Fostering Division in the Name of Unity

The Northern Churchman

Fostering Division in the Name of Unity

With the inevitable din and fallout following General Synod, other events have passed without comment, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s service linked churches in Britain and Ireland with the Church in Minneapolis, scene of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. It contained a strong anti-racist theme, surely an important banner under which Christians (and other people of goodwill) can find common ground. Racism and murder are wicked and wrong; we must stand against these evils.

However, the way the theme was introduced within the service betrays certain assumptions on the part of the compilers. A narrow agenda predominates throughout, pronouncing definitively on matters not settled politically, matters on which Christians may legitimately hold differing opinions.

The 2020 murder of George Floyd was wrong; the policeman who killed him has been properly sentenced for his crime. However, the service cites ‘racism and murder’ as the causes of death. The fact of murder was proved in court; the motive of racism was not. Other criminals under arrest in the USA have also died at police hands, yet their equally tragic deaths did not receive the same prominence worldwide. For example, in 2016 a white man, Tony Timpa, died whilst being detained by a Dallas policeman in precisely the same manner.

The mantra ‘Black Lives Matter’ is hailed in the prayers within the service. It would be naive to assume this is merely a slogan. Behind the words stands a whole movement of the same name, with a wider agenda than a simple anti-racism message. The complete Black Lives Matter (BLM) package includes calls for the police to be defunded. Is this something for Christians to endorse, even tangentially, when we are called to pray for those in authority, recognising the ruler as God’s servant to minister justice? Black Lives Matter is a contentious movement; all lives matter, for all are created in the image of God, and this is surely the baseline for any Christian reflection on race. But to uncritically invoke BLM’s analysis of society and import US racial tensions to the UK with no appreciation of our differing histories and cultures, is either reckless or sinister. There are other ways to be anti-racist without supporting the BLM agenda.

The 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence in London was also wrong, and his memory is quite rightly honoured in the service, and the dignity of his parents in seeking justice is also commended. However, the service goes on to state definitively that society (presumably in Britain) has not moved on in the decades since. Can that assertion be reasonably sustained without any qualification? A 2021 report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities suggested that the UK may be a model for other nations in the area of race relations. Once more the Order of Service has pronounced decisively on one side of a contentious political issue.

One would get the impression from the service that for a Christian to take a stand against racism in society, they must hail a hardened criminal as a hero, accept the BLM agenda as the only way forward and see their own country as irredeemably racist, without recognising any positive work that has been done. The compilers have declared support for one side on complex societal issues, like BLM. Would they produce a similar service on Brexit, Scottish Independence or NHS reform, and use it to promote one viewpoint only? How about an Order of Service hailing a favoured political party as the only choice for the Christian at the ballot box? There is a complexity in dealing with issues of race, and the lack of nuance within the service makes it difficult for thinking Christians to wholeheartedly participate.

To say that to be anti-racist, one must be a George Floyd cheerleader and a BLM supporter is a akin to saying that to be a Christian, one must be a member of an Anglican Church and no other. It is astonishing to find that a service given over to Christian Unity has pronounced so decisively and divisively on contentious issues. In the name of unity, division is fostered.

However, I can testify the compilers did achieve a deepening of Christian Unity at a local level. Across the denominations, I and every one of my fellow Church leaders found the service to be inadequate and unacceptable for use in public worship. We were firmly united in the conviction that the material was not to be used, and developed a different form of service with more balance and nuance. I suspect that was not the type of Christian Unity the compilers imagined they would be promoting. 

The Northern Churchman has been in parish ministry for over two decades.