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Jesus’ last prayer before his arrest, according to John’s Gospel, is for all Christian believers (John 17:20-26). In this passage, Jesus prays for unity and oneness among believers. He prays:
- That all of them may be one (v21)
- That they may be brought to complete unity (23)
This oneness and unity is important to Jesus, because it is needed “so the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). Unity and oneness are part of the mission of the church, part of our witness to the world. Sadly, the church has not shown much unity over the millennia.
What does Jesus mean by unity and oneness? Does he mean that we should all believe the same things and agree on the same things – things about theology, doctrine, ethics, morality, church and so on? Actually, there is nothing in this passage about being of one mind or of having consensus on such matters.
When Jesus speaks about unity and oneness, he says things like:
- Just as you are in me and I am in you (v21)
- I in them and you in me (v23)
- That the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (v26)
Jesus’ explanation or description of oneness and unity is always relational – note the repeated use of the word ‘in‘. Unity is not about agreement, but about fellowship, communion, relationships. It is quite possible not to agree and still be in fellowship. Today we commemorate the Anglican Communion – a collection of Anglican churches around the world, in communion or fellowship with one another, but certainly not in agreement about everything. The Anglican church includes churches that are evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic and liberal. There are lots of points of divergence, but still (albeit fragile) a communion, a fellowship.
A key biting point for the Anglican Communion is the LGBTQI+ issue. There is a wide range of divergence on this matter. The Anglican archbishop of the province of Uganda was in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2013, which initially had a death penalty for homosexual acts; later amended to life in prison. When the Bill was thrown out on a technicality in 2014, the archbishop was unhappy, because he saw homosexuality as a fundamental threat to family life in Uganda. By contrast, the Episcopal Church of North America is fully welcoming of all LGBTQI+ people and recognises gay relationships as being as legitimate as straight relationships. The Anglican Communion has been severely strained by these divergent beliefs about sexuality and gender.
Jesus says nothing substantive about sexuality or gender. But he does say a great deal about love. The love he preached and lived out was inclusive – radically inclusive – and tolerant and accepting. He did not exclude people who society saw as ‘sinners’. And the bulk of his critical comments were directed towards religious leaders, typically pointing out their hypocrisy or rigidity. These things conflicted fundamentally with his teaching on deep and radical love for others. When we weigh up Jesus’ teaching, and the overall teaching of scripture, there is far more weight for loving our neighbour (including the neighbour we disagree with) than about set beliefs about sexuality and gender.
The unity that Jesus prays for is not about set beliefs or doctrine, as important and useful as both of these may be, but rather about open, inclusive and tolerant fellowship with one another. Our parish, St Stephen’s Anglican Church, in Lyttelton, has not spoken much about LGBTQI+ issues, until now. But in solidarity with our siblings in this community, we have opened our church to host the Be True 2 Me support group for transgender people. We are in fellowship with each other, regardless of the different views individuals might hold.