In your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung — Ignatius of Antioch
Our Lord and his apostles used many figures of speech to describe the Church. From our beloved St. Paul: “We are God’s fellow labourers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Or Jesus’ words: “Fear not, little flock” (Luke 12:32a). “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5a).
Many of us have admired a well-ordered cathedral, such as St. Paul’s, London, or All Saints, Nairobi. We recognize — almost unconsciously — the beauty of the human person, of a pastoral scene or vineyard. No wonder they make fitting images for the Church, the heavenly Jerusalem, a city “at unity with itself” (Ps. 122:3).
Our experience of the Church’s unity tends to fall short of these glorious figures. We see “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (see Gal. 5:19-21).
In recognition of this, Anglicans have turned to other images over the past 14 years: among them, “walking together in synodality,” “walking apart,” or even “walking at a distance.” This language proves useful, vividly illustrating different degrees or intensities of communion: some choose to be close; some go their own way; some wander onto the wrong path.
Through such images, we see how harmony, order, and unity are gifts received, but also unwrapped and used. A field must be cultivated, a building maintained, a vine pruned.
For this reason, I find myself drawn also to musical representations, as my opening quotation from the Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch, signalled. For harmony can be complex, dissonance may rise and fade. More to the point: music needs practice and discipline. A symphony tunes up, interprets the notes on the page, follows the conductor’s time; it learns the “perfect freedom” of scripted service.
(For some fruitful explorations of this dynamic, see Chapter 6 of IASCUFO’s report on the Anglican Communion’s Instruments of Communion, “Towards a Symphony of Instruments;” or, Rowan Williams, “Keeping Time. For the Three Choirs Festival,” in Open to Judgment: Sermons and Addresses.)
We need a renewed sense of the loving commitment and discipline required for Christian unity. Then we shall be “tuned” to God and one another; we will follow what is written and our conductor’s direction. To paraphrase Ignatius, we will make ourselves into a choir, listen for the Lord’s note, and sing sweetly to the Father through Jesus Christ (Letter to the Ephesians, 4:1-2).
During this week of prayer for Christian unity, then, let us pray: that God may draw our hearts into more perfect communion with him, with our Anglican brethren, with Christians throughout the world, and with all the created order.
May our love increase, until Jesus Christ is sung in our concord and in our unity. To him be praise, power, glory, and dominion, now and to the ages of ages.
Dr Zachary Guiliano is associate editor at The Living Church, the editor of Covenant, and an ordinand of the Diocese of Ely.