One brief moment: Bishops Lane and North and Christian unity

At the ecumenical divinity school I attended, we celebrated the Eucharist (Mass, Lord’s Supper, Communion) every Friday. What I always remember about those services was the giant pile of backpacks that would pile up outside the door of the chapel. We left our things at the door before the service.

For me (and others), the pile of baggage represented something profound about what was happening in the service. There were students (and faculty) who regularly attended those services who had conflicting, opposing, and sometimes contradictory ideas about what was happening in the Eucharist (Mass, Lord’s Supper, Communion). On more than one occasion, I received the body and blood of Christ from someone not ordained in the apostolic succession my Anglican tradition so values. But, like the baggage we set aside at the door, we temporarily put aside these view points for the sake of something greater—the unity of followers of Christ gathered around his altar (table).

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I thought of those services yesterday as I saw a picture circulating the Internet following the consecration of Philip North in York Minster. The picture shows Bishop North embracing Bishop Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first female bishop. Two bishops embracing—unremarkable.

And yet, to those who know the context, it is something more. Bishop Lane was consecrated a week ago by over a hundred bishops from around the world. Bishop North was consecrated by three bishops (even though many others were present), none of whom has ever laid hands on a women to ordain her. He is a conservative Anglo-Catholic who does not believe in the ordination of women and believes that male bishops who do ordain women are “tainted”.

Bishop North should have been consecrated by all bishops present. The theology of “taint” that underlies the desire to be women-free is a modern outworking of the ancient Donatist heresy, as others have ably argued.

And yet—somehow what is of fundamental importance is the relationship in Christ shared between these two bishops, representing different parts of the church. (Bishop Lane representing by far the larger part, as her consecration testified.) And that is what this picture represents.

The book of Revelation gives a picture of what it will be like when Christ comes again:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (7.9)

It is an astonishing vision: all God’s children united in prayer and praise. As much as I find the theology of taint held by Bishop North to be deeply erroneous, he—and those who hold his views—are equally members of Christ’s one body with me, Bishop Lane, and so many others. One day—whether we like it or not—we’ll all be united before God.

A hug does not produce theological agreement, just as a pile of backpacks does not produce Christian unity. But moments like these are, for me, snapshots of what we as Christians are all aiming for together. They give us an image of what we hope will one day be. For an instant—and only for that—they lift us beyond the brutal, trench-warfare politics of day-to-day church life and point us to something greather

I am not minimizing the serious and profound differences here. But on this day, I am grateful that Bishops Lane and North are acting like this now to give us a view of what things will be like then.

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