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?