I’m trying to think through what unity means, in particular in the church but maybe some of the issues are also important in the rest of the world.
We act according to what we value and what we value is driven by what we believe. So having useful and meaningful actions requires us to have useful and meaningful values and beliefs. Actions are driven by beliefs. We know there is a link because it is a common practice to say that if you know what good behaviour is but have trouble believing the basis for that behaviour then if you act as if you do have those beliefs eventually your beliefs fall in line. e.g. if you want to love someone then do loving things to them and you will discover that you start to love them. Of course, if you loved them then you would behave in a loving way towards them and if you failed in the loving acts it would be evidence you did not really love them.
I believe in the idea of unity – that it is good and right for humanity to work and act together in a good and proper way. When the world unites we can achieve great things, disunity leads to all kinds of troubles.
The problem I have is this. Do we all have to believe the same thing if we are going to act in the same way? It seems the answer would be yes. Of course, this could be a very general belief or even a set of different beliefs that lead to the same value, I suppose. So different religions, for instance, might agree that being kind to each other is a good value to hold although the beliefs behind them are different. Which I suppose would suggest we don’t need to have the same beliefs as long as they result in the same values. But, is this truly unity or just an imitation of it? The unity is seen in the action but not in why that action is being done?
However, often beliefs between different religions oppose one another (as they might in politics, science, etc). If these beliefs are opposed (they can’t both be true at the same time) then in what sense can we talk about unity.
I think this is an important question for the church. What is unity? If we all think that unity is important (and I believe we do) what does that mean in reality. At times the church has tried to control unity by forcing everyone to believe the same thing. To its shame this has resulted in torture and burning in the past. But even if their methods were wrong perhaps they had a point. Only those who believe the same thing will act the same and if acting the same is unity – this is the only option. Is this how Jesus saw unity? When Jesus prays that we will all be one (John 17:21) does he mean we should all believe the same thing? Or maybe, unity in Jesus’ mind is something different.
It is clear, made even clearer in recent debates, that Christians do not all believe the same things. There are many denominations to prove this. The Methodist Church in Britain and Ireland has long held that it is possible to live and work together even when we have a range of different beliefs, we have described ourselves as a broad church. I wonder if we delude ourselves on this?
I am beginning to wonder if we are not as broad as we like to think. That our practices influence what we believe and as we continue to insist we unite in practice it forces us to believe certain things. Those on the edges of these things slowly drift away. Due to the decline of the church we fail to see the results of our one tracked way. Maybe this is OK but we delude ourselves if we believe we have achieved a way of unity.
Sorry I’ve gone all over the place with this one but I think my conclusion. so far, is that true unity does depend on shared beliefs and that without those shared beliefs the Methodist church is fragmented and not united. Maybe if we are prepared to face this we might find a way through.