Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ecumenism

Ordinary Time

I sometimes get a little suspicious when people talk blatantly about trying to be ecumenical - that is, referring to inter-denominational relationships among Christian churches. When I hear that word, I usually think of mainline church leaders getting together to draft statements about things that probably no one will read (is that cynical?). I'm starting to think ecumenism is something I ought to at least think about, because it does seem important to some folks.

I think it's possible that "top-down" ecumenism confuses me because (I think) I experience it at the grass roots already. I'm not saying that it's because I'm so cool, or I really do anything to make this happen (maybe I do, maybe I don't), but it's got a lot to do with the people I know.

I have good friendships with people who are Southern Baptists, former Southern Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, former Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Independent Christian Church folks, holiness type groups (like the CMA), former Pentecostals, Quakers, and have almost never had the opportunity to barricade myself in a little group in which everyone has the same theological convictions. If I want to talk about faith and life with my friends, I will around my own dinner table (or theirs!) have a fairly diverse set of perspectives to work with, at least in the context of Western Christianity.

My first church community was a little Southern Baptist congregation in my little town on the Ohio River, in northeastern Kentucky. The pastor would periodically reiterate his policy of not talking about other Christian denominations in the pulpit. As far as he was concerned, he had a responsibility to "preach the word," not to criticize or judge other brothers and sisters who weren't even part of the same conversation. I have always respected that. I hope to have that kind of integrity some day.

My question wouldn't be, "how does one do ecumenism," but rather, "how in the world would one avoid it?"

Come back at me on this: I would enjoy your response to my thoughts, as well as your reflections on your own relationships (or lack of them?) with Christians of other traditions.

P.S. Darn it, the Roman Catholic Church is not the whole of Babylon. I am the whore of Babylon.

Update: Jim did the inter-faith thing last week.


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17 comments:

John Lunt said...

As a charismatic, the Lord placed me for five years in a wonderful non-charismatic church where I became friends with people who were Church of Christ, Baptists, ex Roman Catholics. We all focused on loving each other and loving our community. We had reformed and armenian, pre trib and post trib, and I don't care trib. We had fundies and a few emergent. It was a wonderful experience. People who work together missionally, quickly learn to set aside differences.

A couple of years ago, the Lord moved me away from Cross Timbers. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It was my family. I love the church I attend now, but the relationships aren't the same.

A said...

My own journwy has taken me from Pentecostal to Charismatic (though similar, they aren't exactly the same thing, style, etc.) to an Independent Christian Church (Campbellite roots) back to the evangelical-charismatic hybrid that is the Vineyard, and now, as you know, to the Roman Catholic Church by way of monasticic influences. Along the way, I also attended a Baptist seminary. So my own theological influences and exposures have been diverse, though maybe not as diverse as some. I tend to get along with most Christians except for fundamentalists of whatever affiliation. Oh well, at least I am being honest about my prejudices.

Even though I am now a Big C Catholic, I try to be little c catholic in my outlook. I like what you said about how could we avoid being ecumenical? Well, we could barricade oursleves in the hills, each of our own little groups and have a fortress mentality, afraid of ideas that might dilute or pollute the truth as we see it. Of course, some folks do this, and to say they are impoverished in mind and spirit because of it is an understatement of magnitude.

My philosophy? Pursue the truth, that is Jesus Christ. Not that propositional truth in the form of correct doctrine is not important, but often it is not nearly as important as we make it. Nonetheless, the truth--which is a person, Jesus Christ (I know it's a cliche to say that, but....) matters immensely, and in the end is is only that truth that can bring any measure of unity and catholicity.

Not only pursue truth (the person), but pursue love. Of everybody. Period. Work on it your whole life.

And one more thing. Don't get your shorts in a wad about other folks who believe differently than you do. Remember that it's not our job to defend God or "the truth." Really it isn't. We've all met people who think it is their job and who spend their lives all pantybundled over other people's "errors." Too bad, too sad.

Our only job is to live what you know and believe. So relax and be with people. People who aren't like you. You migh learn something.

By "you" in this comment, I don't you, Kyle, but anyone in general.

Peace to you all. And I mean that.

A said...

The next to last sentence above should read, "By "you" in this comment, I don't mean you, Kyle, but anyone in general."

Jim said...

I've been a long-time reader and have enjoyed reading your point of view on all of the topics you bring up. It's funny that you bring up this issue now because it's one that I've been struggling with for the past few months and frankly I wind up with more questions than answers.

I was born and raised Southern Baptist, but a little over a year ago my theology and thinking changed and my wife and I joined with the Lutheran Church-MS. Over the past year I've "settled in" more with my theology, but lately I've started thinking more about how I relate to other Christians, not so much personally but as a church body.

One of the issues that I'm struggling with more than most is how does the church body relate to one another when a fundamental element (as I believe God has revealed it) such as the Real Presence can't even be a common point of fellowship among large groups of believers. For example, I can be united with my Baptist brothers & sisters in social works and missions, but can I truly worship together with "them" when we can't even agree on the "reality" of that worship? I've even tried the route of "invincible ignorance", that they participate in receiving the body and blood of Christ despite their lack of knowledge, but I'm not sure I like where that gets me. Especially with those who would vehemently deny the real presence in the eucharist.

I agree with the other posters that we must learn to set aside unimportant differences and be united, but what about the important ones? What are the important issues? I can set aside differences when necessary, but is that really unitive or is it just avoidance? We tend to think of those actions as unitive when we keep it within what we would consider established "church" boundaries but what if I carry that all the way out. Why not just set aside differences with all those who would deny God as well? Is it possible to love them without being united to them? hmmm....well now that's got me thinking in a slightly different direction. I think I need to consider that last part for a while.

Sorry for the slightly rambling diatribe. That's what I get for reading and responding at work, but I couldn't resist this topic. I look forward to seeing the responses and directions this goes. God bless...

A said...

Jim,
You bring up a very good point. It is indeed difficult to worship together. Much more difficult than to work together for the kingdom, I think. I'll just be honest and confess that for all my warm feelings about ecumenism, I have a very hard time these days with certain expressions of worship in which I once participated, and the reason is the theological paradigm shifts that you cite. Also, as you point out, the real presence issue is pretty huge actually. It changes a lot of things.

All that said, I think there is a substantial amount that most Christians can agree on, and even if we don't agree or worship together, we still have a responsibility to love each other. After all, that is what Jesus said was the mark of a Christian, that we "love one another." (John 13:35) We often forget this responsibility, to the detriment of advancing the name and cause of Jesus Christ.

You asked, "What are the important issues?" If I may be allowed o post the following:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell, the third day he arose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, sis at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic [I used a small c], the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the ressurection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen."

That's (IMO) the essentials, the rest is (relatively) minor details.

jess said...

superb post, and provoking comments, you've got me thinking!

Tom Mohan said...

I like McClaren's book "Generous Orthodoxy" as a voice worth listening too when thinking of ecumenism. I like the use of the word "generous" which has all the best meaning of the word "liberal" without the baggage that word contains. If one values what is true to the extent one is willing to abandon prejudices for the sake of truth we have the seed of true ecumenism - without watering down anything. Be generous in seeking what is true and valuable in other believers. A great analogy for this is that if you and I both seek to tune to the same tuning fork - the Spirit of Truth - we end up in tune with each other. I see this happening today...valuing truth and forsaking the emptiness of unfounded prejudice.

Anonymous said...

Kyle,

To examine it from the other side somewhat, would we not consider "denominationalism" to be somewhat distasteful? Having grown up in the Episcopal Church, I've seen how Episcopalians/Anglicans like to pat themselves on the back a bit much about the various things that make us Anglican without always fully recognizing how we have been influenced and in turn, influenced other tradtions--or worse, without realizing the breadth of our own tradtion within the context of the larger Christian community.

I don't seem why you should be cynical about "top down" ecumenism. Calling it "top down" also seems a bit back-handed as does your use of the word "blatantly"--what makes a person's talking about trying to be ecumenical so "blatant"?. Could you not imagine how it could be possible that "top down" ecumenism could have (and probably is) born at a grass roots level? It would seem unlikely, for instance that the Call to Common Mission between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA was born out of anything but the building of close relationships between ministers, parishes and scholars at a grass roots level even though it gave rise to a seemingly dubious "top down" ecumenism. I think that in spite of your knowing a great many people from other traditions, you may not be as ecumenical as you think you are (notably in this division you make in ecumenism, but also in the absence of Eastern Christianity from your "diverse set of perspectives.") Can ecumenism not just be ecumenism? If the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet and discuss the relationship between their respective traditions does it automatically mean that their meeting is "top down"? What if they had their meeting over lunch? I think your understanding of ecumenism could be much broader for you to criticize it.

Also, in light of the subject matter, I'm not sure that your "whore of babylon" joke was in the best taste.

Kyle said...

Thanks, everybody.

Thanks for stopping by, John. I'm glad you've had such a positive experience in the past. May God continue to do things like that.

A., particularly when folks get to arguing about the "postmodern morass," I think it's important to keep affirming in various and creative (and even droning!) ways that "the Truth" is indeed Jesus, rather than the things I (or you) might think about him.

"Pantybundled." Ha!

Welcome to the comment box, Jim. You ask a pretty tough question. It's difficult for me because in my experience, when evangelicals celebrate communion, there is often a sermon against the real presence. I've actually been a bit more comfortable in settings like Independant Christian Churches in which folks just perform the liturgy without trying to push a particular theology of the rite. I think that offers a kind of "happy medium" between otherwise hot and bothered sacramentalists and non-sacramentalists.

I don't think I'd mind worshipping regularly with non-sacramentalists, so long as the rite of the table was performed anyway (like the ICCs do) and there weren't sermons against the Real Presence. Of course, I'm sure a lot of folks wouldn't be comfortable if they had to hear my exposition of sacramental theology every time we gathered, by the same token.

A., I don't think I'd consider belief in the Real Presence to be absolutely necessary, but I would be uncomfortable being part of a fellowship that didn't practice the rite on a very regular basis because of my rather firm conviction that the Eucharist is actually in the process of "making the Church." I like Wm. Cavanaugh's phrase, "The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church."

Hi, Jess!

Mohan, I was waiting for you to say something. I think you (and BMac!) have a great point - it's only going to mean anything if we have some kind of enacted desire to be together in a meaningful way and to learn about one another's convictions and lives and drop our prejudices.

Anonymous. Baby. You don't even introduce yourself, and want to tell me about bad taste? God bless you. Anti-catholicism is typically rather harshly mocked in this space.

I don't know if I'm cynical; my point was that I'm unfamiliar with it and have a very limited understanding. In the ECUSA diocese I worked with previously, I talked to a few folks to considered the Call to Common Mission to be ... irrelevant ... "on the ground." That's just an anecdote - it is what it is.

Ha, I don't think the fact of only knowing one Orthodox Christian can make me "not as ecumenical as I think I am" when I'm the one who admitted I don't know very many of those folks. It also speaks more for local demographics, I think, than my prejudices.

My whole point was to ask for perspectives on ecumenism to broaden my understanding. I do think there does exist a "top down" ecumenical thrust that isn't necessarily connected to the lives of people in the pews, even though some people do talk about it like it's the greatest thing ever. I would be interested in seeing when and how it does connect, since I've not been there. I do think it's most important "on the ground" with ordinary people, and I'm curious as to when and how that happens.

Rob Leacock said...

Kyle,

My apologies for posting anonymously; if it was in poort taste, than I am sorry. I assure you it was an oversight as I do not often post comments on blogs. I was also not aware about the prevailing sentiments regarding Anti-Catholicism on your blog. That notwithstanding, I still think your "whore of babylon" joke was not in the best taste. I am still entitled to my opinion.

I wished that you had focused on your own experience of ecumenism; obviously that has been an important thing for you, and I for one would have loved to have heard more about your experience of the ecumenical dialogue. Instead it seemed as though you just wanted to criticize what you call top down ecumenism (I think, by indirectly saying that it isn't really ecumenism compared to the grass roots level) by elevating what you call grass roots ecumenism. You specifically enumerate the array of folks from various traditions that you know, but you don't really say much else. I simply think that both top down and grass roots are fine and good means of ecumenical dialogue, neither being better than the other and both being born of the same spirit. Obviously you think differently. And you claim to want to broaden your perspectives yet from your post and your reply to my response it would seem as though you've already made up your mind. You say that you're "unfamiliar with it and have a very limited understanding", but you also seem to be writing it off alittle bit. I mean, you sound cynical.

You seem to have a suspicion about this top down thing--as though the people there are totally disconnected from "regular" folks. Your comment about Call to Common Mission was well to the point. However, I think it glosses over the fact that, as I said earlier, that it was not simply handed down from on high, but was built upon real and genuine ecumenical relationships between Lutherans and Episcopalians in spite of the ultimate results. And though it may be irrelevant, there are more than a few people in the pews who have strong feelings pro and con about Call to Common Mission and who are not disconnected from it, however top down it may appear. If you doubt me, ask someone from the Norwegian Lutheran tradition.

I was not trying to suggest that you were prejudiced at all. I apologize that my comments about Eastern Christianity gave you that impression--it certainly was not my intention. It was just in your list and in your mentioning "Western Christianity" I wondered if you had thought about the Eastern tradtion and what those thoughts might have been. That was all.

You write that, "My whole point was to ask for perspectives on ecumenism to broaden my understanding...I do think it's most important "on the ground" with ordinary people, and I'm curious as to when and how that happens." And I would have loved to hear about your experience and why you think its MOST important "on the ground" with ordinary people. Perhaps you would be willing to offer a bit more on that. I would also challenge you to consider "top down" ecumenism a little more.

Chances are I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Best,
Rob

-mike- said...

Ecumenism is the shit, baby.

#Debi said...

I know little about ecumenism as a church policy: all I know is that whenever I've heard about it, it has seemed like a bit of a shallow, forced concept to me, rather like a 5th grade dance. (As a policy, that is. Having friends of all faiths, and in fact many of no faith, is important to me in my spiritual development.)

I mostly just wanted to chime in and tell A that seeing the word "pantybundled" in his comment, and imagining his Minnesota accent saying it has made my day...

Kyle said...

"I would also challenge you to consider 'top down' ecumenism a little more."

In the second paragraph of the post, I made it clear that I don't understand "all that." It was an invitation to suggest some new ideas and perspectives that I might think about. You didn't do that; slagging me off for not getting it really doesn't get anybody anywhere - you're telling me something I already know and being accusatory about it, rather than giving me something to consider. Well, other than the fact that you think I'm an asshole.

And yes, you're allowed to think my humor is in bad taste. But you just lodge a complaint without giving me a rationale whereby I might reconsider my comments. Anything constructive in that? As you said, "why should I care"?

Kyle said...

Thanks, Mike. I knew I could count on you. :0)

I like the analogy, Debi.

I usually think about groups like the National Council of Churches and the WCC in those terms. I wasn't really thinking about the more personal ecumenism (yes, that occurs on high denominational levels!) like ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission), which has produced a number of helpful documents on areas of agreement between the Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Our senior tutor has done a great deal of work with the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue over the years.

And you know, for some reason, I see folks like Rowan and B16 as being grounded in the life of the churches - maybe that's my prejudice, assuming that one has either a bishop or a bureaucracy? Probably.

I remember being aware a few years ago that the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholics had dialogue going on - does anybody know anything about it?

Tom Mohan said...

Thanks Mike...that's what I meant to say.

Jen said...

"Mainstream church leaders drafting proposals that no-one will read" is sadly quite true of the ecumenical movement, Kyle, as you suspect. However, grass roots ecumenicism is being encouaged from the top down.

I had the privelege of being involved in collating the results of an ecumenical Lent study by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The overwhelming result was that, regardless of how well the Lent topic was discussed among such a diverse group (and there were some very negative comments), hardly anyone disliked the open and inclusive forum.

I think that's where we need to begin - just as you say - with our own personal contacts with others. However, when it goes nationwide as it did with the CTBI Lent Course 2006, we see big results and perhaps next year there will be a greater willingness to take part. I'm even hoping that CTBI Lent might get as far as Northern Ireland next year.

Northern ireland would test ecumenicism to its full - here you have the grass roots who are very willing to take part in inter-denominational activities, but are held back by the church hierarchy.

So grass roots is all very well, but when the mainstream churches are making positive noises towards inter-denominational activity, I think we'd do well to encourage it.

Mike, I totally agree. :)

Jen said...

of course it would really help if i had spelt ecumenism properly... pay no heed! :)