If you've spent any time with the four gospels, you know that John's gospel is...different. I won't go into all the many differences here, but I'll mention one briefly. Unlike the first three gospels, John's gospel has a long "farewell discourse" in which Jesus offers final thoughts and reflections to his disciples before he is arrested and executed. At the end of this farewell speech, just before his arrest, Jesus prays a long prayer for his disciples, which includes these lines [I've added a few notes since it's out of context]:
"I’m not praying only for them [that is, the disciples who are standing right there] but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they [that is, all those others who will believe because of the witness of the disciples] will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."This is, in a sense, a prayer for Christian unity par excellence. Here Jesus prays, not only for the disciples who he has known during his time on earth, who -- in John's gospel -- he has called friends, but for all those who will come to believe because of their witness. And what does he pray? That they will be united. That they will be one, inextricably part of each other just as John's gospel portrays Jesus/Word and Father*/Source and Spirit/Breath as inextricably part of each other.
Now, this prayer only appears in John's gospel. Maybe Jesus prayed it, maybe not. Maybe this is a prayer that emerged from the experience of a particular community, perhaps an early Jewish Christian community in the diaspora, feeling isolated, it's identity threatened from all sides.
But you know what it's definitely not?
It is definitely not a prayer about denominations staying together.
Or about denominations joining together into bigger denominations.
You know how I know?
Because denominations weren't a thing yet.
This is "yeah, duh, we know," stuff, but it bears saying, because it's so easy for language of "that they will be one" to be co-opted into our denominational conflicts or dialogues.
But that's not what this prayer is about at all. Here, Jesus prays, not for institutional unity, but for a mystical one-ness, the same kind of mystical one-ness that Jesus enjoys with the Father.* What's more, this one-ness has a purpose, an end: "Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."
The purpose of the unity Jesus prays for is for the world to know and understand God's love, as manifested in Jesus, the Word who becomes flesh and dwells among us. So on the one hand it's a mystical one-ness, rather than an organizational or institutional unity. And on the other hand, it's made real, fleshy, physical, by virtue of its indwelling-ness in the world.
Now, as I've suggested in the past two posts, institutional and organizational work can be good and important. It's very possible to argue that bringing two previously separate organizations together into one united organization is a faithful way to live out the one-ness that Jesus prays for in John 17. But that kind of work isn't the be-all and end-all of Christian unity. Christian unity is only Christian unity if it is (a) a participation in the mystical unity of Christ with God by the power of the Spirit** and (b) directed/sent to the world to spread the knowledge of God's love.
"The Church" at the time John's gospel was written was not a single, united institution. It would have been nearly impossible for the community out of which this writing emerged to have imagined such a thing. What they could imagine, and what they were willing to stake their faith and their lives on, was a deeper unity, which would serve as an expression of God's love in the world.
It seems to me that before we even have any sort of conversation about how to "stay united" or "split up" a denomination or a church, we ought to take a good hard look at what we're doing and ask:
Are we sharing together in spiritual union with God?
Are we helping the world to know God's love?
Ask those questions first.
Ask them. Pray about them. Reflect on them.
And then maybe -- but only maybe -- we can start talking about the structures or institutions that such questions might imply.
*I've kept the masculine language as it is in John's gospel, but the language is metaphorical, not literal. The language is meant to emphasize relationship, not gender. One could substitute "Mother," or "Caregiver," or use alternative language, but keep the same essential emphasis. For a wonderful take on all of that, check out Sharon Ringe's book Wisdom's Friends.
** Traditionally, this has been expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity. We can argue until we're blue in the face about the doctrine (and we certainly have), but at base it's about mystical unity, about the indwelling community and hospitality modeled for us by God.