In January of this year Christians across the globe participated in the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity. The theme this year was “unusual kindness” celebrating hospitality as a virtue in the search for Christian unity. The prayers underscored the wisdom that Christian unity will be discovered not only through showing hospitality to one another across denominations, but also through loving encounters with those who do not share our language, culture or faith.
The Irish Diplomat and journalist Conor Cruise O'Brien once commented that “nothing does more to activate Christian divisions than talk about Christian unity”. But in my experience such pessimism is undone by personal encounters which break down any divisions through the simple kindness of hospitality which removes prejudices and replaces them with people.
Twelve years ago, during the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I spent time in Rome praying with Pope Benedict XVI that Jesus’ hope that all His followers would be one would become a reality. In addition to spending time with Roman Catholic sisters and brothers I also spent time praying alongside Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and others. There was also an opportunity to share with the then Pope some of the best of Yorkshire including a bottle of Holy Grail beer and Black Sheep Ale from the Black Sheep Brewery, in addition to an illustrated history of York Minster, and a cut-glass beer tankard from the Minster. No doubt some in Rome would have viewed those gifts as an “unusual kindness”!
All Christians share a common bond which is found not in their denomination but in their baptism and in their common declaration of Jesus Christ as Lord. They know that ‘water is thicker than blood’. In the midst of differing interpretations of Scripture and doctrine there remains a common golden thread which unites us.
Over the years these weeks have not yet achieved the ultimate aim of removing our denominational divisions but they have provided a common time together when we recognise as churches that there is much more that unites us than divides us. Our histories of mutual persecution in the name of the Lord shame us. But confession and repentance provide the first steps to redemption and reconciliation.
But this message of reconciliation is not for the Church alone.
The very continuing divisions in our country exposed by the Brexit debate, economic uncertainty, and culture wars focused on the politics of identity, highlight the need for us to find grounds to move forward together under a common narrative and shared hope; discovering the wellsprings of solidarity. To use the old algebraic formulae – we need to move away from seeking the lowest common denominator in our national conversation and move towards rediscovering our highest common factor – although the lowest denominator is a high number. In moving forward as a nation we need to work actively and intentionally towards reconciliation and common purposes. This will inevitably be a long and bumpy journey – but it’s one worth taking which for me begins with three steps.
The first step of that journey means accepting that the Brexit debate is over. We are leaving the European Union and the next decade needs to move on from whether we do it to how we do it in a way that least hurts our communities and opens up opportunity for all. Of course this will mean debates and disagreements continue on how best to achieve both of these things, but we must now - remainers and leavers alike – recognise that our common aim is to secure the best future for us all outside of the EU rather than as part of it – without fouling up our neighbours’ pitch.
Secondly, is how we conduct these debates. Moving forward together means respecting that there is room for people to change their minds and do so without recrimination. How people voted in the past should not determine how we listen to them or value their opinions. St Augustine of Hippo famously remarked that ‘every saint has a past and every sinner has a future’. We need to be magnanimous, and leave room for people to articulate their future hopes without embarking on archaeological digs into how they expressed their views in the past.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to stop point-scoring and actually listen to one another with humility, civility and kindness so as to create space for the kind of civil discourse that will give birth to a promising future rather than a haunted past. This is where the “unusual kindness” of hospitality can be a radical and life giving alternative to the continuing discourse of “othering”. We need to rediscover afresh seeing the divine spark at work in those with whom we disagree rather than lumping them together under the most offensive label we can find so that we can feel a dishonest virtue in our disputations with them.
At different periods in a nation’s history there will be times when ideologies give birth to pragmatism so that the country can come together. At its best ideology and pragmatism combine to define a nation, such as when this Country – in our Four Nations - came together during and after the Second World War. At that time the combination of an ideological stance against the Nazis combined with the pragmatism of rationing and post-war mutual resourcing and sharing drew out the best of what our Nation could be when faced with the greatest of challenges. Wisely the Government borrowed large sums of money which were finally paid off 60 years later and thereby avoided repeating the unwise economic error of austerity in the 1930s – but sadly this has been repeated in the past 10 years.
The debate of the past few years has highlighted that there is no such common ideology over Brexit. What remains is the pragmatism to see this through and come to a place where our common cause in that which we share together triumphs over that which divides us.
Decades ago, in 1963, John F. Kennedy spoke about a commonality which transcended ideology. Speaking in the midst of the cold war he delivered an address at the American University which included a quote from the King James version of the Book of Proverbs: “When a man’s way pleases the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him”. President Kennedy continued with an appeal to the Soviet Union which sought to reach beyond ideological divides and establish common cause: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
We have so much to be thankful for in this Country. We share together in gratitude for a democracy that gives us freedom, a health service which sustains our lives, a monarch who exemplifies a joyful sense of duty, the Rule of Law which provides us safety and a love of neighbour which has served as a bedrock in times of challenge as well as joy. These are the foundations on which we build our future together.
May God in his mercy cast out, in us, the hurdles of fear, godlessness, sin and love of money and help us to rise to a common future built on truth, justice, peace, compassion, friendliness and joy both to God’s glory and that of the Nation we build together.
The Archbishop's article was published in the Yorkshire Post