Bishop John's presidential address - March 2024

First published on: 27th March 2024

Looking at the world I increasingly see divisions. The political divisions that have resulted in this country since the vote on Brexit continue to have deep ramifications for all. In United States we can see the sharp division that is emerging in the presidential campaign. In other parts of the world the divisions run that deep that it seems that some feel the only solution is conflict, war, destruction, and misery.

Worryingly, an increasing trend today seems to be the deliberate stoking of division for political advantage. We exist in a world that adopts an aggressive mindset through the language of pushback and redlines. Yet, God’s world is blessed by variety and difference. Individuals are entitled to their opinion and ideals shaped as they are through their world experience and underlying values. But difference does not need to lead to division, does not inevitably result in disunity. Creative solutions to challenging problems can be achieved through those with differing perspectives.  

I’d like to think the church were different. I’ve dared to hope and dream that we can live up to the call from Archbishop Justin to disagree well. To achieve unity despite the things that divide us. Let’s be clear, unity does not mean uniformity or conformity. Unity is about listening to each other and understanding each other. It is about agreeing, finding common ground, achieving accord. It is about living well together. It’s what we want for a church that is centred around a creed that says we are one holy, catholic, apostolic church. Sadly, we often fail to meet that standard. Equally sadly our divisions appear to become more sharply focused, more entrenched and in some cases increasingly bitter.

I believe that the Diocese of Liverpool displays all the diversity you would expect in Anglicanism, and I know you have a long tradition of working together across different ecclesiologies. We have a great witness of unity in the shepherd-Warlock legacy. But no diocese can exempt itself from the question how united we are.

Leslie Newbegin commented that the greatest anomaly in the Church is that it is divided. No wonder that a congregationalist from Scotland worked towards the unity of the churches in South India with an episcopal polity and he himself became one of the founding bishops of that united church.

Divisions in the Church are not simply along the denominational lines but there is increasing disunity within major denominations, especially in the Anglican Communion. What are we to do as disciples, when faced with divisions and disunity? I would like to explore three aspects of this – unity as a biblical vision, as a present imperative and as a practical goal.

Unity: A Biblical Vision: Two biblical texts are taken as basis of the main thrust of the current ecumenical movement: Jn. 17:21 and Eph.1:9-10.  The passage from John’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. Jesus visualizes here the oneness of all his disciples - present and the future - in and through their common sharing of faith. Living in Christ means living in communion with all those who are in Christ. There is a sense of mutual concern and acceptance. It is the self-giving and self-sacrificing love that should bind us together. This love is essential to the identity of the Church in the world.

In Eph.1:9-10, Paul expresses a vision of cosmic unity in Christ, the whole concept is based on God’s salvific plan for the created world.  God envisaged in his original plan for the universe a ‘unity’ i.e. a coherent system. The fall of the humanity marred this system but in Christ it is promised to be brought back to the normalcy. Redemption through Christ is cosmic or universal. In this universal or cosmic redemptive programme, the Church plays a major role as the agent of reconciliation. How can the Church look forward to a cosmic unity in Christ, while she herself stands divided?

If communal life is inseparable from salvation and salvation is a gift of grace, then this communal life is also a gift of grace, given in the sacraments. Unity is one of the essential characteristics of this community that is inseparable from God’s grace.

We should ask ourselves as to what prevents us from moving closer to each other – fear of some loss (position, status, identity, tradition)?  Is our ultimate concern the mission of God or matters related to our earthly identity as individual church traditions?  Where is self-sacrifice, our basic virtue as Christians? Is that not what is missing in our discussions? And if that is what is missing, how do we find ways to place it back into the heart of our loving relationship with each other?

Unity: A present imperative: We live in a world of humanity divided along the lines of caste, creed, culture, class, and nationality. Despite our best efforts for harmony and peaceful co-existence, enmity or hostility among human beings is on the rise. The world today is still waiting for a Messiah who can function as the agent of peace and unity. Who will, if not the Church, fit into this slot that is vacant?  How will the people of this world know God’s love, if that love is not manifested among His chosen people?

Concern for ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ is central to our quest for meaningful existence.  It will be wrong and delusive to propose ‘justice’ and peace’ as goals to be sought apart from a shared life in Christ. Can a fragmented and divided church encounter the challenges raised by poverty, oppression, and other forms of injustice?

The socio-political context of our world also raises some challenges to the movement for unity. In a political atmosphere where the minorities live with fear and perhaps under threat, how can the Body of Christ, take up the cause and stand for basic human rights without the essential unity within the body itself?  How can we perform Christian witness without realising and recognising the other parts of the same body?  Without humility and mutual acceptance among Christians how are we going to show the path of humility and self-sacrifice in a trying situation like ours?

Unity: A practical goal: Is the ‘unity of the church’ a practical vision? The history of the church in India would nod affirmatively. Can we move further ahead of our mere cooperation, mutual acceptance and probably admiration? Is visible unity a practical and possible goal?

The formation of The Church of South India in 1947 and the Church of North India in 1970 tells us that the differences among us are not hindrances to unity. Major ecclesiological questions between those who believed in Episcopacy and those who had Presbyterian system, doctrinal differences between those who practiced infant baptism and others who practiced adult baptism – all these did not stand on the way of God’s spirit uniting the churches together. The participating churches knew very well that eventually the traditions of the individual denominations would be lost in the emerging tradition of the united entity.  The spirit of sacrifice, mutual respect and acceptance was at work in the formation of these two mainline churches in India.

We need to learn from this experience. Even here, in the Diocese of Liverpool where I am struck by the remarkably high level of unity and strong collaborative spirit, we still need to learn from this. For we have strong issues where our deep convictions and passion can threaten our unity. The Living in Love and Faith conversation is nowhere near concluded and the hurt this creates is clear. In Liverpool, we have a risk of creating division through the Fit for Mission debates.

In both we risk reducing complicated matters into entrenched yes or no positions. We have a danger of creating our red lines and standing full square behind them. I don’t want you to misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong about being clear about what you want or expect but it is unhelpful if they become unbreachable fortresses.

Our diocesan fit for mission conversation is and should be just that. We need to be discerning together God’s will for our lives. We need to recognise the oneness envisaged in the biblical text. We are all part of God’s kingdom, and the church of God has many parts, and we must learn to work together to achieve that. This can sometimes mean sacrificing part of our corner of the world. It should certainly mean the generous support of the other.

The same applies to the conversation we are having about our finances. This is a three-way relationship between parish and deanery, our diocese, and the national church. We are all united in trying to resolve the problem, yet we might see the problem through different lenses. That could tear us apart, yet we must look to what unites us as we work towards a common goal.

We can go a long way to achieve this through building good relationships. I believe this diocese is good at that. I have seen many examples of great relationship between different people in this diocese. But to do this takes work. One of my predecessors, Bishop James, used to talk about walking in the shoes of the other so that we may gain a different perspective from our own. I also believe we need to understand each other’s language, to get a sense of what others mean and intent through truly listening to the language they use. By doing that we can work through our differences towards a greater unity.

We have come to a point of time where we need to express our affirmation of unity in bodily form. To strengthen the communion of the saints, which envisions our visible witness in practicing the unity.  This venturing is always challenging and transforming. It is a Biblical vision, and a necessity of our time and this goal is practical. Let us venture on in faith.


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