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Feeding God together: An ecumenism of mercy

Our parish, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, sits on a major street at the edge of the great city of Toronto, with over 2.5 million residents. Less than a kilometer away sits Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church.

For years now, both parishes join together every Sunday night from November through Easter in a program called “Out of the Cold,” hosting homeless folks who flock from all over the city for a feast. After supper, many of the men choose to stay overnight and keep warm, sleeping on mats on the gym floor. Many sit and chat, or watch the nightly movie; others take the time to shower, and pick out warm clothes.

The last time I volunteered, I talked with a Roman Catholic lady struggling with her faith and the stance of her church. We talked about how much we have in common in doctrine and in practice, and how little we worship together and serve together. She was someone without much of a theological background, and so it was difficult to explain to her why Anglican orders are not received as valid, or how our Communion has drifted further from Rome doctrinally over the years. For her, these esoteric beliefs — doctrines — were getting in the way of real fellowship.

I know that we cannot brush aside doctrine, yet I sympathized with this lady. What is more, I couldn’t begin to explain why, despite our differences, we put so little effort into joint mission and service initiatives. I stammered.

It’s a scandal was all I could say. And it is a scandal.

I cannot share the Eucharist with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and for other reasons, they can’t share the Eucharist with me. We are divided. And yet we share a common baptism, common creeds, and a common faith. There is no reason why we can’t serve the poor together, or proclaim the gospel with one another. We are divided, but our division is not in this. When we neglect to work ecumenically for mission, we are not only reinforcing the Reformation’s sting, but are opening new wounds that need not exist at all.

In fact, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) was established for this very reason, to spur one another on to the mission that is possible despite our disagreements. These “visible and practical outcomes” of the spiritual unity we share are vitally important. In his reflections on the recent IARCCUM pilgrimage, published last month on Covenant, Bishop John Bauerschmidt put his finger on this issue:

[G]iven the areas in which we have theological agreement, there ought to be many things that we can do together as Christians in witness in the world. If there are things that we can do together, then we have to wonder why we are not doing them.

To put it succinctly, in light of the events in Rome last October, Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin Welby, and a whole host of bishops and other Roman Catholic and Anglican representatives are urging all of us to share in mission together. We must start listening.

There is a lot of tedium in my ministry as a lay pastor. Emails flood continually, lessons need to be written, events need planning; I once spent an hour searching for a projector that was locked in a storage room. Some weeks it can feel like the bulk of my time is spent maintaining programs rather than engaging in life-changing ministry. When I serve with “Out of the Cold” (which, to my shame, is not as often as I should), I feel deeply connected to the presence of Christ. And though I go to offer friendship and food to those in need, I come away feeling revitalized and full of hope.

I cannot share the Eucharist with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters; together we can’t be nourished side-by-side with the body and blood of our Lord. However, side-by-side we can nourish Christ, in “the least of these.” We cannot together touch the blood of our Lord to our lips, but we can place a warm cup of tea into the hands of those to whom Christ is especially close, the poor. We cannot welcome each other into the paschal mystery through the Eucharist, but we can welcome our crucified Lord as he appears to us in the most vulnerable. Our priests cannot vest together to preside jointly at the Mass, but we can vest our neighbours who have no place to live with warm clothes for the winter.

This is how ecumenism looks on the ground. When struggling Catholics and battered Anglicans or evangelical Methodsts with fiery passion come together to serve the Lord in works of mercy, something very beautiful happens. Our eyes move from our all-too-present divisions to touching Christ in one of the only ways we can together: as he comes to us in the poor.

Now remember, this isn’t the end game. We cannot be content merely to serve together, no matter how effective it may be, no matter how closely it may bind us together. As Fr. Mac Stewart observed in his article on IARCCUM’s Growing Together in Unity and Mission, “there is not a naïve expectation that simply working together at soup kitchens will overcome the theological convictions that stand in the way of full, visible communion.” Rather, Fr. Mac goes on to note, the goal of this common mission is to promote “mutual charity and hospitality.” We cannot rest until we are once more at one, not just in our service but sacramentally. We have not achieved the kind of unity we are called to pray for until we can share in the Great Mystery, the Eucharist. This is still on the horizon, just beyond our line of sight (though we might feel the distance shrinking).

To sum up, then, my appeal is to be faithful in recognizing and making use of the fellowship we can have. It may not be as deep as we would like, but it is deeper than many of us realize. Let us be faithful with this little, then, that we might be ready to confidently hold out our hands together to receive more.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, … “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

… Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:32a, 35–40)


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