I will be undermining God’s word with my innovation and if I am right then my abstaining brethren are starving the flock.  However, when we start from the assumption that none of us want to do those things, it enables a healthier conversation.

Secondly, we need to remember that our internal conversations are not just internal conversations but are watched and heard by others. Let me give you one example.  Many of our churches grew out of home gatherings. Brethren assemblies for example started with simple breaking of bread gatherings in kitchens, living rooms and then halls. Many churches today meet in homes, schools, libraries and pubs, wherever they can find space. So, when those who have buildings talk dismissively of kitchen eucharists or suggest that the church is no longer open and public if we don’t have events happening at our buildings then it suggests a level of unhelpful and in this day and age inexcusable ignorance about the wider family of God’s people.

This matters, particularly in relation to the Church of England.  The CofE is in a peculiar position. It is on the one hand the established church in England and on the other, it is one denomination or network among many.  Now, independent churches and other denominations have dissented from the Church of England’s structures but that is not so obvious to people outside of the church.  It means that decisions and pronouncements made are seen as reflecting the wider church which can cause problems for other churches.

Take for example two issues.

First of all, funerals. The Church of England’s bishops decided that funerals should not take place in church buildings. Now, whilst we are not under the CofE’s rules, it would be very difficult for us as a local church to hold a funeral or broadcast from our building when the local Angloican church was not doing. It means that funeral directors are less likely to comply with that wish and that local police might not be alert to the subtle distinctions between churches. As it happens, we would have chosen to keep funerals outdoors at the graveside anyway.

However, we may not always be in agreement with the Church of England. So, secondly, when I asked Evangelical leaders about the conversations they were having with the Government about ending lockdown, I was given a link to a recent decision by the House of Bishops.  I was advised that the measures agreed by them were likely to be reflected in the Government’s rules for churches for the foreseeable future.

This is important because the Bishops put specific emphasis on being able to conduct live streamed services and eucharists from their buildings.  Now that might be important for those Anglican churches which have a sacramental theology emphasising the role of priests in performing the sacraments but isn’t even the essential issue for many Anglicans let alone independents and Baptists.

If the Government assume that allowing such measures will be satisfactory for the wider church then they will have got the wrong message. It is important that the Church of England if it is to fulfil its role as an established church that it acts in a way that reflects that and speaks for all not just one tribe within its own denomination.

However, far more important than inter-church politics and the pragmatics of communication with the Government is a desire for true unity between churches. One of the problems we have is that so often denominational politics takes precedence over true unity. This means that too often Anglican Evangelicals appear more concerned with preserving formal unity with other Anglicans even when they disagree on the essentials of the Gospel. Independents have learnt over time that the formal denominational unity will be prioritised over unity with those of us who are meant to share the same beliefs about the essential gospel.

I’m not sure how much of that we can correct in a crisis but I hope this crisis will highlight the need to refocus our efforts on seeking true Gospel unity

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