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Christian Unity

An Address by David Kilgour
To the Christian Council of the Capital Area/Conseil Chrétien de la Capitale
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Hull, Québec
January 24,1999

Dear Fellow Believers,

It is a great honour to join you today on such an important topic. But let me mention first an issue that has troubled many Christians across our country: the perception that representatives of our Catholic and United churches were denied the right to refer to Jesus Christ and to read from the New Testament at the multi-faith memorial service for the victims of the Swiss Air catastrophe off Nova Scotia.

Having discussed the matter since with senior protocol officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I understand there was no intention at all to prevent such references in the service. Somehow, however, a different impression was created for two ministers of our faith and the ministry regrets it profoundly. If Foreign Affairs is involved in another such service in the future, we’ll do everything feasible to avoid a recurrence. I apologize for what happened.

With that clarification, I’d like to take off my Secretary of State hat and speak to you as a fellow Christian and private individual. What follows are my own views, but you’ll perhaps be interested to know that committed members of fully five denominations have made suggestions as to what I might say to you. It’s been an exercise in Christian unity itself, but we all know that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. But the faults in this talk are solely my own responsibility.

I congratulate the Christian Council for its 28 years of work to build bridges and co-ventures among the various Christian denominations in this bi-provincial capital area. You have lit many candles, so to speak, and I hope you continue to do so, possibly building bridges to other faith communities as well. We all have much in common.

In this week of prayer for Christian unity, verses 20 and 21 of chapter 17 the Gospel of John are probably the best authority. Jesus was praying for his apostles, but he went much further, saying:

Neither pray I for these (apostles) alone, but for them also which shall believe in me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

The founder of our faith wanted His first followers to be united so that they could help convince contemporaries that He was the Son of God and still dwelled with them. Does He not today leave to the individual churches each of us attends the task of embodying His presence in the world and of spreading the same message?

Before giving some reasons for all of us to continue to work hard towards Christian unity, let me indicate a few things which I believe such unity should not include:

Things Unity Does Not Include

Unity does not include, in the hope of being more inclusive, a movement away from the central role of Jesus Christ as Son of God and our Saviour. It is in Christ, as St. Paul reminds us, that there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. The Good News still is that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to it.

This does not mean for a moment that we believers should have a static view of Christ. The world has changed much since his coming and the pace of change is astonishing, but Jesus Christ is our contemporary. He is sufficient for the needs and questions of our time. I am intrigued by those billboards in the U.K. in which Jesus is presented by some churches more as a revolutionary like Che Guevara to attract people to Easter services. Jesus was revolutionary. He still means to turn our worlds upside down. Or is it rightside up ?

On that I’d recommend to each of you Philip Yancey’s best selling book, The Jesus I Never Knew. It is a great resource for congregations and study groups.

2. Unity should not mean uniformity in our forms of service. God has created humankind in enormous variety: a form of service that works well for one group of Canadians in one part of the city or country will not work as well for everyone else. For example, some Christians prefer to sing and dance during a service; others prefer more traditional forms of worship. In my own view, most Canadians today prefer the piano or guitar to the organ. Guitar music can help attract new believers, especially young people.

3. Unity does not mean merging denominations unless their memberships provide informed consent and a positive vote. One reality in the late 20th century is that where the number of denominations is large in a community their impact on the population is greater at least in terms of the percentage of men, women and children who attend services regularly. In other words, denominational competitiveness is normally good for Christianity.

4. Unity does not require a standardization of theological, political, economic and other viewpoints among Christians. In most congregations in my experience, there is a wide range of views on a host of subjects. No thoughtful Christian would attempt to argue that Jesus would be, say, a Liberal, Bloc Québécois, Reformer or New Democrat if he returned to Canada today.

I’d urge you here to read, The Soul of Politics: Beyond ‘Religious Right’ and ‘Secular Left’, by Jim Wallis, who spends most of his time fighting poverty and hopelessness on inner Washington, D.C. streets. Wallis excoriates both sides of the U.S. political spectrum. Contemporary American conservatives, he asserts, ignore the effects of poverty, racism and sexism in calling for family values and individual self-development; today’s liberals in the U.S. on the other hand are for him "unable to articulate or demonstrate the kind of moral values that must underpin any serious movement of social transformation". Readers have to decide for themselves to what extent, if any, his analysis is applicable to contemporary Canada.

Bridging Right/Left Divide

Traditionally the ecumenical movement has worked to develop unity among Christian denominations, but it has become increasingly apparent that one of the greatest threats to unity is not the gap created by differences between denominations but the gap found within denominations … between those who are sometimes called "the religious right" and those who are sometimes called "liberals or activists."

Thus Anglicans are divided against Anglicans; United Church Members are divided against United Church Members. A Roman Catholic who is a social activist tends to feel more affinity with activists from other denominations than with a fellow Roman Catholic who is theologically conservative and whose concerns focus on the personal.

How do we come together? How do we bridge this Right/Left gap?

It is an important question because it is also becoming apparent that neither side alone has the answers which are needed to address the critical problems of our society, problems such as loneliness and poverty to name only two.

Those who advocate personal spiritual renewal while turning their back on issues of social justice present a distorted spirituality at best. Those who only speak of social justice while turning a blind eye to issues of personal faith are equally guilty of distortion.

What is urgently needed in our churches is a renewed ecumenical movement which seeks to find common ground between the Left and the Right, between the evangelical and the liberal, between those whose primary concern is social justice and those whose main concern is personal faith.

Prophetic Spirituality

Can such common ground not be found in the "prophetic spirituality" which is described in so many of the stories of the Old Testament, where concerns for Righteousness and justice are melded into one?

Is not such common ground epitomised in the person of Jesus Christ, who not only preached personal turning to God in faith, but also proclaimed good news for the poor who were oppressed by systemic injustice?

For me there is much hope for the unity of the church in our day. There is hope because God does dwell with us, and the spirit of God empowers us to bridge the gaps which exist between us all in the same way that he did in the Book of Acts.

Issues Needing More Unity

1. A recent series of very troubling articles in the Ottawa Citizen by Bob Harvey reminded us that fully half the Christians who have died for their faith since AD33 probably did so since 1900. The estimate of those martyred in the 20th century is more than 35 million – about 163,000 per year at current levels. If all Christian denominations around the world were to speak out everywhere with one voice on this phenomenon, we’d have a far greater impact than speaking as individual denominations. Why not establish an inter-denominational task force on persecution in all countries with significant Christian populations?

2. When someone attacks a Christian – or any – faith community anywhere in our own country unfairly, wouldn’t it be more effective if members of other denominations – or perhaps even the heads of them – were to reply? More specifically, if a media outlet ridicules, say, the Catholic church, Protestants should come to its defence thoughtfully but with vigour.

None of us here needs to be reminded of the awful things done in the name of our various faiths in the past, including the Inquisition, the Crusades, and Canada’s residential schools. Most of us deeply regret these acts. Today, like you, I’m delighted when Christians stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other faith communities on issues of persecution of any human being for their faith. In Edmonton, for example, Christians participated with Muslims in a large rally at City Hall a few years ago over the persecution of Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia by so-called Christians. Christian MPs and senators of all parties were members of the Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s, and so on!

Yes, there is much we can do, but at the same time we know as believers, the church and especially the individual churches to which we belong is a good place to be. I have already mentioned Philip Yancey, the editor at large of Christianity Today, and recommended him to you. His latest book Church: Why Bother? has much to say to us too. He notes that when critics say a particular parish fails to live up to the New Testament’s high standards in some respect, "anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that church is also only a beginning." None of us has perfect parents, children or spouses, so why give up on a parish church because of imperfections? Many have done so. Let us do everything in our power to invite them to give the church a second look.

I am reminded here of something that one of Canada’s greatest writers, the late Gabrielle Roy of this province and Manitoba, noted in her autobiography, Enchantment and Sorrow, about her return to the church:

"Many years later, God’s presence throughout this world seemed very clear to me, leading me to consider the Church’s practices not so puerile after all, since they had helped keep the light at its nucleus alive for me. I won’t deny that when I returned it was partly from a nostalgic desire to be kneeling again beside my dead mother, and how could I do this except through God."

Eating Tears

  • The New Testament holds up the model of a church which exists primarily for the sake of non-members. Most parishes fall short here, but many have enormous outreach in their communities. In Ottawa and Hull the churches are involved in shelters for the homeless, ministries to street people, safe places for abused women and food banks to name only a few. I am especially impressed with the work of L’Arche founded by Jean Vanier. The late Henri Nouwen of Toronto’s L’Arche community wrote often about lonely abandoned people without people to love them. Nouwen tells of a young minister who has nothing to offer an old man facing surgery except his own loving concern. "No man can stay alive when nobody is waiting for him," he wrote. All of us, priests, ministers, and laity, can fulfil this role of eating tears for someone.

Yancey thinks our parishes should ideally be "God’s neighbourhood bar, a hangout like the television show Cheers for people who know all about your lousy boss, your mother with heart trouble …, and the teenager who won’t do what you tell him; a place where you can unwind, spill your life story, and get a sympathetic look, not a self-righteous leer." Can anyone disagree? The suggestion has been made that AA in it’s meetings is very close to the early Christian Church, such as the one in Corinth.

  • No-one can be a Christian alone. Parish churches exist primarily to worship God; His reconciling love transcends all differences of nationality, race, age and gender. In the words of Blaise Pascal "the real strength of Christianity is that it is adapted to all."


In closing, we all know about the church schism which occurred at the start of the second millennium between the Eastern and Western parts of the church. We know about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Can we today at the start of the third millennium not all see ecumenism as an important part of our faith and work?

If so, is not prayer at the core of the ecumenical movement? In our common Christian prayer, the essence of brother- and sisterhood in Christ can become clear to all, Christian and non-Christian alike. When our denominations gather together in prayer as we are doing this week, do we not see how little divides us and how much unites us spiritually?

We saw this unity in mid-1998 during the Billy Graham Crusade as Catholics and Protestants worked together in common cause for months. Can we believers of all faiths – Christians and non-Christians – afford the luxury of division today? Wasn’t it Richard John Neuhaus who called on believers to be "against the world for the world"? By that, of course, he meant violence, greed, pride, anger, materialism and other ills one sees daily. The "loss of the sense of sin" should probably be in the list too.

So if the first millennium was the one of Christian unity, the second one of division, is it not our task – yours and mine – on the eve of the third to build Christian unity? Let us pray to our Father so that all who believe in His Son Jesus might be one family and the Father glorified. This increased grace and harmony among Christians would also allow us to reach out in love to other faith communities.

Thank you and God bless.

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