Disciple: Unity Begins with a Prayer
By the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman
Adapted from remarks offered at the celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Botswana. The theme of the celebration was “All Be One.”
Unity begins with a prayer. It begins with the prayer that Jesus offers for his disciples, for the church and for all of us. Unity is God’s deep desire, and Jesus embodies that desire by offering that prayer, and his life, for us.
Unity is our calling, that we may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. Unity is the work and the movement of the Holy Spirit. We are being drawn together, toward one another, by the desire of God, the prayer of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
The Church discovered a long time ago that unity does not mean uniformity. We do not all look alike, or talk alike, or act alike. But for generations, we have labored under the misguided notion that unity means we would all think alike or that we would somehow all agree.
In reality, unity is about something much deeper, more profound and more powerful than mere agreement. Unity, it seems, is ultimately about belonging. We belong to one another, because we are all children of God.
In the gift given to us at our baptism, we discovered this belonging, this connection, this mutual commitment. As St. Paul put it, we are members of the Body of Christ. So unity is not only our calling; it is in our spiritual DNA. We are made for one another. We were born to be together. To borrow from a romantic metaphor, we are one another’s soul mates.
But this does not mean that unity comes naturally. In reality, our unity is elusive and tentative, fragile and hard. Our lack of unity is a symptom of our brokenness.
[Image: Botswana’s coat of arms]
FINDING THE PATH
One of the central challenges of the 21st-century church is finding a path to unity. How do we cultivate unity, how do we nurture unity, especially when we disagree?
The Lambeth Conference that took place this past summer pointed us, I believe, in a hopeful direction. There, in spite of some deep divisions, particularly in our understandings of human sexuality, we were invited to go deeper in our understanding of one another’s context without feeling compelled to persuade, convince or convert. Instead, we were invited to listen, to appreciate, to respect and value each other’s experience in our respective contexts.
The impact of this invitation seemed to allow the Holy Spirit to move more freely among us as we conversed, as we shared stories, as we opened our hearts to find places of connection and understanding of the ways God is at work.
Our conversations were connected to Bible study and to prayer. And here we began to discover a relaxing of tension and a breaking down of barriers. It was here we discovered the beginning of trust.
This felt like a way of walking together, of honoring one another, of what, in our mutual mission work, we have come to call accompaniment.
It dawned on me that perhaps the message from that experience was that the path to unity should never have been about agreement but rather accompaniment. There are two reasons I find this possibility compelling.
Walking together was a feature of the relationship God had with us in the very beginning, before the fall. In the Genesis story, prior to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God walked with them in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening. Walking together seems like a great way to build relationship and to cultivate trust.
So walking together as churches seems like a good idea and a good way to live into the invitation and promise of what unity can bring.
The second reason I find accompaniment compelling is that it suggests a connection between mutual mission and unity. If accompaniment is the character of the mission we share, and accompaniment is the path to unity, then there is a connection between unity and mission.
We might take it a step further and argue that unity is our mission, and that the only way we can achieve unity and accomplish our mission is together, in partnership, where we walk together, learn from one another, appreciate each other’s gifts and respect the differences in each other’s context.
[Image: The Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman helps to ordain seven new priests during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Anglican Diocese of Botswana. Photo by Leah Dail]
One further observation on the unity we share, in its own context, is one I took with me during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Diocese of Botswana. On my first trip to Botswana in 2018, I learned that the animal chosen for the Diocese’s coat of arms, as a new nation, was the zebra. I learned the zebra was chosen because it was not identified as the tribal animal associated with any of the existing tribes in Botswana and also because the black and white stripes of its coat embodied the harmony of peoples of different ethnicities living side by side.
Living side by side, walking hand in hand, working toward a common purpose. Unity has been Botswana’s mission as a nation for the past 56 years. Our own country is currently bitterly divided and deeply polarized over issues of power, economic control, political ideology, race and ecological sustainability. We cannot even agree on the truth of one another’s narratives and stories.
We have much to learn, and those with whom we are in relationship, like the Diocese of Botswana, have much to teach us about how to navigate together, how to listen and learn from one another, how to honor the best in each other and how to speak the truth, even the hard truth, to one another in love. This is how trust is formed. This is how relationships are strengthened. This is how unity is brought to life. As the old song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
This is Jesus’ prayer, not only for his disciples, not only for the churches, but also for the nations and the peoples of the world. Our mission is to live into the promise of his prayer and to model this for others, even as we discover it ourselves. Accompaniment is rooted in relationship, in telling our stories to each other, in listening and learning from our conversation, and in speaking the truth in love.
A friend of mine once said in a sermon, “make of your life, a prayer.” The call of accompaniment to the church is to make of our life a prayer, to make of our life Jesus’ prayer, to pray our way together into the unity that is God’s deepest desire for us, Jesus’ prayer and promise to us, and the movement of the Holy Spirit among us. May we become one, in our partnership, in our companionship, in our twining, until we are one as Jesus and the Father are one.
The Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman is the XII Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple