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Learning new ecclesial languages

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Bishop Dan Martins wrote a provocative piece the other day challenging all Christians, and especially Anglicans, to remember that Christian unity is not just some nice, pie-in-the-sky ideal but the single most important thing that Christians ought to be focusing on ecumenically. “We have blinded ourselves to the scandal,” he says, “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.” And, moreover, it creates a massive roadblock for many people coming to know Jesus. The problem is mammoth. What are we to do about it?

I do not know how far it will get us towards the goal of visible unity, but one thing I have experienced that has helped me to better understand my fellow Christians is to learn to speak what we might call their ecclesial language. I mean really speak it, fluently. What I mean by ecclesial language is not merely the words and phrases that particular groups of Christians tend to use, but also the grammar, the syntax, and the culture that surround its application. These are not things you pick up easily. You have to work at it, by getting to know people and by seeing how the thing operates from the inside. You have to consciously put yourself in the presence of that tradition long enough to imbibe it on its own terms. No one has ever learned a language by talking to one’s self. To truly learn a language requires immersion.

My Native Tongue

I grew up Roman Catholic. While my experience of Roman Catholicism was very different from that of most people, Catholicism was nevertheless home. What I gained from that experience, among other things, is an intrinsic sense of the culture of Catholicism. Of course, Catholicism spans many different cultures, even just in the United States, but there are certain commonalities. I know nothing of what it is like to be Latino, for instance, but when I listen to Latino Catholics speak about their faith, I can totally track with many of their experiences. That is because I know how it feels to be a Roman Catholic. I know, from the inside, what Roman Catholics mean when they say certain things. I am, if you like, a native speaker of Roman Catholicism. Even now, having been away from that church for more than half my life, I can still call up the language on occasion when needed. Sometimes I even still catch myself, when listening to other types of Christians, filtering what they are saying through a Roman Catholic lens so that I can understand it better, translating in my head. When I hear Roman Catholics talking, theologians and laity alike, I understand them in a way that those who have never been Catholic might not.

A Taste of the Orient

Years after I left the Roman Catholic Church, I became engulfed in a crisis of faith about my place within Anglicanism. It was at that time that I began to explore Eastern Orthodoxy. The language of Orthodoxy was different from anything I had experienced before. It was rich and exotic. Though many of the concepts were the same as what I had known as a Catholic, and even much of the grammar and syntax were familiar, the flavor of the words was different. There was a different poetic sensibility. I discovered this easily enough from reading the works of converts from Anglicanism like Frederica Mathewes-Green and Kallistos Ware. But it was not really driven home for me until I sought out some Orthodox people, making friends with a few Orthodox priests and taking some time to walk in their worlds. They encouraged me with more reading, podcasts, trips, prayers, and invitations to join in the Divine Liturgy. I cannot say that my tour of Orthodoxy was comprehensive, but it was thorough. In the end, I did not decide to become Orthodox. I realized that Anglicanism was where I belonged, for reasons both personal and philosophical. Nonetheless, I came away with a different understanding, so that now when I hear Orthodox Christians speak, I have a greater feel for what they are saying than I would have otherwise. Unlike Roman Catholicism. I am fluent in Orthodoxy, but I am not a native speaker. I doubt I ever could be, even if I became Orthodox. But I can understand so much more than I would be able to if I just assumed that I could follow what is being said without knowing its larger context.

Decoding the Language of Concordia

My most recent sojourn has been in the world of confessional Lutheranism, and this one I experienced quite by accident. Through a series of strange connections, I have somehow found myself friends with a number of pastors in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, both locally and across the country. Admittedly, LCMS is a pretty specific dialect of Lutheran. I had the chance to speak a little ELCA back when I was in seminary, but I cannot say I ever really got the hang of it since its sound was hard for me to distinguish from the other Mainline languages around it. But the LCMS folks I know now live in their Lutheranism. It is their world. And it has taken me more to understand that world than any other I have encountered, at least in part because it has required me to get over some of my prejudices about “Protestants” (which I have learned, by the way, that they do not like to be called — who knew?). Those guys are really excited about their confessions. Like, really excited. So I read them. And then I read the other stuff that the guys who wrote those confessions wrote. And I still did not get it. So I asked a lot of questions and said a lot of dumb stuff to them. I made comments during Bible Study that would make the whole room look at me like I just peed in the communal punch bowl. But that is how immersion works. You risk saying the wrong thing. You make mistakes. You get better. Now I have guys telling me I know Lutheranism better than many Lutherans do. They are flattering me, of course, but I will take it. Again, I have no desire to become Lutheran. And when topics come up where we differ, I vigorously pursue the debate. Nonetheless, by taking the time to live in their world for a bit, I now find those debates much more fruitful than I once did. It is not just a back-and-forth where we lob bombs at one another about who is the bigger heretic. There is genuine shared understanding about our differences.

Differences Matter

This, I think, is key. All too often, ecumenism becomes an exercise in minimizing differences between Christian traditions, as if those differences do not really matter. But they do matter. They are really, really, super important. I agree with Bishop Martins that our divisions are an absolute scandal and that we should be doing everything in our power to heal them. But we are not simply divided because people are irrational and stupid. There are things at stake here. All Christian churches are charged with the care of souls. If we get these things wrong, the consequences are eternal. So I try not to take it personally that my Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and LCMS friends do not share Holy Communion with me. It is not because they are arrogant or rude. It is because they think this stuff really matters. And it breaks their hearts, as much as mine, that this is the case.

I still have many more languages to learn. I fear that all too often I speak a critical word about my brothers and sisters in Christ from other traditions without first trying to understand exactly what it is that they are saying. Learning new ecclesial languages is hard. It requires letting go. It also sometimes requires a thick skin, as not everything that folks say in private is all that edifying. But it is a worthwhile pursuit if our goal is real unity in Christ.

Speaking Anglican

Anglicans are in a unique position to do this kind of linguistic learning. Our own tradition affords a kind of breadth that allows for multiple languages to be spoken. Of course, it is easy in such a setting to lose yourself if you are not careful. One of our great problems as Anglicans today is that we have been so keen to allow other languages to influence us that we have largely stopped speaking our own. The Anglican language spoken by our forebears in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is well on its way to becoming a dead language. The 39 Articles are often dismissed and the prayer book has been revised almost into oblivion. Our own sense of ourselves is staggeringly inconsistent, which is why when we are speaking to others, they are often as baffled by us as we are baffled by ourselves. But if we can learn again to speak our own language robustly, our ability to understand and be understood by others will certainly improve. It may seem ironic or out of place, but I truly believe that the single greatest thing we can do today as Anglicans to help the ecumenical endeavor is to become better acquainted with our own tradition. As we learn who we are, we will be equipped to better understand others. Who knows but that God may see fit to bring a new Pentecost moment among us.

4 Responses to “Learning new ecclesial languages”

  1. Bishop Daniel Martins says:

    Excellent insights here. I was raised free-church evangelical (non-affiliated Baptist), in the shadow of Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute. I found it not only a language, but a veritable sub-culture. I left that tradition in early adulthood, and it had itself evolved in ways I would not have predicted 40 years ago. I have probably lost my fluency in the language. But I have on several occasions become highly annoyed when people who have never inhabited that world have presumed to judge it or criticize it, revealing in their very words that they have never learned the language, and, in fact, have grossly misunderstood it. Yes, learning to speak the language of our ecumenical partners, and potential ecumenical partners, is of critical importance.

  2. Thank you for that, Bishop. Your witness on this is very helpful. I’m curious, have you written anywhere about the path that led you from free-church evangelical to where you are now? If so, I would love to read it.

  3. Matthew Dallman says:

    There is no better anchor for rediscovering Anglican identity than English Spirituality by Martin Thornton. Indeed the book was written for expressly that purpose.

  4. Doug Simmons says:

    I was raised in a Southern Baptist church (of the high sort, to the extent that there is such among Southern Baptists, according to my first wife who was raised in an Assembly of God church) so that would be my native ecclesiological language. I was received into an Episcopalian church a few years ago, and understand the need to translate my new language into a framework I can more readily comprehend. My journey started with a liking for more liturgical worship styles (perhaps my exposure to Roman Catholicism when I attended kindergarten at the parochial school as a child planted a seed that took root), but as time went on and I studied the articles of faith in the Book of Common Prayer (by then I was dating a cradle Episcopalian) that there were very few things there that bothered me in my theology, the issue of pedo-baptism perhaps chief among them. When I discovered that even the Episcopalians I discussed this with were actually somewhat ambivalent about it I knew I could at least fit in, and I have been relatively happy in this new community so far.

    I like to think that I am pretty ecumenical in my viewpoint, advocating what I call a “trans-denominational” understanding of the nature of the church. By this I mean that the entirety of the Church, the Body of Christ, is embodied in the variety of denominations and styles which are found throughout it. If, as Aquinas observed, God is beyond our ability to comprehend it seems certain that the narrow focus on Him that any one or group of us are able to bring through our various Confessions and approaches to worship can begin to address Him in the fullness of His nature and attributes. Surely the reverence of the high church liturgies and the ecstatic ferver of the Pentacostals are both appropriate means of honoring the Author and Creator of all that is. That I don’t personally resonate with some forms of worship does not invalidate them or the theological understandings which form the foundations for those differing ways of doing “church.” So long as the language in use is consistent with and proclaiming the core of the “one Faith” (summed up well in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) should we not look on other groups as fellow members of the Body of Christ in the fullest sense of that concept?

    Paul spoke of the members of the Body of Christ, comparing hands with feet and eyes with ears, saying that each has its own function and purpose in carrying out the work of the Body (1Cor12:12-30). Was he only speaking of the individual people who make up the Body? Are these not functional units made up of individual cells who are organized together to accomplish some specific purpose within the Body?

    Perhaps if we viewed the Evangelicals as the feet who eagerly carry the Gospel to those who need to hear it, and the Pentacostals as the open and uplifted hands of praise who glorify Him who gives us life, even as the Liturgicals (of whatever stripe) give reverence and honor to His Holiness, and spoke openly of this understanding of the One Body, then maybe the world would be a little less scandalized by the divisions among us. How can it not be when we continue to maintain in our own practices divisions based on such insignificant differences.

    A few years ago I attended the ordination of our new rector, and I wore a robe and stole (of an Evangelical style) but sat among the clergy present. Afterwards one of the ladies of our congregation asked my why I had been vested during the service. I told her that I was an ordained minister “in another tradition.” Completely satisfied with this explanation, she moved on and like many others in our fellowship has been more than happy to call on my experience and background when it has been appropriate. But I know there is a limit to what that status permits me to do. I have led morning prayer in the absence of the rector. I have served as Crucifer and Lay Eucharistic Minister in assisting both the rector and our Bishop when he has been present. Now, unfortunately, our little congregation is in crisis. Our beloved rector passed away suddenly a couple of weeks ago. We will have morning prayer some Sundays and full services when a visiting priest is available. My “other tradition” status prevents me from carrying out the Eucharistic service and so we must rely on the charity of strangers for awhile. I’m not complaining. I accept the situation. But I also recognize it as a statement that, because I was not ordained by bishops in the Anglican tradition (a.k.a. the Apostolic Succession) I am not fully acceptable within my new church home, at least as far as serving as a minister to the community. To be blunt, I am told that though I might have no theological problem with making the Eucharist, still my words and my hands are not acceptable. At the very least, this makes the words of the ecumenical prayers sound a little hollow when I hear them prayed in the Episcopal service.

    May we arrive sooner rather than later at a point when we can all affirm the words of St. Paul: “There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

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