Should I be unified with a Christian member of the BNP?
Because, honestly, the thought of holding hands, sitting round a camp fire and singing kumbaya with Nick Griffin absolutely fills me with revulsion.
But what if that’s exactly the kind of thing Jesus would want me to do?
This week – just like a fortnight before with the women bishops veto – the disunity among Christians who fundamentally disagree on the role of women in church leadership was once again played out in national newsprint, tweets and Facebook statuses.
Bristol Christian Union hit national headlines on Tuesday when it was reported that they did not let women teach on their own in meetings. As the CU’s executive committee statement said: “It is well known that Christian churches differ on this question.”
It emerged that the policy had actually come about because the student society was trying to find a way to “best accommodate members with divergent and strongly-held convictions” while expressing their “unity as Christian believers”.
Following the news, the Church yet again divided along tribal lines, and things got a little ugly and heated on Twitter. Criticisms of the CU and UCCF, the national group which supports CUs nationally, were made pretty strongly, and some strong defences were hurled back.
A UCCF statement said: “This is a sensitive issue and the recent email exchange has revealed the internal processes of an undergraduate CU trying to think their way clear on a subject that Church denominations around the world have struggled with.”
Intercepting the tweet-missiles were would-be peacemakers calling for ‘unity’ and ‘grace’ – words that have become vanilla; rolled out only when Christians are fighting with each other in public.
Hannah Mudge, a Christian feminist and blogger, told me: “I’ve seen accusations of ‘abuse’ and ‘attacks’ flying around on Twitter this past week and I find that quite strange because as far as I’ve seen, Christians participating in discussion about Bristol CU have disagreed, but generally with respect and without being abusive.
“Holding a strong opinion about something and making this known is not ‘attacking’ people. It’s vital that when it comes to issues of injustice, people can speak out without being silenced by all this talk of ‘being gracious’. It’s a tactic that’s so often used in discussions about women and the Church.”
We have sanitised the word ‘unity’. Even though Jesus wanted unity to be a radical feature of his Church.
The word unity has become almost meaningless – a get-out clause to enable us not to have to grapple with the issues.
Blogger Danny Webster said: “Unity is tough. It is being fully aware of our differences and agreeing to work together. It is loving each other more than we love our own doctrine.”
And that’s why unity is so hard.
Thinking about the prospect of me uniting with a member of the BNP has, for the first time ever, given me some insight into the depth of feeling that exists in the complementarian-egalitarian debate.
Just to clarify, I am not drawing a distinction between BNP members and complementarians. I for one attend a great, complementarian, church. And I would also describe myself as a Christian feminist.
The BNP analogy is simply a way for me personally to think about where my own unity line would be drawn.
I could not be united with a Christian from the BNP who – based on scripture – believed black people should not be allowed to teach white people in church. You probably wouldn’t expect me to seek unity with that person. Why is that? I think it’s partly down to the fact that racism has become taboo and unacceptable in our society. It’s a big no-no.
For some, gender is no different from race.
So I can understand the deep sense of hurt and frustration which people feel if whenever they express their disagreement on this issue publically, they are told to pipe down, be ‘unified’ and ‘gracious’.
But what if that’s exactly the point?
It’s not out of character for Jesus to ask us to do those things which we dismiss as impossible. You know: praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), gouging out our right eye (Matthew 5:29)?
Chris Oldfield, CU staff worker for UCCF in centralLondon, said: “The only way to approach Christian unity in contexts of failure and breakdown is to focus not on ourselves but on the gospel hope in which CUs dare to take their stand, the hope which lifts us from our circumstances and in which alone Christians really do stand united.
“It’s when I stop taking the resurrection seriously that I start to take myself and my programmes far too seriously, and I lose patience with myself and others. But love is patient, love is kind, love is not irritable, or rude – and grace be to all those who love our Lord Jesus with an undying love.”
Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that there may “be no divisions among you”. He adds in 1 Corinthians 3: “Insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?”
When we slam others over Twitter, we are walking “in the ways of men”. That’s what people expect us to do. That’s human nature: factions and divisions and arguments and disagreements.
There is obviously still a place for speaking out against injustice, but there is a fine, and difficult, line.
But I know that the unity thing is a Jesus thing. In John 17, Jesus prays that we might be one. Because it expresses something of the Trinity; of fellowship and community. He prays that we might be one, knowing full well that we will not want to be one.
I do not want to be unified with a Christian who is a member of the BNP. Even the thought of it makes my eyes well up with angry tears. It rears up in me the deep-seated feelings of someone who has not even lived through apartheid or slavery; but yet still lives with a spiritual remnant of the injustices that have gone before.
There’s something to be said about the fact that if we are “eager to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:1-3) then we will start to see each other not as ‘other’ but as just like us. It is only through an effort to be unified that we can talk through issues and see the human faces of those whose doctrine is different from our own.
I’m convinced that if I had this hypothetical Christian BNP member round to mine for a cup of tea – if we could just talk things through – he or she would like me. They would see that I’m not ‘other’. They’d be more likely to see the effects of their views on me, a fellow human being. And maybe there would be some chance of them changing. But that won’t happen if all I do is hurl angry tweets at them, and they at me.
But I don’t think I’m quite ready for this BNP tea party. The unity line for me is pretty clearly drawn right here.
And that’s the challenge. Do I choose the obvious way – the path of disunity, the worldly way of slamming those who profess my faith but have views which call into question the validity of an important part of my identity? Or do I choose the inconceivable, earth-shattering path of radical unity? The unexpected.
Image by Joseph Hoban, stock.xchng images.