By Cole Hartin
My family and I recently moved to Saint John, a beautiful little city on Canada’s East coast. For all of its perks — ancient mountains, beautiful beaches, the presence of the Saint John River (“the Rhine of North America”), and the deep local history — there is also the difficult reality of economic struggle. Saint John was once a thriving industrial hub, and now suffers from the same post-industrial malaise as many cities in this part of the country.
The situation with churches mirrors the economic landscape. They were built years ago to serve the many neighbourhoods of a bustling city; churches were plentiful enough that almost anyone could easily walk from home on a Sunday morning. Since then the population has thinned and church attendance has plummeted all around. Many buildings now stand vacant or have been sold off to be destroyed or used as warehouses.
Because of the closure of many churches, I find that we have many guests from other denominations visiting our parish simply because we are one of the few still standing in the neighbourhood. We welcome Roman Catholics, Baptists, and United Church folk. When I meet them and hear their stories I’m left with questions: Should I offer to help them find a parish within their previous denomination, or should I invite them to stay with us? If I encourage them to stick around, am I stealing sheep?
This is an especially thorny dilemma because of the ecumenical heart of Anglicanism, and indeed my commitment to ecumenism. Ecumenism is a distinctive of the Anglican tradition that cuts across theological and political divides. Anglicanism recognizes itself, in the now famous words of Archbishop Ramsey, as “something of which it is a fragment.” He goes on to say that Anglicanism’s
credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 188)
This is something that all Anglicans — high or low church, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic, or evangelical — recognize.
This recognition that the Anglican Church is not the Church Catholic, but merely one part of if, affects the way that Anglicans interact with our sisters and brothers from other churches. Whether we worship in the most Anglo-Catholic of parishes, or our services are barely distinguishable from the local evangelical church, Anglicans recognize that the body of Christ extends beyond our ecclesial borders. We might differ in our opinions about how far these borders extend and to whom, but this is a question of degree only.
This ecumenical conundrum is not only an Anglican problem — for there are ecumenical Christians of all persuasions — but I think it is most pressing to Anglicans. Generally speaking, other traditions see themselves as more fully encompassing the heart of Christian faith. To some degree, Roman Catholics recognize other churches and ecclesial communities, including their gifts, but believe unity with the Apostolic See of Rome is necessary for fullness of ecclesial communion. Orthodox Churches vacillate in their reception of other traditions, with some completely deaf to the possibility of true faith existing outside of their communion and others who are quite open to this. And it’s still common to hear of evangelicals coming to the reluctant conclusion that there are probably true Christians in Catholic or mainline churches, but this is always despite their erroneous beliefs.
I have a difficult time imagining a Catholic priest or a Baptist pastor telling a visiting parishioner to remain faithful to a prior congregation, but this is only based on anecdotal evidence.
This moves from a theoretical ecumenism into a very practical pastoral question when we encounter those from other traditions in our parishes. My tendency is to encourage Roman Catholic sojourners to continue attending Mass at the next parish. I’d love for them to stay here and worship with us, but I feel like this cheapens something of their beliefs, as well as the authority of their church. When it comes to visiting Baptists, I have the same dilemma. I encourage them to continue in fellowship with the local congregation, but I’d somehow want them to move closer to the deeper apostolicity I see vestiges of in the Anglican Communion.
Some friends and I had a joke in seminary; we referred to the Anglican Communion as a halfway house because we watched many, many of our friends, in their ecclesial migrations, step through the Anglican Church for a time, only to end up somewhere else. Baptists needed Anglicanism as a stepping stone to Orthodoxy, or burnt-out Roman Catholics needed Anglicanism as temporary shelter before they moved into Pentecostalism. Anglicanism had little staying power for them, and it did little by way of evangelization, but it proved a vital avenue within Christianity. Anglicanism seemed never to be the destination, but always an integral part of a journey.
But now as a pastor within the Anglican tradition, I see some enduring beauty and truth in it, even in this fragment of Catholicism. Is there some set of practical guidelines for hospitality toward those who are from other Christian traditions? I hope evangelicals, without compromising their commitments, come into the Anglican fold because I believe that, despite our failures, we retain a vital mark of the church with our episcopacy. I struggle with Roman Catholics who are seeking solace amid systemic abuse. It’s not that I am not privy to the abuse in our churches, but rather I think Anglicanism’s ability to be self-critical, and even to admit our sinfulness in ways that have not been possible among other traditions, is truly liberating.
Is there a way to be open and inviting to those on the edges of their native traditions, while also maintaining a robust ecumenism? While our boundaries are intentionally porous — all baptized Christians are welcomed to the table — the favor is not often returned. Is there a way to gather in the wandering sheep, without being perceived as a predator by other churches?
These are questions to which I don’t have any concrete answers, but I believe they will only become more pressing as our churches are pressed together in world that is increasingly post-Christian.