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A hermeneutic of ecumenism

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Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (I will get to celebrate it again tomorrow at St Paul’s Cathedral in Springfield, where they always save a seat for me), the complementary bookend to the Confession of St. Peter, which was a week ago. This eight-day period each January is known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Known, perhaps, but not by very many. Not by enough, at any rate. It is an observance that is simply not very widely observed. I have attempted to plant some seeds among my ecumenical opposite numbers (Roman Catholic and ELCA) in the area where I live and work, but so far they haven’t germinated.

Why? Is it because enough people don’t care about keeping one more item on the calendar, or because enough people don’t care about the underlying issue — unity among all who profess and call themselves Christians? A little of both, I suspect, but if there were more energy around the latter, the former would get more attention.

The number of distinct “brand names” of Christian bodies is staggering. It numbers in the tens of thousands. Given the manifest will of Jesus in his prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21), this reality ought to be scandalous beyond imagination. Yet, it isn’t. Instead, we have normalized a situation that we don’t see any hope of changing. We speak of the proliferation of denominations as representing healthy diversity, veritably a gift from God. Each has its market niche of ethnic or cultural or devotional proclivities, and isn’t that wonderful, because then the gospel can reach a wider variety of people? Ecumenism is nice, but not an emergency. Not an emergency at all.

Almost 15 years ago, my own church entered into a “full communion” relationship with the principal Lutheran body in the U.S. We can now swap clergy and members with minimal bureaucratic impedance. In concept, that’s a good thing. Ability to share the Eucharist and recognize sacramental ministries is the sine qua non of ecclesial unity. But what comes next in that relationship? It’s as if Called to Common Mission has inoculated us against any urge to take it to the next level. We have blunted the scandal in one small corner of the Christian universe, but we have not removed it. There are no laurels to rest on.

Not surprisingly, the churches that remain doggedly, if lethargically, active in the ecumenical project tend to be those that already have a “higher” ecclesiology, to which concerns about church order, sacramental integrity, and historic continuity are organically part of their own identity. But I sense a consistent undertone of tamped-down triumphalism from older church toward those whom they look on (secretly, in most cases) as “spinoffs” from themselves, an attitude of “we’d happily take you back if [fill in the blank].” So Anglicans can look at Methodists, for example, and think (not say, usually), “Well, you’re a chip off the old block anyway, right? The Wesley brothers both died Anglicans, after all! And we already sing some of your hymns. So, if you can just promise to be stricter about the historic episcopate and the integrity of your eucharistic rites, we can come together.” And Roman Catholics can look at Anglicans and say very much the same thing, with the final condition amended to something like recognizing the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Heck, in this era of Anglicanorum coetibus, they’ll let us hang on to various bits of Prayer Book bric-a-brac and our clearly superior hymnody. Of course, the Orthodox can look at the churches in communion with, and under fealty to, the See of Rome, and replicate the same pattern, though I won’t presume to articulate the condition.

What of free-church Evangelicalism? In America, this represents a huge percentage of those who identify as Christians. Here we’re talking about both those who participate in some sort of denominational structure, even if a loose one, wearing a brand label (some kinds of Baptists, for example), and those who either wear their denominational affiliation as an undergarment, or have none at all (including the Willow Creek-style megachurches). I hope I’m not being either inaccurate or uncharitable if I say, among these groups, ecclesiology as a division of systematic theology barely creates a blip on their radar, so, in the absence of anything intentionally well-thought through, their default ecclesiology is rooted in the notion of the autonomy of the local congregation. Among these folks, many of whom I hold in high esteem because my own youthful roots as a Christian are in that tradition, my experience is that they have effectively mentally blocked out the existence of Christians who are not Christian like they are Christian. In their peripheral vision, they are aware of churches that are just weird (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, most Lutherans and most Anglicans — with passes give to the likes of Lewis, Packer, and Stott) and churches that have jumped the shark on moral issues (old-line Protestants). But, among themselves, they see no functional disunity. Each local congregation is pursuing its mission in its own context and in its own way, but if a bunch of pastors get together for a retreat, they won’t think twice about having a communion service, and it wouldn’t matter who presides or whether there’s an epiclesis; such things just don’t occur to them. That may be a good thing; I’m trying to make an observation, not a judgment.

Interestingly, in my last two cures, I was involved with the Greater Warsaw Ministerial Association and the Stockton Leadership Foundation. Both groups were dominated by the attitude I described in the last paragraph. On many levels, I felt a more authentic Christian bond among those colleagues than I do when I’m at a provincial gathering of my own church (General Convention, House of Bishops). But I was also usually frustrated when I was with them for the sheer lack of any ecclesiological substance in their thinking. I don’t know how I would have even begun to articulate my concerns to them. There wasn’t even enough of a common vocabulary from which to do so, and way too many divergent assumptions.

So we have blinded ourselves to the scandal, either by rationalizing our divisions, by partial measures like full-communion agreements, by crypto-triumphalism in our ecumenical endeavors, and by severely limiting the section of the playing field that we pay attention to. But the scandal is still there. It still grieves the heart of Christ, and is therefore still an emergency.

A hermeneutic is a fundamental interpretive framework, the default lens through which we mentally process the stream of data on a particular subject. I have a Pandora station dedicated to organ music, and I have, with some effort, taught it to strain out anything that isn’t organ music. It has pretty much gotten the algorithm right now, and has an organ music hermeneutic.

At the close of 2014′s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my hope is that I, and anyone whom I might influence, will adopt a hermeneutic of ecumenism in what we say, what we write, and how we pray. To borrow the rhetoric of liberation theology, this implies a preferential option for ecumenism in our thinking and in our ecclesiastical discourse, as we take our share in the councils of the church.

It means we train ourselves to unfailingly ask the question, What are the ecumenical implications if we do X or Y? And if doing X or Y will have an adverse ecumenical impact, we probably then decide not to do X or Y, even if, in our own internal life, it seems right and good.

This is what it means to “seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions” (BCP, p. 818). It means no longer rationalizing our “sad divisions” as a blessing. It means laying aside the notion that any part of the community of Christian communities possesses the fullness of ecclesial life, but we are, all of us, profoundly broken and incomplete in our state of broken or impaired communion, and that this state of brokenness is the the single most powerful impediment to the prosecution of the Church’s mission of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ. For our free-church Evangelical friends, it means waking up out of their ecclesiological torpor and engaging with more seriousness the fact that Jesus left a church behind when he ascended to the right hand of the Father. It means developing the capacity for restraint, bathing in St Paul’s counsel to the Corinthian church that they “wait for one another” (I Corinthians 11:33).

The Church will never die this side of the eschaton. Of that we are well-assured. But that doesn’t mean it won’t die in Europe and North America, even as it died in North Africa and most of the lands that now comprise Turkey. This is one of the “great dangers” arising from our “sad divisions.” When Christianity was the centerpiece of the culture, we could fool ourselves that there was nothing strange about churches of different brand names gracing all four corners of a downtown intersection. We can no longer afford that illusion. Blessed Peter and Paul, pillars of the Church, pray for us.

Now, a bit of a postscript for Anglicans (who are probably the great majority of anyone reading this post anyway): We have, of course, an “ecumenical situation” internally. This is to our great shame, and there are no innocent parties. We will never be able to simply walk back what has been done in the past decade, anymore than toothpaste can be put back into its tube. But we can still have a hermeneutic of ecumenism, a preferential option for unity, going forward, and in so doing, make it less difficult for the generation that comes after us to repair the breaches we have caused in our intemperance and haste. Among other things, this means disentangling ourselves from the secular legal system. Surely we can find those in another wing of the household of faith who can help us resolve our differences over property and other assets charitably and justly. HOB colleagues, I’m talking to you. ACNA friends, I’m talking to you. If you love Jesus, you will heed my advice. Because I’m pretty sure Jesus wants us to try something different, to cast our nets on the other side of the boat, because, whatever we’re doing now, they’re coming up empty.

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