Generations have prayed the General Confession from the Book of Common Prayer, in which they have confessed those “things they ought to have done” and then those things “they ought not to have done.” As true as both things are for individuals, the same can be true for whole communities that call themselves Christian.
Some years ago, when I was invited to preach in a congregation descended from people who had separated from the Church of England centuries before, it was painfully brought to the attention of the congregation that I represented a tradition that had persecuted them. Indeed, it was pointed out that “my people had put their people to death.” It was a shattering moment in my ministerial life. I have never been the same.
It was a good while after that embarrassing day before I was deeply and permanently changed in the core of my being. It happened when another man led me to the Martyrs Memorial in the town of Canterbury in England. We were there to celebrate the 1400th Anniversary of the coming of Augustine and his companions to the shores of Kent, and the preaching of the gospel in the weeks following that led to the reestablishment of a vibrant Christianity in England after centuries of suffering under the Anglo Saxon invasions. I had been a frequent visitor to the cradle of Anglicanism, but I had no idea there was any other memorial to martyrs in the town other than that to Thomas Beckett in the great cathedral. What my friend showed me made me weep.
In a poor part of the town rarely frequented by pilgrims and visitors to Canterbury, and not marked on any tourist map, was a memorial to the men and women who were burned at the stake in the time of Queen Mary. My friend and I stood quietly reading the names, when I came to “Revd John Smith” and then on the next line “His wife.” I broke down completely, and the Lord brought back to my memory the time years before. Not only did Anglicans put others to death before and after Mary, but some of our own suffered the same fate in the midst of the reformation that shaped us so profoundly. How could I have forgotten that? And what faith did they have to accept such a fate? What have we lost? Has division destroyed the reformation God intended?
I have been reflecting on that set of experiences, and praying over them, for twenty-five years. It has made me more and more convinced that many of the divisions between Christian denominations have not come from heaven, but from the hard hearts of men. Though there are times, when in obedience to the Lord, good men separate from one another over a matter of deep importance, many of the divisions among Christians are over secondary matters. Christ is not divided, as the Apostle said, and yet those who claim to follow him keep dividing. Anglicans among them.
Will this change in any wide way in my lifetime? Probably not, but I dare to pray, speak, and write that it might change among those who call themselves Anglicans. If a man is truly a follower of Jesus how can he separate himself from his brothers and sisters?
Next Week: One Church or Many?