Ecumenically Challenged

puzzles-for-kidsThere 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.

6 replies

  1. I have been monitoring your blog for quite some time and fully appreciate what you are saying. And when I think about it in an hisorical perspective where Christianity would gather to hammer out some common points, it does sound abysmal.

    But at the same time, viewing this from my own perspective as a person in the pew who has spent more than a few decades as a “good Methodist” desperately hoping to finally understanding what Christianity is about and its impact on my life, I am starting to call discussions like these as “Ya’ll are discussing cake while the people are starving for some bread”–it is not what is going to get people in the pews.

    Since last June I have been functioning as as “Christmas and Easter Christian” when it comes to darkening the door of the church. Basically, I have set out on my own and I have learned more about “what this is about” in the last month than I have in all my previous decades. And it is primarily due to The Heidelberg Catechism which was the product of an ecumenical attempt to unify different Protestant factions on the high points of what they have in common. I had done quite a bit of reading prior to that and from time to time would trip across something that made me wonder “Why did I not know this?”. But the Heidelberg and the further enlightenment of it in “Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism” by M. Craig Barnes literally blew the lid off and became one huge never-ending “WHY DID I NOT KNOW THIS???!!!???!!!???” I also happened to delve into “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis about the same time with the same result, in additon to wondering why this is not required reading just as a starting point.

    In the introduction to the recently released book “Key Beliefs of the United Methodist Church”, the authors, Abraham and Watson, dared to identify the rock bottom problem with The UMC and basically Christianity in America: It has lost the ability to convey a basic intellectual understanding of “what this is about” to the person in the pew. To put it another way, people, me included, have absoutely no understanding/head knowledge of how much God loves all his people, even me warts and all. Kenneth Collins said it in one of his books on Wesleyan theology and I can now fully testify to its accuracy: knowledge of who God is and who I am in relation to him is the beginning of redemption.

    I am not saying efforts to be ecumenical are bad, but for a person like me who is starving for some basic bread, ya’ll are discussing cake!

    In the context of needing a balance among behaviors, belonging, beliefs–my experience within the UMC has pretty much struck out on all three:

    Behavior is encouraged but primarily as it concerns attending church,

    Belonging is a mixed message–verbal says one thing, actions and dynamics speak another truth.

    The conveying of beliefs/understanding/knowledge in any comprehensive and usable way is non-existant; at best it is haphazard and random, with perspectives depending on who is talking–including the pastor: My knowledge and understanding were random snapshots. I made sense of them as best I could; tucking each away, patiently waiting for the whole picture to emerge. Unfortunately I crashed and burned before the whole picture emerged.

    How and when does saving the UMC become about the salvation of the person in the pew and that starts with instilling an understanding that God loves everybody, including me warts and all. It may not be strictly Wesleyan–I wished his thoughts were summarized in such a way–but The Heidelberg and Barnes’ book do an absolutely amazing job of conveying that understanding; the catechism leaves absolutely no wiggle room that this is about “me also”. As Barnes states, Wesley learned and I have recently discovered, “Salvation is not a group plan, it has to work its way into individual lives.”

  2. “Too often, our best intended introductions devolve to explanations of what we are not, instead of what we are.” OUCH! Question: How DO we get beyond the ‘what we are not’ to ‘what we are’?

    Your examples shed some light…. I thought this one was particularly moving and I wonder how many pastors and church leaders would be willing to go out into the community and do the same?!?! “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.” I can see how you would have caused some heads to turn (own church) and stomachs to church (other churches not doing the same)…. but this is a wonderful example of what we could all do. The body of Christ will be more whole as folks find their place in it… and their place won’t necessarily be where we are. What a gracious and loving act to help them find their place to worship with the central focus being NOT on a certain church. Now, why won’t that work?!?!

    Thank you for continuing to speak the voice in the wilderness and to shine the light in the dark! May those that attended this conference set off a ripple effect in their respective communities…. May conversations and action of togetherness continue!


  3. All the best with that 4-alarm sinus infection—–amazing you could concentrate/compose with that monkey on your back.

    My guess is that you’re quite used to having Boards of Trustees furious at you — and other pastors being put out by you — and, of course, being criticized — in Nashville, and probably all points from there to here and in-between ( L O L ).

    YOUR PROPHETIC VOICE is very clear to me — and brings to mind an old sales motivator (or fear-provoker) PRODUCE OR PERISH! Another old thing this brings to mind is the less-than-ecumenical nature of our Roman colleagues in Christ. The commentary you shared from some of the Roman Priests just really reinforces this point for me………afraid to participate in the WCC for fear of “taking over” ?? (seriously……..) or “defined by what the Roman Catholic church will allow and accept) (seriously (again) …..) ??
    This is in no-way-shape or form to mean our Roman colleagues are the only ones with the “yes, but…………” dealbraker to Ecumenism. As you clearly observe, we Methodists ourselves are just as guilty.

    Maybe true Ecumenism will happen only after many (hundreds) of churches are closed and we get closer to the one-denomination model………….similar to the Uniting Church initiative in the Commonwealths of Canada and OZ.

  4. Couldn’t have said it better Dan, spot on! Heaven forbid we invite people to “church” regardless of which denominational door they go in. I picture Christ flipping the tables and destroying the fig tree or worse. God help us all, because when the time comes, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s