by the Ven Gavin Collins, Archdeacon of the Meon and member of General Synod
“The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people.”
Dr. Martin Luther King
When I was first elected onto General Synod 7 years ago, my commitment was to strive to be a voice for unity within the church – that amidst all the party lines and arguments over doctrine, churchmanship, ethics and sexuality, I felt that my calling was to work to unite, to help to hold the church together, and to seek to participate in the ministry of reconciliation in the structural heart of a church that seems so often determined to tear itself apart. I continue firmly to believe that to be a Biblical calling, and to reflect the ongoing prayer of Jesus that his church: “may be one…brought to complete unity” (John 17:21-23), and that this is necessary both as a missional imperative as we seek to bring the Gospel to a divided and cynical world, and in order to reflect the unity of the God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who we are called to serve.
However, over recent weeks, and particularly in reflecting on the prophetic challenge given to us by the Black Lives Matter protesters, I have come increasingly to realise that the danger of seeking unity as a value in isolation is that, far too often, it can be used as an excuse or a mask for injustice, and for the complacent continuation of the status quo, a status quo that inevitably privileges the entitled at the cost of those who are without voice.
My first experience of this came over 30 years ago, when I was part of the Christian Union at university. The charismatic movement was growing on campus, much to the consternation of more conservative evangelical elements. This led the UCCF, the Christian Unions’ national body, to take the line that for the sake of unity, “secondary issues” such as charismatic gifts would not be discussed or encouraged at CU. The resulting unity, of course, was entirely at the expense of those whose expression of faith would naturally include charismatic worship – an imposed and artificial unity that, 10 years or so later, led to a structural split in student ministry in this country, as Fusion was formed to provide a place of fellowship for those who found the constraints required by the formal CUs an obstacle to their spiritual growth.
This was, of course, only the latest in a long line of examples of the established power structures demanding conformity on their terms for the sake of professed unity: Ever since the arrival of large numbers of black, Asian and ethnic minority Christians in the UK from the 1950s onwards, the established churches failed to give space, or a voice, or even a welcome, for the gifts, vibrancy, different perspectives and different expressions of spirituality that these arriving brothers and sisters brought with them, with the tragic result that many failed to find a home within the UK church at all, while many others felt driven to form their own denominations and places of fellowship, as we failed to make space for them within ours. So again, silence for the sake of unity led not only to injustice, but to division within the church.
The outpouring of anger and demand for change that has followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police has led the world to stand up and declare that Black Lives Matter, and yet, as a church, we remain content to have structures and appointment systems that continue to perpetuate a scandalous underrepresentation of BAME people, not only in the senior leadership of the church, but also in local leadership – ordained and lay – at parish, deanery and diocesan level.
We can’t go back to silence in the face of injustice, not even when that silence is excused as being for the sake of unity. And it is my hope and prayer that the energy and indignation that we are seeing at present from the younger generations through the #BLM movement will hold us to account, and insist that necessary changes begin to be made, and to be sustained.
But not just in the case of racial injustice: We can’t go back to silence in the face of injustice in so many areas of our church’s life where we have allowed groups to be marginalised, excluded, denied the right to leadership or to a voice: Black Lives Matter. LGBT Lives Matter. Female Lives Matter. Elderly Lives Mater. Disabled Lives Matter. The missing generations of Young Lives Matter.
As a white, male, straight, educated, middle-class and middle-aged Evangelical, I can’t go back to a convenient silence for the sake of unity when the church oppresses, excludes, devalues or marginalises any individual or any group for whatever reason: God has made each one of us in his image, and he has “declared it good”. By our complacent acquiescence with a status quo that privileges the established, and continues to marginalise and ignore the excluded, we deny the reality of that declaration by God, and thus we blaspheme against our creator.
So what are we to do? In the opening 5 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we are given an extended description of the structural sin and failings of the nation of Israel, a failing that leads God to cry out: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”. And it is in that context that Isaiah is called and commissioned, as his lips are cleansed by the living coal taken from the altar in heaven, so that he is equipped, in the power of the Spirit, to be bold to respond to God’s call and say: “Here am I. Send me!”
As my fellow Portsmouth Diocese Archdeacon, Peter Leonard, observed in a recent Via Media blog, true unity is costly: it requires us to be actively devoted to one another and devoted to God. And devotion for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ means being prepared to speak out and tell them where we see a speck in their eye – and to allow them to speak out and point out the log we may have in our own.
Above all, we need to come back to God, as Isaiah did, in repentance for our sins, our complacency and our complicitness in the silence we have so often been content to maintain in the face of injustice around us. And then, cleansed and strengthened by him, we need to commit to being a church that doesn’t seek to maintain unity for its own sake, but that strives for a unity that is built out of cherishing the contribution and enabling the flourishing to their full potential of every individual who makes up this wonderfully diverse, creative and vibrant mix that we are privileged to call the People of God.