It is easy to become depressed today about vital attempts at human unity, isn’t it? All across the world, many organised efforts to reduce human conflict and build cooperation have struggled. As an English European, I feel this deeply with the UK retreat from the European Community. After so many centuries of horrendous war and division, and with wider dangerous forces in our world, Brexit was, and remains, a hard thing to bear. The painful consequences include the hardly unexpected fresh tensions in Northern Ireland. After living through the so-called ‘Troubles’, with my grandfather in Belfast, and some of my fellow students at university killed or injured in bombings, I know the cost of disunity. Meanwhile the current resurgence of violence in the Holy Land is but one horrendous reminder of the terrors elsewhere. The seeming powerlessness of the wider world to constrain such violence is particularly highlighted there. Resolutions of the United Nations have long since been effectively simply disregarded by many member nations, such as Israel. Even the global COVID-19 pandemic seems to have done little for human solidarity across the world. Thank God that political leadership in the USA has changed. We have a long way to go however to renew the idealism of the 20th century, which created structures such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches (the WCC) as both principled and pragmatic responses to the terrible crises the world had endured and continued to face.
Australia and the world
Our own nation, Australia, is a curious amalgam of the best of those 20th century impulses, and the worst attitude of what they sought to overcome. On the one hand, we are one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. On the other hand, we seem unable to face up to either the colonial destructions on which our nation is built, or the mutual obligations we have to others beyond our shores. As we have seen recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has even reinforced Australian obsessions with border closures and omissions of care even for some of our own citizens, never mind others and the well-being of the planet and its climate as a whole. Australia was such a major player in the development of the UN and international documents of rights. Where now are we positioned and headed?
an 'ecumenical winter'?
When we come to Christian Unity, it is also easy to be frustrated. On one level, we seem to be in a new age of denominational self-obsessions, even sectarianism on some issues. At times, on issues of sexuality or gender, it almost seems as if even parts of mainstream Churches have turned their backs on the wider world, and certainly some of their own most vulnerable members. What a far cry Christian Church life can therefore often be from the ideals and energy which fired the ecumenical movement years ago! For ecumenism, let us always remember, comes from the Greek word ‘oikoumene’, meaning the whole inhabited world. True ecumenism is never simply, or even primarily, about the unity of Churches. It is always, ultimately, about the peace, justice and integrity of the whole of creation. It is about belonging to one human race. So, what is to be done about the call to unity which we hear so powerfully expressed in today’s Gospel reading? What is emerging which brings new life in our world today?
towards springs of new life
Well, as I have said, it is easy to become frustrated, even depressed, by aspects of the journeys of human unity. Yet maybe if that is understandable, we are maybe then also not looking in the right directions, or at least at the whole picture. For the realities are quite complex. Even though, for example, I lament the travails of European unity, I agree with aspects of the aspirations of those friends of mine who voted for the UK exit from the European Community. For it can create space for new formulations which are more truly based on people rather than nations, on holistic interdependence not economic arrangements which primarily benefit a few. Whilst I am saddened by the ‘ecumenical winter’, I know too that winter is also not at all a ‘dead’ season, but one in which new growth can occur, particularly in the depths of life and soil. I also see new forms of life and faith which both transcend and also enhance the old forms of unity. Archbishop Winston Halapua’s metaphor of theomoana – or God as Ocean - is one of these, and it connects well with the continuing vital importance of prayer at the heart of the ecumenical journey…
For at the core of contemporary movements which seek unity is surely diversity. How is diversity to be expressed? How do different voices, needs, and identities bring life to all, rather than contribute either to new suppressions or fresh forms of determined separation? These are new questions to those of the 20th century. Back when the UN and WCC were founded, there was an assumption about the existence of fairly straightforward ‘universals’, applicable to everyone everywhere. Unfortunately history has shown that such ‘universal’ truths have to be understood and embodied in very particular ways, in different places and cultures. Otherwise they tend to reflect typically white, typically Western, and typically heterosexual cisgender male ideas. If we are to have human unity therefore, we have to empower and listen to the voices, needs and identities of everyone. There may be interlinking principles, but people of different ethnicities, cultures, faiths, sexualities, genders, abilities, and other characteristics, have to help work them out in their practical expression. That is quite hard, it seems, for some – which is why so-called ‘populist’ politicians have gained much ground. Yet it is actually a vibrant way forward. For rather than commanding harmony, properly owning diversity nurtures deeper unity. This is part of the beauty of theomoana for me.
God as ocean
Winston Halapua’s little book Waves of God’s Embrace does not attempt to provide a systematic theology which captures everything. That is how the old universalising Western mind tended, and still tends, to operate. No, the metaphor of theomoana - God as Ocean -is much less imposing and much more inviting, rather like the parables and teaching of Jesus. What Winston does is to speak out of his whole experience of life. His faith and his vision of unity thereby reflects God embodied in his own culture and way of being. That is particularly important of course in relating to other Pacific Ocean people. Rather than distancing the rest of us however, this lively grounded understanding of God as Ocean both connects us and invites us to find our own expressions of life and faith, from our own cultures and ways of being. Rather than a ‘one way’ pathway to unity, we thereby own, and nurture, many ways, particular yet evocative for all.
Whatever ocean we have swum, or now swim in, we are all one, aren’t we? All the oceans of the world are one, yet they are very different. They contain a myriad of creatures. They are connected with a huge range of different cultures, personal and communal stories. They are constantly on the move, re-creating and re-imagined. They have depths human beings struggle to begin to plumb. Through them all life came into being. Without them we could not exist. When we ignore them, as with the melting ice-caps, we suffer. What a powerful range of ways into God they thereby supply!
prayer as the heart of life and unity
If we see unity as a duty or command, or as something to be simply organised, we will always be disappointed. Yet it we see unity as Winston Halapua does, we are invited on a voyage of discovery – not to scope out, and conquer, like some in the past, but to grow in courage, cherishing and connection. All of this brings us back to the Gospel and Jesus’ words about unity. For the heart of Jesus’ teaching is not really commanding unity, but commending it. After all, what Jesus does is to pray that we may all be one, as God is, as the oceans are, one. Again, it is an invitation to see ourselves as part of the already existing oceanic-like love and creativity which gives us birth; which seeks to nurtures us, like the waters of the womb, bathing, and renewal; and which invites us to swim and sail on, with those around us and strangers we will meet.
Ultimately we then come back to prayer as the oceanic heart of life. This is embodied for us in the Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland, a sister community to the Taize Brothers, from whom the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’s liturgy comes this year. Much of our own liturgy this morning is drawn from this and you might to reflect further on it. For, like the Taize Community, Grandchamp was born out of the horrors of European war and hate. It treasures diversity, as seen in its sisters who are drawn from different nations and Christian denominations. Yet it goes deeper, through the rich differences it celebrates, to the source of diversity itself. Beyond words, the centre of the life of the Grandchamp Community is therefore prayer in silence, a contemplative winter from which new springs of life come. May we therefore be similarly inspired. May we give expression to what gives life and connection in our lives, faith experiences, and cultures. And may we know the love of God speaking through and beyond them all. For we are all part of one human race.
In Christ’s name, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin for Sunday 16 May 2021, Easter 7 Year B, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity