A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Putting the Controversy Back into Unity
June 15, 2003
Trinity Sunday John 3:1-16
I want to talk with you today about controversy. What would you say to me if I suggested that it was more important for the church to be controversial than right? What would you say if I suggested that controversy is more important for the church than unity? What would you say if I suggested that Jesus taught controversy over unity? In fact this is a message often more comfortable for evangelicals than liberals, so may offer an interesting challenge to (the people of the church of) St Matthew-in-the-City?
Jack Spong made some points in his talks here which have stayed with me. The first was: "unity in the church is not the great aim we are told it is", and the second: "the church may die of boredom but it will never die of controversy'".
His point being - amidst his life of pushing the church to boundaries never imagined, that so long as people are excluded from full involvement in the Christian Church because of their gender and sexuality and creed, controversy is essential in the church. The only option is indifference, and that will certainly kill the church even if it is veiled in unity jargon.
This is a point which might get us close to some understanding of the gospel reading for today, a strange passage and often best left alone; in the interests of unity, of course! Shattering forever any illusions of a meek and mild Messiah, Jesus claims that his purpose on earth was not peace at all, but division. He came with fire, and assured his disciples that the message would turn even families against each other. Was Jesus just in a really bad mood that day, or is unity not part of his purpose. People would by his message be forced to make choices or form conclusions which would create controversy; as compassion, social justice and open minds would be primary pursuits over religious observance, political correctness and the hierarchical status quo. Not peace, but division. Not unity but controversy. What does this mean for a community like ours?
Surely this is the history of our church as it is the history of so many great churches and social movements. Isn't this the lesson of the faith history of which Hebrews speaks? We have a great cloud of witnesses who have walked the path of controversy before us, and inspire our lives of faith. They more than inspire our lives, they mystically walk with us.
It was said in a speech about the civil rights movement in America:
'Booker T Washington started to teach so Rosa Parks could take her seat. Rosa Parks took her seat so Fannie Lou Hamer could take her stand. Fannie Lou Hamer took her stand so Martin Luther King Jr could march. Martin Luther King marched so Jesse Jackson could run.'
Each controversial step forward in the civil rights movement depended on the faithful step of one who went before. Each would be commended for their life, but none would receive the fulfilment of the promise. Their lives were foundation stones on which others could build. These were lives which divided opinion as they forced people to form their own conclusions and take a stand.
The same could be said of the Bible's story of faith and perseverance. Abraham travelled blind to a place which was foreign. He was the father of a nation which would travel blind into untold struggle and oppression. Yet Abraham never received the fulfilment of the promise. His life was a stepping stone for a nation. The history of Abraham's people includes the Red Sea crossing, the tumbling walls of Jericho, the courage of warriors up against enemies and lions, suffering under torture, jail and death. These too stood up as Abraham had, divided opinion no doubt, yet never received the promise. Yet, altogether, these radical steps, often blind, were taking God to all peoples, causing a stir, breaking down nationalistic prejudice.
The beginnings of our notion of an inclusive church. This is the history of our church. A church which has divided opinion in the community, and been divided in itself. No strangers to controversy - whether it was Cowan linking with the City Mission, Blackwood Moore being banned from the radio, Buckle taking St Matthews to the City, Russell establishing a Church for gay and lesbian people, Mullane fighting apartheid and the abuse of women in the church, Beck taking money from the Casino and walking the Hikoi; all stances which divided this parish and this community. Even still there would be differing opinions about their rightness or otherwise. Yet the point is that the ministry of this church has always been one of standing for something, having a clear voice on issues, and inevitably leading to division.
Yet the promise has not yet been received. Nor will it be any time soon. Our task? - to continue the controversy. We will be stepping stones for future St Mattheans. What will they say about Lawton and the congregation of the new millennium in 50 years time? What will be the issues and stances over which we will risk division, both inside and outside the church walls?
Jesus said he came not to keep the peace, but to stir people to open minds and action.
That is our special call as a City Church with a long history of controversial public ministry. We will help to recreate the people's vision for a church which pushes boundaries, asks belligerent questions, opens minds and stirs action.
To quote Spong, the mainstream church will not die of controversy, but could easily die of boredom. Our unity will be our common purpose to be an open community of journeyers, struggling together for wholeness and integrity, working for the good of people over structures; a public voice and a persistent presence. The outworking of that unity will be controversy and diversity; held together in creative tension.