It is an often overlooked fact that Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers—”that all may be one”—is, in fact, a missional prayer: one of the next phrases in the verse is “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21) Jesus connects our unity with our witness to the world. Indeed, it seems that the pattern of relationship among believers is central to that community’s ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Why might be this be? I don’t want to make any guesses about what Jesus was thinking but it does seem to me that in our present environment, unity is a counter-cultural value. We live, as I have written, in an age of “I have no need of you”—politically, economically, socially. We are sorting ourselves into ever smaller groups of like-minded people. The presidential election, which has become more about turning out the base than winning over swing voters, is a paradigmatic example. For the church to live in unity in this context is intensely counter-cultural. This is why I think unity is missional; I want people to look at the church, see a different pattern of relationship than that which obtains in our day-to-day life, and think, “How do I become part of that?”
Unfortunately, of course, this is not quite how things work. Churches are divided within themselves, both at the congregational and denominational level. There are often good reasons for this—people of good faith can disagree on what it means to follow Jesus—but often these disagreements seem to swamp any mutual recognition that the other is a fellow member of the body of Christ.
These thoughts have come to mind in recent weeks as I have read, first, of the way in which the Episcopal Bishop of California was excluded from the consecration of the new Catholic archbishop and, second, the apparent expulsion from the Episcopal church of the bishop of South Carolina. Each of these events is the product of a long and complex chain of events, which I won’t claim to understand. Nor do I want to make it seem as if either is easy to resolve or that I’m saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along?” I am saying neither.
But at a time when the word “mission” is constantly being invoked by Episcopalians (with good reason) these events are for me moments of great sadness because they represent lost missional opportunities. When I hear people (from any number of sides in church debates) exulting at the “purity” of the church, I think they sound a lot more like members of a political party than the body of Christ. I find these news items to be deeply mournful and pray that we can have the grace to see others as equally baptized children of the same God. If we really believe in our baptism, it seems like we have no other choice.
It won’t solve all our problems—or even any of them—but I think it would make us more like a church than anything else we could do.