by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
I was talking with a church leader the other day who lamented that they kept getting criticised by Christians who accused them of valuing Unity above Truth.
This is a variant of the ‘good disagreement is bad disagreement’ argument, which goes:
as Christians we must agree on the Truth of the Christian Gospel –
but we don’t agree on what we think are fundamental Christian truths –
therefore we cannot be in Unity, and saying that we can disagree yet live together in Unity is dishonest.
One of the subtexts of this argument is the question of how Truth is defined and who defines it? The call to believe ‘biblical truth’ is a demand to share my particular view about ‘what the Bible says’; the call to ‘believe what the Church has believed in every place and time’ begs the question of how the Church is defined and who assesses its history; the call to use reason and experience requires defining what assumptions you start with and whose experience you’re talking about.
Another subtext is the question of belonging.
To adapt Grace Davie’s sociological question about faith: do you believe first and then find a group that you agree with, or do you find a group to belong to first and adopt the views of that particular group over against others? Can you change your mind and still stay in your group? How do individuals and the group check that what they believe is Truth, compared with the views of others and the realities around them?
These are all big questions, which politicians as well as religious believers are grappling with. How far can you follow your conscience, your view of the Truth, in politics or faith, without getting expelled from the party? Do you swallow hard and vote for what you don’t like because you think Unity is more important? Or do you exit on a point of principle?
If you have a propositional view of Truth, a binary and credal approach (‘true or false, believe or not?’) then you’ll want to know that you and others are in propositional step with each other as the basis for Unity, and expel others from your party.
But in Christian thinking, Unity is not uniformity, and the joy of the Christian Gospel is that it’s not propositional, but relational. It’s not about believing all the right things about God and salvation (‘even demons believe – and shudder’, James 2.19); it’s putting your trust in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and being his disciple.
The great diversity of the Christian Church is its strength: it requires us to look at ourselves through the eyes of other disciples, to help us answer the question as to whether we follow the one who is the Truth (the Way and the Life), or follow rather the gospel according to ourselves. We need one another’s criticisms and questions, in a spirit of openness and humility, in order to be faithful to the Word who is Truth. We aren’t made to be uniform, but to be united in Christ.
That’s why the Eucharist is central to Christian faith: we share the sacrament of Jesus Christ, and we are united to one another through him. Whatever boundaries we draw around Christ’s table are provisional, because they’re our boundaries not His. Our denomination may not be ‘in communion’ with other Christians or churches, but we’re all in communion with Jesus Christ nonetheless, and therefore with each other. Like it or not. Our Unity is based on the Truth of God’s saving love for us in Jesus Christ.
Unity or Truth? It’s both, of course; not as defined by us, but by God’s love for us in Christ.
In the words of the Percy Dearmer hymn I was singing in St Paul’s the day I wrote this:
Jesus, who our sorrows bearest, all our thoughts and hopes thou sharest,
thou to us the truth declarest; help us all thy truth to hear.
Lord, in all our doings guide us; pride and hate shall ne’er divide us;
We’ll go on with thee beside us, and with joy we’ll persevere!