There are few things I hate worse than being sick on the road. My wife and I are in Columbus, Ohio and I determined that now would be the ideal time to get a four-alarm sinus infection. I can’t focus, I can’t breathe, I have a splitting headache… and I am trying to engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue with energy and conviction. Not an easy task. I am hearing through congested filters. When I feel bad, I tend to be a bit more prickly and terse, so take my reflections with a grain of salt.
So many of the presentations and conversations feel like they have a “yes, but…” undertone. The words are about unity and collaboration, but the undercurrent feels polemical and a bit competitive. I listened to a Catholic priest explain how ecumenical dialogue never meant anything until after Vatican II, because without the Catholics in the conversation it could never go anywhere. I have been patiently told that the Roman Catholic church isn’t part of the World Council of Churches because it “doesn’t want to take over.” I have had nine conversations where it has been explained to me what “full communion” isn’t — not once have we settled on what it actually IS. Too often, our best intended introductions devolve to explanations of what we are not, instead of what we are. Our crowing achievements are Thanksgiving services and pantries — things we can do together with no real cost or compromise. I’ve broached the subject of “one body in Christ,” and both times the people I have been speaking to turned the conversation to “different parts.” Unity is the abstraction that brings us together, but not the reality towards which we choose to work.
The polemical nature of this gathering is perhaps the most distressing aspect. Everyone is gathered to celebrate our oneness in Christ, but almost every serious discussion devolves into a focus on differences, and how until this or that group makes concessions, nothing much will change. And power and privilege do matter. After a couple of days, I am left with the impression that ecumenism is defined by what the Roman Catholic church will allow and accept. Everyone else is part of the category “other.” Which is not to say that the movement of the Catholic church has not been monumental in creating inter-Christian (a term I learned here) cooperation. The reality is: unless the Catholics participate, not much changes.
What is great and wonderful and powerful about a meeting like this is that it happens. But the fact that it happens is viewed as exceptional is problematic. This should be normal. This should have 50,000 participants, not a couple hundred. This should be a jumping-off points for thousands of conversations, projects, unions, and partnerships. This should define us in a newer, better way. But my fear is that we will all return to our provincial, inward-focused denominational enclaves and merely smile and nod when we pass in our ecclesial hallways. Nothing much will really change. Our “full communions” will remain partial and sporadic at best.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but my own United Methodist Church pays well-intentioned lip service to ecumenism, but in the arena of “church” we are competitive, not collaborative. When we invite people to “ReThink Church,” we don’t mean the universal Church of Jesus Christ — we mean the UMC. The sub-line of Igniting Ministries, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” was not “The Whole People of God,” but “The People of The United Methodist Church.” When we spout off about “vital congregations,” we don’t mean Baptist or Presbyterian or Lutheran. Our OCD about “new faith for new people in new places” doesn’t extend beyond a neo-Wesleyan not-so-united Methodism, let alone anything ecumenical. Oh, I know I will hear from some people about isolated and exceptional cases — and they are isolated and exceptional (which is my point). The fact is, we want to be bigger, and we really can’t be bothered with the health and well-being of other denominations — after all, their gain is our loss, right?
I got in trouble the last church I served — as I visited door to door in my community, I invited people to the church of their choice, not just to the church I served. My trustees were furious with me when they found out. Other pastors were put out with me, because they thought I was trying to make them look bad. My sole intent was that it is better for each person to go somewhere rather than nowhere. I got in trouble in Nashville for partnering with the Hindus. Working with them, learning with them, laughing with them, and listening to them was criticized as agreeing with them (and, somehow, cheapening Christianity by extending the loving grace of God to all…).
We are so far from a universal grace and an unconditional love. Oneness in Christ is a mere abstraction. Serious transformation is a long way off, because so few people truly want it. We like our “home teams.” We are defined by our differences. We revel in our “flavor.” We don’t want to be something else — otherwise we would be. I wonder what God wants? I wonder how all of our factionalism and fracture is viewed from on high? I wonder how the Christ, who “broke down” the dividing walls feels about what we have done to his church? We will one day find out — and at that point, we will truly all be in the same boat.