(Based on an Address by John Stott)
We live in confusing times. Not only in the Anglican Communion, but across the global face of Christianity, fears of division and threats of realignment abound in denominational meetings.
How are ordinary people in the church to make sense of it all? How should the clergy lead their flocks through these waters? Should we separate or should we remain? How far should I be willing to go?
Fortunately, these are not new questions. John Stott’s little book, Jesus Prayed for Unity, is a good starting point for those facing these questions. This booklet shares some of Stott’s foundational questions on the topic of Christian unity, albeit in a very concise form. A lengthier discussion of his views is found in his long-awaited reprint of Authority and Joy: The Bible in your Life (John Stott and Sinclair Ferguson).
The booklet is a summary of talks delivered in 1970 to over 12,000 young people at Urbana 1970. It’s telling that in 1970, Stott could say “We often hear it taught that Christ prayed for unity above everything else, so we should strive for unity at any cost. We are hearing this now as major denominations are divided in views on identity and sexuality” (Authority and Joy).
Of course, the Anglican Communion is precisely facing this dilemma—unity in witness, faithfulness to Scripture, or both? Stott takes us through a careful exposition of John 17, a well-known and often misunderstood passage, in which our Lord prays (aloud) for the unity of his Church. Stott acknowledges the Lord’s desire for unity but questions the ways we are told that this unity is to be expressed. Does Jesus expect unity at any cost? Stott takes a step back and asks, “Who is the unity between?”
He observes that the Lord desires there be unity between his people, but not at any cost. The unity Jesus prays for must be grounded in the teaching of the Apostles, which he himself imparted to them. Down through the ages, the Church is to be unified around that teaching and never departing from it. In this way, as we, his people, are united to one another through the foundation laid by Christ, then built upon by the Apostles, the world can see something of the grand beauty of the gospel.
Does Stott answer the very personal question we all must ask: should I stay or should I go? No, not in such clear terms that we can abandon the work of prayer, studying the Scripture, and obeying the Holy Spirit. Neither does his own personal view factor into that deliberation. However, armed with the teaching he presents in Jesus Prayed for Unity, the follower of Christ is given a vital lesson on the key question we must ask behind all the secondary ones: what are we to be united about? Stott would urge the Church to be united in apostolic truth and be wary of arguments that other truths matter more.
The Rev. Eric W. Hornbuckle is Rector at Church of the Word Anglican Church, Gainesville, Va.