Let's all light a candle: 'Man-made' forced rhubarb - hallowed! 'Man-made' forced unity - bitter. On Thursday 25 February 2010, the BBC reported on how forced rhubarb grown in the triangle around Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield - with the help of a candle - has been granted European protected name status. Candles are often used in Christian gatherings, sometimes to help illustrate the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. So what's the link between rhubarb and unity?
My dad loved rhubarb; we forced it under a great big black pot in the garden in Knaresborough in the 1960s - and its name was unprotected, in those days. My dear wife enjoys it; it's not my favourite, though. As a youngster I learnt the wisdom of forcing some fruit and veg, and the equal wisdom of patience, love and tenderness.
When it comes to relationships, though, forcing things through rarely brings about the results hoped for; our aspirations may be utopian, heavenly and superlatively spiritual, righteously motivated and earnestly pursued. Man-made unity, though, has its foundation in our own desires, no matter how pure we strive to be. Good for Graham Kendrick writing Let me have my way among you - and there's the point: it is good and pleasant when we dwell together in unity - when God himself is anointing the union. As soon as we strive for it, we loose focus on the Creator of Unity - it's that instant.
What did Jesus mean in the prayer for his disciples in John 17 that they may be one as he and the Father were one? If Jesus simply meant that he wanted to plant a church (hello there all church planters!) and that the Church should always be united in every way, his mission totally failed when Paul and Apollos fell out (or did they? 1 Cor 1). Perhaps all that Jesus came to do was to reunite us in an open and loving relationship with God our Father? Maybe we are to be one in body, spirit, mind with God alone (see extra verses for Abba Father). After all, we are fearfully and wonderfully created, each unique, different and capable of reflecting God's likeness. I'm unsure we were cloned or made to be like each other.
Even so, it is heavenly when we find ourselves of one mind with others. It's purer than the ecstacy of your football team winning the cup; it's deeper than any human notion of love or joy. In such moments we experience that peace that passes understanding - and how honourable that is, all praise to God. However, when we try to create that unity - especially by choosing to work with people of like mind, we very quickly find ourselves alienating others. Sadly, we often choose to blame the others in the process - 'they didn't want to jump on the bus' or 'it's their fault for not attending the meeting'. When you point a finger, three fingers point at you...
For many years, I've quietly said that I don't do unity. Sometimes it's wiser to admit that you can't do something than to say you will and fall at the first hurdle. How easily misunderstood is that? Some of us love letting go and letting God get on with his work. Others prefer to re-write the rules - or the constitution - when they disagree with things.
A word on such things might be worthy. A constitution often changes, but some principles are key. The original American Constitution of 1787 remains one of the shortest constitutions in the world. The more we add, the more we are constrained; perhaps Leviticus should be included, too? Within an ecumenical setting, does it reflect the move of God's Holy Spirit across all the membership?
So to Churches Together. Is CT responsible for making sure that mission happens in a town? Does CT demand that every member church responds to its dictats? Some find it easy to get frustrated when others won't fall into line. Rather than truly loving them with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, walls are built and relationships break down.
Our Lord's command to us was to love first; only when we love God and neighbour dare we ever start to consider being ripe for the Commission to preach and teach. Even if it takes a lifetime to learn how to love, that is all that God requires. To some will be given the gift to preach, but even they have to do so from a basis of love, not a desire to preach.
The role of CT - and that of its president - is to love first. What is love? Broken down into its myriad component parts, love is all of this and more: deeply respecting and honouring one another; welcoming each other as we demand to be welcomed; supporting and praying for one another; anointing one another's ministry - not just paying lip-service to it; bearing with one another - covering for each other. Of course love is patient, kind, never self-seeking (nor 'promoting my ministry over yours'); 1 Corinthians 13 starts the ball rolling very nicely. Sadly, we hear the clanging cymbal every time we do something out of any other motivation. Love shows itself in being more interested in others than we are in ourselves; if that means that we devote our lives to researching and finding out what God is doing across the area and then promoting it - especially as a CT group - then let us support it and resource it.
There is no need to remove the pews to see revival, no need to change a name to see change. If we wish to improve and develop a ministry - rather than change a constitution - then we need a wise team which draws on the skills, knowledge, attitude and behaviours required for the task. We shouldn't be ashamed if we don't have the skills; some are prophets, some pastors. When God calls, find out what he says in the next line before jumping! Perhaps it's wiser to say 'no' than to get in God's way; truly humble ourselves, ditch all pride and acknowledge the error of our ways. Then again, if we're truly humble, teachable and willing to grow, our offer to help improve and develop a ministry will bear fruit in the way we also learn how to step up to the mark. The community may once again respect the work done in the name of Churches Together.
There's more on 'Preparing for Change' on this website, outlining how one particular CT group planned their improvements and developments.
Some notes on changing names: 'Churches Together' was adopted in lieu of the Council of Churches in the 1990s. CT Britain and Ireland, CT England... wise leaders took time to bring about change and avoided any move without wide consultation. Trinitarian churches represented on WCC, CTBI/CTE are usually also part of local CT groups. When a CT group changes its foundation, it is wise to consider to whom they will be affiliated up the line.
The purpose of CT? It's as variable and diverse as God's calling on us. Whatever God asks of us, let us all celebrate it in its fullness and pass on this good news. Let us work on how we communicate it - and if that means resourcing a website that is fit for purpose, then let's do it. Some CT groups have been humbly honoured to hear how the media and the community welcome their humility, honesty and dependability - something precious to be guarded and developed. If the purpose is simply to promote what God is doing across all the churches in the area, then do it well. 'Professional' and 'Loving' work very well together; the fruits include trust, cohesiveness, ever-strengthening relationships along with honour and respect from the community and churches.
It's seems to be very easy to be attracted by a notable move of the Holy Spirit (we're not so good at spotting the subtler blessings). When we're that deeply inspired, we often want to replicate it - copying a church, a conference, a song leader, a preacher. Isn't it strange how we want to own something that is of God as our own? Far better to sit back and watch what God is up to in the current season and join in where he invites us - than to bravely do it our own way and in our own strength.
Enjoy watching what God's up to! It's far more exciting than doing our own thing...
Some notes on Organic Unity are also available on this website.