If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians chapter 12 is often taken as a key text in ecumenical thinking, and quite rightly; a variety of gifts but the one Spirit, one body with many members…it’s a powerful and vivid text. But would it mean to take 1 Corinthians 13 as the text to inspire a renewed energy for Christian unity?
We know that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, but church relationships, though better than many once were, are sometimes more marked by rivalry, snobbery or diffidence than anything as strongly positive as love. In times when many in the churches are worried about the survival of their way of being Christian a competitive and defensive spirit can undermine our response to Christ’s prayer that we may be completely one. Even when doctrinal disagreements from the past have been overcome, even when official recognition has been named and new ways found to draw us towards unity, a reluctance and suspicion sometimes remains.
There are voices now, among the churches, calling for an ‘ecumenism of the heart’, an ecumenism that turns (again) to a renewal of relationships, an extension of friendship, a rekindling of that curiosity and passion that could be the beginnings of love. And not a flimsy, sentimental love, but a love like Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians, the best way of all.
Not everyone feels equipped to engage in theological dialogue or to outline a new ecumenical process. But every Christian can offer generous friendship to those who are from a different church community, but who share our common faith. From multicultural city to rural hamlet, we can each find someone with whom to build a friendship that might be the beginning of healing a great divide. Our congregations are wholly church, but not the whole Church. There is love to find and gifts to receive. Christ himself waits to be revealed as love becomes real among and between his people.
God, holy Trinity of love, give me the grace to open my heart. Show me the place where, in my life, love and friendship could grow, and take me to places in your Church where I have not yet been. Stir in me a renewed sense of the scandal of division and give me your longing for unity and peace. Make me a loving witness to your Son Jesus Christ and a joyful pilgrim on the path towards the communion of your people, so that the world may believe and all creation be renewed as one.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the President from Europe of the World Council of Churches