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Finding Unity in Diversity

1 month ago

In this week’s ReSource Blog James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, explores God’s innate love of both unity and diversity, and applies this to the church, in its inner-life and in its mission in the world.

God loves diversity.

We know that from the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. He has created an extraordinarily diverse world – as David Attenborough and others so dramatically and colourfully remind us. Watching the first episode of ‘Perfect Planet’ I was astonished to discover that volcanoes are actually necessary for life on our planet.  I was also amazed by the remarkable variety of different types of penguin – and reminded, yet again, of the vast array of different animals, birds, plants, trees, and insects there are on earth.  Apparently, there are thousands of species of insect that we haven’t even yet identified (though how anyone can know that remains beyond me!) And of course the range of patterns and colours on the wings of butterflies or the heads of flowers are almost indescribable in their diversity and beauty.

Human Beings are part of that creation – and we too are a pretty diverse bunch.  The Myers-Briggs profile gives us some idea of how different our personalities can be – and that is before physical considerations of size, shape, colour and so on.

Hardly surprising, then, that God provides us with such a diversity or ‘variety’ of spiritual gifts.  As Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 make very clear, they all matter and are needed: but nobody has all of them, and the variety is essential for creating a healthy, vibrant, Spirit-filled church. That is exactly what we would expect of the Creator of such a diverse world.

But God also loves Unity.

In the Old Testament the Psalmist reflects on how lovely it is when people ‘dwell together in unity’ (Psalm 133). In the New Testament Jesus prays that all his followers may be ‘One’: indeed in the same way he and his father are united (John 17); and St Paul tells us that, as Christians, we are called to be God’s ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. Unity really matters to God: and the most profound example of that unity is apparent in the eternal dance, as it were, of the Holy Trinity: three ‘persons’ but one ‘substance’, the ultimate expression of unity in diversity.

But as St Paul’s letters and the subsequent history of Christianity illustrate so graphically, that sort of unity – even among Christians, let alone more widely – has always been difficult to achieve.  In fact, when studying the way in which Christians have engaged with each other through the centuries it is often hard to avoid the sense of endless squabbling. Innumerable ‘denominations’ have sprung up as a result of split after split in God’s church: the ‘One Body’ damaged and fractured again and again as new groups have determined that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Different issues have absorbed and dismembered different generations. In our own day, questions about sexuality and gender are dominating the ecclesial landscape – and are once again raising the conundrum of how to find unity in such a diversity of views and opinions.

From an ecumenical point of view, that is where we begin in our struggle to develop a missional partnership of four Christian denominations (with another four designated as ‘Companions’) in Cumbria.  So here are one or two of the things (by no means definitive or final) that we are establishing along the way.

Discoverers, not inventors

The first is that true unity among Christians is something to be ‘found’ rather than created.  Unity is God’s work and his gift, which he wants us to discover as we live, work and worship together.  It is not something that we can manufacture; we are discoverers, not inventors – and, as T.S. Eliot puts it, the end of all our exploring is to know the place for the first time. It is a place where we are already one – In Christ; and where, although the Spirit’s gifts are many and varied, there is only one Spirit – who gives them all and dispenses them at will.  The more we explore, the more we begin to realise that we are one Body, the Church – however much we choose to distort that God-given reality.

Jesus is Lord

That means being willing to make a second discovery, which is about what really matters – and what ultimately unites us, namely our shared belief and declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord’. We all believe that every one of us has been made in God’s image. We all believe in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus, and look for his coming again. We all recognise the richness of our diverse practices and ways of doing things and are keen to learn from each other. By emphasising what is complementary and what we have in common we do not ignore our differences or pretend they don’t matter. But we do try to put them into their proper perspective.

Looking outwards

The third discovery is perhaps most important of all – because it involves looking outwards, to the world God has made and loves so much he sent his only Son, rather than inwards at ourselves. Mission and Unity have always belonged together – and it is as we do mission together, as we proclaim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ with one voice, that we discover just how much we belong together, rather than apart.

As in his creation, so too in his Church: God loves diversity. But he loves unity as well.

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