“We are not divided”
I wonder if you’ve ever wondered how many different churches there are in Ipswich. 80? Or 100? Or even more? You might have spent quite a long time trying to come up with a figure. But as far as I am concerned the answer to that question is very simple: there is only ONE.
Yes, there are dozens of different congregations scattered around the town. There are lots of different denominations, too, together with a number of independent Christian fellowships. I don’t dispute that. Nevertheless all of us are part of Christ’s single body – not that you’d know it from the way we behave!
For the traditional churches look down at the “newer” churches and say that they are noisy, irreverent, emotionally hyped-up, and bound to the spirit of the age. They may well complain, too, that they are “taking away our young people”. Equally the newer churches can be highly critical of the more traditional ones: they are “stuck in the mud”, closed to the breath of God’s Spirit, archaic, irrelevant and – worst of all – dull!
There are differences in what we believe, too. Some churches are proud of their Evangelical heritage: “We take the Bible seriously”, they declare. But other churches dismiss that approach as theologically naïve: they claim to be promoting a “more thoughtful approach to the faith”. Then there are contrasts in our music: should worship be accompanied by a band or an organ? There are various views on baptism: is it for believers or children? And there are divergent opinions on the Eucharist, on liturgy, on the use of candles or incense, on sexuality, on church organisation ... the list seems unending.
All this means that we tend to relate only to our like-minded friends or denominations. Indeed, we may smugly hint to each other that “we” are following God properly while the other churches have “gone a bit off the rails”. This may well lead us to engage in mission all by ourselves rather than in co-operation with other churches. It’s no wonder that we end up getting so tired, or being so ineffective, or leaving our neighbours feeling so confused!
Now I realise that we Christians don’t always agree; it would be stupid to pretend otherwise. We may dress our differences in fancy language, but I suspect that, pretty often, they have more to do with our age, personalities and preferences than with theology! Nevertheless churches are always going to experience tensions between the stability of tradition and the unpredictable leading of God’s Spirit, or over their interpretation of the Bible.
So do these things have to divide us? Or can we accept that none of us can ever understand God fully and that we need to knit our insights together to gain a more accurate picture of who he is? I think that there is a glimmer of hope, for we all subscribe to the common Gospel of Jesus, the Son of God who became a man and displayed God’s glory to the world through his life, death and resurrection. Although we may dispute some of this story’s meanings, it is the very core of our faith.
Most of us know that St. Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth, likened the Church to a Body – in fact it’s one of his favourite themes. We often say that this picture is about the members of a congregation working together, each using their different gifts from God. I have no argument with this view; but I think we should also interpret this picture in another way. For can’t we think of the Church as “Christ’s Body” in a town or an area, with every congregation and denomination contributing its special insights and understandings for the good of all? Rubbing shoulders with Christians from different traditions helps us to grow in faith; equally, serving God together makes the best possible use of our resources.
Disputes and divisions in the Church do a great disservice to the Gospel and to God’s name; in fact I would go so far as to say that they are sinful. For people see the Church at war with itself over issues which, to them, are both incomprehensible and trivial – and, not surprisingly, they turn away. At present our fragmentation is injuring Christ’s Body in our town. Can we pray that the Church in Ipswich, with all its flavours and varieties, can truly find out what it means to be one?
Andrew Kleissner has been the Minister of Christ Church (United Reformed & Baptist), Tacket Street, Ipswich since 2005. Prior to that he was a missionary in West Africa and then the Minister of two churches in London. He served for some years as the Baptist representative on “Churches Together in England’s” Theology Group and has recently become the Eastern Baptist Association’s Ecumenical Officer for Suffolk. Andrew is married to Moira, a retired teacher who – among other things! – volunteers for Christian Aid, Dance East and “Emmaus”.
(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)