What the Labour party can learn about unity from Christian ecumenism

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis met in Rome to discuss and pray for closer ties between the Anglican communion and the Roman Catholic Church. I was on retreat in Rome with an ecumenical group of young Christians over the course of the week, and on Wednesday, we had the privilege of joining the Archbishop and the Pope for a joint Anglican and Catholic vespers service. It was extraordinary and incredibly moving. As a Christian in the Labour party, I thought it would be useful to consider how ecumenism might offer a way forward in working through divisions in the party.

All political parties are umbrella organisations, where various groupings come together to push for commonly held values and ideas, but over the course of the last year, divisions within the Labour party have become insupportable. Debate about anti-Semitism, nuclear weapons, foreign policy, and party democracy rapidly decline into vitriolic personal attacks. Instead of reaching for commonly held principles and policies, those on the left and the right of the party mischaracterise each other according to the worst of the other side’s ideologies and traditions. Bitterness and hatred flies around social media. We campaign against each other and define ourselves according to what we are not rather than what we want to achieve. We come to see each other as Blairites and Corbynites and summarily dismiss anyone or any idea with even the faintest whiff of the other side. I’m surprised, considering how new to Labour I am, how quickly I’ve adopted the sectarian and factional language of my side of the party.

There are three key lessons I take away from my week of ecumenical reflection and encounter. The first is very simple, but profound point of the importance of addressing difference by spending time in each other’s company. As the Archbishop said at a symposium on Anglican and Catholic relations last week, “ the future of ecumenism is relational more than it is institutional.” After King Henry VIII broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church, more than 400 years passed before the two churches had official contact. Hateful assumptions and myths about believers from each tradition passed unchallenged from one generation to the next. “Amid clouds and darkness,” Pope Francis said in his vespers homily, “we lose sight of the brother or sister at our side; we become incapable of seeing one another and rejoicing in each other’s gifts and blessings.” Creating spaces to come into each other’s presence gives us the chance to work through the complexity of our differences, and identify common aspirations from the starting point of authentic human connection. I’m a member of Christians on the Left, the Christian faith group within the Labour party. We’re planning a series of worship and discussion events later this year with exactly this intention.

The second point is the importance of acknowledging that often the ideas and practices of those different from us often have a validity we deny. As was preached to us during a midday eucharist last week, as Christians, we are “often right about what we affirm in others’ traditions, and wrong about what we deny and reject.” This point was spoken in the context of charismatic versus liturgical practices of worship. But what gifts and blessings are suppressed in the Labour party because of misjudgments about the other side? When the Labour right dismiss the rapid growth of the party membership as a Trotskyite takeover, they miss the left’s real gift in grassroots organising and its ability to build mass, fluid and social-media oriented communities. “We need to stop simplifying each other’s positions, which only exaggerates differences,” said Justin Welby, while acknowledging the importance of accepting the complexity of the differences that divide. If we’re serious about unity in the Labour party, it’s time we spent time acknowledging the strengths that different factions in Labour bring to the overall movement.

Lastly, we need to be clear about what unity looks like, because frankly, the right’s dream of converting new, Corbyn supporting, left-wing members, who they see as young and naive, to an older, 1997-2010 version of Labour, is about as palatable as the left’s insistence that the right of the party simply submit to the leadership and get in line or depart. Both approaches assume the other must be overcome in order for the party to move on. This model sees unity as the result of a process of absorption or purgation, involving the destruction of the other’s ideas and beliefs. But another bad model of unity, adopted by most of the PLP (on both the left and the right of the party) is the idea of unity as plurality. This is the “mixing it all together model” with the reluctant assumption that we all just accept each other as we are. It sounds good, but it means there’s no learning from each other.

Christian ecumenical theologians refer to another approach to unity based on the principle of metanoia, which implies a transformative conversion of heart and mind. In this model, we learn from each other, admit our own faults and shortcomings, come to see the gifts and blessings in others, and allow ourselves to change as we converge in our journey towards Christ. “When, as disciples of Jesus, we serve together side by side, when we promote openness and encounter, and reject the temptation to narrow-mindedness and isolation,” said Pope Francis, “ we are working for both the unity of Christians and for the unity of the human family.” Today, as on many Sundays heading into the future, the divisions of Christianity will continue, as believers head to different churches. But for the time being, Anglicans and Catholics will work more closely together, in the name of Christ, on the key issues of our historical moment: protection of the environment, the refugee crisis, rampant inequality, and global poverty. On what common ground will Labour unite, even while we struggle with our differences?


I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.

  • Barton

    There are a few posts in the Slugger archive on the last interaction between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion – starting in 2007 with a restating of Catholic Doctrine. As the Irish Times’ Patsy McGarry commented at the time

    Pity our Anglicans, our Presbyterians, our Methodists, etc. They do not know it really, despite being told before, but their priests/ministers are not really priests or ministers at all. And as for their Holy Communion – it’s a sham! All a sham.

    Even if, when in 1997 Cardinal Desmond Connell used that word after President McAleese received communion at a Church of Ireland Eucharist service in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, he meant it was “a sham” for a Roman Catholic like her to do such a thing. But, let’s be frank, it is the Holy Orders and the Holy Communion of the Reformed Churches that Rome really sees as “a sham”.

    To be fair and as you would expect, Cardinal William Levada, current prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, put in somewhat differently in yesterday’s document (which was approved by Pope Benedict).

    He said: “According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense.”

    All of which can be summarised in one pithy word – sham!

    Then there was the Catholic Church’s liturgical changes in 2007, and the efforts of Benedict XVI in 2008 “to prevent the fragmentation of the worldwide Anglican Communion”.

    Followed by the playing of Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams.

    As the noted ecumenist Hans Kung pointed out in 2009

    Clearly, the well-meaning Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was no match for cunning Vatican diplomacy. In his cosying up with the Vatican, he evidently did not recognise the consequences. Otherwise he would not have put his signature to the downplaying communique of the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster…

    As I wrote in 1967, “a resumption of ecclesial community between the Catholic church and the Anglican church” would be possible, when “the Church of England, on the one side, shall be given the guarantee that its current autochthonous and autonomous church order under the Primate of Canterbury will be preserved fully” and when, “on the other side, the Church of England shall recognise the existence of a pastoral primacy of Petrine ministry as the supreme authority for mediation and arbitration between the churches.” “In this way,” I expressed my hopes then, “out of the Roman imperium might emerge a Catholic commonwealth. But Pope Benedict is set upon restoring the Roman imperium.”

    The latest footsie between the two church leaders might be an attempt to repair the damage done then, or it might be an attempt by Welby to head off similar approaches again.

    You can dress it up in whatever supernaturalist language you like, but it’s politics nonetheless.

    That said, a better analogy for what the Labour Party is experiencing under Corbyn might be the approach of Benedict to the Anglicans, et al, rather than Francis.

    I do miss Benedict... and his Un-Enlightenment…

  • Dominic Hendron

    Very good post, I like the hope and sincerity it contains because there is not much hope about these days. The intellectuals will no doubt find holes in it as is their custom but I’ll take it at face value and journey with it. Maybe it’s the journey that counts, as Jesus said to his disciples when they asked where he lived, “Come and see”

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “Its ability to build mass, fluid and social media oriented communities” would usher the words of caution on that analysis ! This does not necessarily manifest itself into a solid core guarantee vote base. I know a now defunct NI political party who made such a mistake !

  • Thanks Dominic. I’m tired of despairing about Labour, and exhausted by my own bitterness! Was good to have a week of reflection on the bigger things in life.

  • Oh definitely. But consider the 5 Star movement in Italy. Or even Trump’s support base. I think political parties will have to do some adaptation to the new world we live in–and recognise there is less and less of the solid core guarantee vote from the past.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Yes agree Barton. I would like High Tech Digital voting introduced to encourage more younger voters to vote !

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good to see someone else mentioning Five Star’s example here.