By Brandt L. Montgomery
Some years ago, the Living Church ran a symposium entitled “Teaching Jesus and the Unity of the Church,” described as “a call for a renewed ministry of reconciliation in Christ across both real and apparent lines of division.” In their contribution, “Telling the Story of Jesus,” Bishop Andrew Doyle of Texas and then-dean of Seminary of the Southwest Douglas Travis wrote:
We are a people united by one Lord, one faith, and one baptism…. How can a church so deeply divided… still be in agreement? The first Christians embraced the Gospel truth that Christ is our unity. Paul, as have many since that time, reminds us that what glues the Church together is “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).
The Gospel truth that Christ is our unity remains essential for all who care about the Church to keep in mind. When we proclaim that we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and that there is “one God and Father of us all, who is… through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6), we are proclaiming a belief in and the truth of Jesus being the unity of all the Church. This unity is accomplished by the Church intentionally seeking and serving Jesus in all persons. Jesus’ cross and our baptismal promises call us to see and recognize that Christ lives within all his people.
Sincere devotion to God entails a commitment to following his commandments, which includes seeing the best within our neighbors. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Lk. 6:27). John the Evangelist takes it further: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21).
The essential point is that true love of God will produce genuine love for our fellow human beings. This means seeing beyond what makes others different from us and loving them just as God loves them. Christian unity, now more than ever, is of the utmost importance. The spread of the good news is too important to be hindered by theological divisions and hurtful squabbles. For this reason, Anglican Christians (with others!) should strive to remain together rather than surrendering to rupture.
That essential ideal — Christian unity, Anglican unity — is the principal reason I write for Covenant. I am an ordained Black Episcopalian who, on the American theological spectrum, is a conservative, particularly on the issue of Christian marriage. As such, I am a minority person with minority theological views within my own local church (which itself is a minority in the wider Christian world). I know how it feels to be excluded by other Black Christian ministers because I am an Episcopal priest and not a Baptist or Methodist minister. I know what it is like to be excluded by fellow Episcopalians on account of my conservative theology, which I hold with sincerity of conscience and without malice toward the church’s progressive majority. Despite having felt (and, at times, still feeling) the stings of exclusion, I remain committed to my vocation as an ordained Episcopalian who just happens to be Black. The stings of exclusion make me more dedicated to living for God by showing true love for and openness toward all people, including those with whom I disagree. “In everything,” Jesus says, “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
I frequently talk about Anglican unity and mutual flourishing out of a firm belief that they are possible. I believe they are possible because I have experienced them. A couple of examples come to mind. In the present, I see through my ministry as the chaplain of Saint James School in Maryland the diversity of races, cultures, opinions, and religious perspectives among my students and the genuine love they have and space they make for each other. The past brings me back almost a decade to Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City, learning as a seminarian from Andrew Mead, the then rector and my spiritual father, that priestly ministry requires “not… being an ‘angry Pharisee.’ It won’t do you any good.” From these models I have seen and continue to see ways for the establishment of affective bonds and recognizing those different from me as my equals. Because I have seen, experienced, and been taught by such examples of unity, I am willing to step out in faith and aid the building of the kind of community Christ calls us to be. I pray that God sees my efforts as good and will accomplish his greater work through them.
The Living Church magazine recently returned to an old motto: “Serving the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion since 1878.” In this I see a catholic understanding of the larger Church, striving toward a vision of Anglicanism as an example of communion across difference in Jesus. And through the Covenant blog — its contributors coming from North American, European, and African Anglican provinces, as well as Roman Catholicism — I see a glimpse of the fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer that we “all may be one” (John 17:21). From this comes a relational endeavor, bringing together Christians from different ecclesial contexts to show the reality of Christian reconciliation. As an ordained Black Episcopalian, to be able to contribute to the Living Church’s mission and write from and represent a perspective that has historically been a forgotten entity is a privilege.
As Christians, it is our duty to eliminate our created barriers of division and promote the cause of unity and Christian love, because Jesus shines in our unity and love for each other. We just cannot function completely alone. We need God and we need each other. As God’s creation, we have the chance to dwell together in a harmonious relationship, one that can be infinitely better than what we could ever imagine. As long as I am able to write for this blog, that is the hope I am going to keep pressing toward.