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Looking Back: Standing in the Forbidden Places

From 1953

Standing in the Forbidden Places

Stabbing the conscience about Christian Unity


Early in the nineteenth century the Earl of Shaftsbury brought a sleeping conscience to life by going to the places where he was not meant to see, where men, women and little children suffered degradation and death at the hands of their fellow citizens and fellow Christians. Just by standing there with them he lit up the dark places of inhumanity so that ordinary decent people could not bear the sight and were made bold to hit the evils hard. We know where he learned to care – and perhaps how to do something about it. Jesus had that very same way with these things.

He stood still on the road outside Jericho when His disciples would have hurried Him on, and by standing at the side of a beggar set all beggary under a light which many people might have wished away.  He stood where righteous Churchmen were condemning the woman taken in adultery, and, just by standing beside her, turned the searching light of divine pity upon the great company of the lawbreakers whom men wished to put away out of sight. He stood in the muddy waters of Jordan amongst the crowd of men and women seeking release from their sins, and, standing there, set all sin in the light of eternity, so that we had to see it henceforth as something which had called out from the heart of God this miracle of sacrifice for men’s saving.

Has the day come when the dark places of our Christian disunity must be lit up in the same way by some who will take their stand where they are not supposed to be, until we are shamed and cannot bear the sight, because at last we begin to see what is calling out from the heart of God?

During the war some of us ministered to small groups of men in isolated gun-sites and on little ships of the Navy and Merchant Navy in remote sea-lochs. There might be men from half-a-dozen denominations when we shared in worship together, and they were given unity in diversity by the use of prayer, hymn and action from the form of worship of the Churches from where they came. We were even asked by senior chaplains to celebrate the Holy Communion according to these different traditions – else these men would have been without the Sacrament. Some of us knelt together for that Sacrament on the deck of convoy corvettes which had just come ‘out of the mouth of Hell’ from Murmansk. We WERE one Church. The unity was there, not waiting for our descendants in a remote future. We had it. We were allowed to break the rules to have it, because there was a war on. There was no doubt we had it. It was, in fact, there for the receiving.

The day of that is over. The necessity is past. The good that came out of it is past too. But can we dare to say before Almighty God that we accept such unity when it is forced upon us by evil circumstances, and accept it as a true and good thing, but that we need the evil circumstances to compel it?  Every man who shared in that unity knows it is now a thing of the past, a memory, one of the good things which came out of the war. Only a very few of our people ever share in the acts of united worship at inter-Church conferences. For the vast majority there is nothing more than a condensed report in the newspapers of some academic discussion by some high Church dignitaries in some town of which they have never previously heard.

The conviction is growing in the minds of many that the unity of the Church for which Our Lord prayed is not going to be achieved for a long time by these ‘high level’ ecumenical discussions without a stabbing of the conscience of the ordinary Church member, to whom it is never given to see the scandal of Christian disciples separating to go into different rooms so that each group may sit at what it calls the Lord’s Table.

These men from the gun-sites and the little ships should be here, standing at our Communion tables and Communion rails, allowing themselves to be turned away because they belong to another branch of the Christian household and there is no war on, so that we may begin to feel the hurt and shame of it as we ought.

And why shouldn’t they? Or why shouldn’t some others do it for them? How else are we going to bring a sleeping conscience to life in the membership of our Churches? How else are we going to be shaken out of this terrible supine attitude as so many had a hundred years ago to the labour of children and the manacling of the insane until Shaftsbury came and stood where he wasn’t supposed to be?

Even a small body of men and women of our sundered Christian denominations, ecumenical Shaftesburys, who would be prepared to be humble and to ask together of the several Churches to be allowed to ‘go to the altar of God’ in a denomination other than their own, to stand in the forbidden places and be prepared to be humiliated in possible refusal without losing their love for the brethren – such a body of people might so light up the dark places of our divisions that men would be moved to work and pray with a new passion for the ending of them, even through the labyrinth of constitutional change.

The problems of Christian unity are not easy of solution; and it would be dishonest and harmful to minimise them. (In the standards of our own Church is the phrase “where the Word of God is TRULY preached and the sacraments DULY administered” – there must be full regard for the truth and rightness.)

But can there be any doubt that we need most for the overcoming of disunity is not more discussion between the few but a more roused conscience and more determined action on the part of the ordinary folk who make up the divided family of God?

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