In October 2011, I went overseas – to the land of dreaming spires and soggy hills and wellingtons and tea and the Queen.
I went to England. And it was glorious.
Admittedly, I didn’t get to meet the queen or convince Prince Harry to give up rowdy ways, find Jesus, and marry me but beyond those two small drawbacks, the trip was a massive success. I was up to my eyeballs in history, which is exactly how I like it.
But as delighted as I was by the castles and the underground and everything in between, I was also troubled. Because everywhere I went, I seemed to bump into the Reformation.
I’ve never been stalked by an historical event before but seriously, it’s freaky. Whether it was taking refugee in super-convert John Henry Newman’s old church in Oxford or staying at a Catholic convent in York, visiting another palace/college “given” to Henry VIII, praying in front of the ubiquitous martyr’s memorials, or touching real medieval wall paintings in Derbyshire, the Reformation wouldn’t leave me alone.
And for the first time, that bloody history and the questions that it raised were starting to bother me.
It had never bothered me before. So what if we had different churches and had disagreements about some things? I mean, denominations were regrettable but they were also inevitable. Since we couldn’t have real unity until Heaven anyway, they kept us sharp and as long as we all loved and followed Christ – the rest was just details.
But on my trip, my attitudes changed. I saw that our unity isn’t an incidental by-product or a pie-in-the-sky dream, it’s a divine command. The Bible tells us, again and again, to be united as Christians. (1 Co 1:10-13, Eph 4:1-7, Php 2:1-2) We are to have one mind, one love, one faith – to agree in everything and keep the bond of peace.
There is one time in the Bible when Jesus prays explicitly for us, the believers to come (Jn 17:20) He doesn’t pray that we would love each other, that we’d know the truth, that we that we’d be awesome preachers or do lots of nifty miracles. (As great as these things are.)
No. He prays that we would be united.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21)
And just in case we missed it, He repeats it.
“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (Jn 17:21-23)
It frickin’ blew my mind. It still does. Jesus prays you and I will have the same sort of unity that the persons of the indivisible Trinity have.
He prays we would be united so that the world would see Jesus and believe. So that. As if reflecting divine mysteries wasn’t enough, our unity is also how the world is going to know Jesus is for real. Our unity isn’t a pleasant by-product, it’s Jesus master evangelism strategy.
Because of that missional aspect, our unity has to be visible and institutional, precisely so the world can see it.
Of course, it must be more than merely institutional; it has to incarnational: the spirit of loving unity made flesh in the visible, institutional Church established by Christ, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and with every part working together. Just as our God is made visible in the Lord Jesus, and our faith made visible in our works, so too our unity has to be visible in the Church.
Otherwise, as St James might say, our unity it’s dead.
So much for what was going on in my head. But after England, I went to Northern Ireland and that’s when stuff started getting horribly real.
I was on a bus tour around Ireland, including the North. It began in Drogheda with the severed head of St Oliver Plunkett, a Catholic archbishop murdered by Cromwell in the 17th Century… and went downhill from there.
Northern Ireland was formed in 1921 when six Irish counties, with a predominantly Protestant population, chose to remain in the United Kingdom and not become part of the Republic. For years, the Catholics who remained in Northern Ireland were the underclass, the poor and oppressed. Like so many other places in the 1960s, civil rights marches began and then quickly turned violent. Both sides formed paramilitary groups, started killing each other and since 1969, about 3,500 or 2% of Northern Ireland’s population has been killed or injured in political violence. Obviously, this is more than a religious conflict but there is no doubt that the division and entrenched distrust between the two fueled the conflict: it’s still “Protestants” vs. “Catholics”.
We went to Omagh, where in 1998 a RIRA (Real IRA) bomb went off in the high street on market day, killing 29 people and injuring 220. The Real IRA was opposed to the fragile Good Friday Agreement and thought indiscriminately killing Catholics, Protestants and random tourists was a good way to deal with that.
13 years later, there’s a memorial on the spot where the bomb went off. I took a picture, said a prayer, and felt so small in front of such hatred. What are you supposed to do with that?
From there, we went to a city whose very name is disputed. It’s Derry if you’re a Republican (Catholic) and Londonderry if you’re an Unionist (Protestant).
It’s also one of the more volatile cities in Northern Ireland. It was site of an autonomous “republic” of a couple of streets called Free Derry in the early 70s and where in 1972, 14 unarmed protesters and bystanders were shot dead by the British Army. Half were only teenagers and five were shot in the back. It’s called Bloody Sunday.
And finally, we ended up in Belfast. It’s a pretty grim place, though enlivened by the beautiful, militaristic murals of hunger strikers and paramilitaries.
Though sporadic violence still occurs in Northern Ireland, thankfully much of it is in the past. But that uneasy peace is largely possible because Belfast, like the rest of the country is divided. In Belfast’s case, it is literally divided into Catholics and Protestant zones and everyone knows not to trespass into the other. These zones are surrounded by walls, guarded and the gates are shut at night. We visited one of the walls that keeps the peace.
You have to laugh at something like that. Peace Walls. Walls don’t bring peace and if you have to keep a wall between you to get peace, you haven’t actually got peace; you’ve got veiled contempt. (Or should that be “walled” contempt?)
It was all so wrong.
The political violence seemed to embody – if in a particularly bloody way – the deeper division in the Church, where we have the same walls and disunity. It was also beginning to mirror my own conflict within. I could feel myself being pulled toward the Catholic Church. At the same time, I still had questions and doubts. And now, choosing to be either felt to much like “choosing sides”. How was that supposed to help unity?
So I stood in front of the peace wall. And I prayed.
And let me you, when a conflicted Christian, dissatisfied with Protestantism and scared of Catholicism, stands in front of a wall built to divide Catholics and Protestants in the name of peace… the Reformation isn’t stalking you any longer. It’s found you.
I finished praying. And I still didn’t know what to do – about any of it. But we had to get back into our cabs and drive back into the neutral zone.
The gates would be shutting soon.
On the way back, we talked to our cabbie about the division. What was it like living here? Do you really hate each other? How could you tell a Catholic from a Protestant? Our cabbie said you just could. Then he told me that I must be Protestant because I pronounce my h’s as ‘aitch’, not ‘haitch’.
I had to laugh at that.
If only it were that simple.