Friday, 31 May 2013

When clergy become sleuths: some thoughts on the clerical fiction of Andrew Greeley, Harry Kemelman, and G.K. Chesterton

Having just learned of the death of Fr. Andrew Greeley (priest, social scientist, and novelist) after a few years' poor health following a brain injury caused by a road accident, I wish to spend some time reflecting on a genre in which he was one of a handful of writers:  mysteries in which the amateur sleuth is a member of the clergy.

I'm aware of three writers (as of today, all deceased) who have mastered this genre:
  • G.K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown was a British Catholic priest in the early 20th century,
  • Harry Kemelman, whose Rabbi David Small served a congregation in rural Massachusetts in the late 20th century, and
  • Andrew M. Greeley, whose Bishop John Blackwood ("Blackie") Ryan was a Catholic Auxiliary Bishop in Chicago in the late 20th-early 21st centuries.
They have a few things in common.

Their mysteries are all of the traditionally British-style "drawing room" type of mystery in which a (frequently eccentric) amateur sleuth solves a mystery which baffles the professional police using sheer intelligence and logic , rather than the traditional American-style "mean streets" mystery, featuring a hard-boiled private investigator, usually with a self-destructive lifestyle (even though both Kemelman and Greeley were Americans).

Their clerical sleuths are all clergy who work with lay people in the real world.  None are "ivory tower" academics.

Each of the three clergy have a fairly nondescript and unimpressive appearance.  They are the sort who blend into the background, and who are frequently underestimated by those who don't know them.

Each uses the logic of their profession and their tradition to seek the truth about the mystery in front of them (as each also uses the logic of their profession and their tradition to seek the truth about deeper Mysteries).  For Fr. Brown, it's the Thomist tradition.  For Rabbi Small, the logic is Talmudic.  For Blackie Ryan, the logic derives from the wisdom of the gospels, the 2nd Vatican Council, the Irish-American experience, and the dynamic and diverse cultural experience that one finds in the city of Chicago.

Each author uses his clerical sleuth to teach the public - including those who would rarely enter the doors of a church or synagogue - significant truths about the realities of their faith traditions.  Given the high levels of prejudice traditionally faced (and, sadly, still faced) both by Jews and by Catholics, they have a significant role in combatting sectarian prejudice.
  • As a Christian, much of my understanding and appreciation of Judaism was obtained through Harry Kemelman and Rabbi David Small.
  • As a "Protestant", increasingly much of my appreciation of Catholicism in the English-speaking world is courtesy of Andrew M. Greeley and Bishop "Blackie" Ryan.
I'm unaware of any living mystery writers with an ordained sleuth, which is too bad.  Alexander McCall Smith's Isobel Dalhousie is an academic ethicist, which I suppose is pretty close.  Perhaps there's room today for a mystery-solving female Anglican vicar.  (Are there any takers out there among any potential Agatha Christies?)

Nevertheless, the world is poorer without Fr. Greeley and his sensitive portrayal of the world of faith.   May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Truth vs. "truthiness": a sermon (Psalm 96:13)

He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.        (Psalm 96:13b, NRSV)

In the Scriptures, we learn a number of things about truth.

One thing we learn is that truth liberates.  In the gospel of John, Jesus was once in a heated discussion with the crowds and he declared to them, “… [Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  The motto of my undergraduate college, Lafayette, was the last part of this statement – “[T]he truth will make you free” – in Latin: Veritas liberabit.  The truth liberates.

A contrasting thing we learn about truth from the scriptures is that many people are very cynical about truth.  Also in the gospel of John, Jesus was on trial before the cruel Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  Jesus made a speech in his defense, in which he appealed to “the truth”.  Pilate responded by asking (and, I believe, asking very cynically) “What is truth?”  And I believe the spirit of Pilate’s question is more accurately presented if we translate it as “What the hell is truth?”

Alongside Jesus’ affirmation that truth liberates, and contrasted with Pilate’s cynical dismissal of truth, we also have the Psalmist’s hope that God can enable us to be participants in God’s truth,
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.

But, you know, given both the liberating character of real truth and our culture’s cynicism toward truth, sometimes truth has been domesticated and diluted until it becomes something else instead. 

In recent years, a word was coined for this diluted version of the truth.  It’s called “truthiness”.  It’s associated with the brilliant TV comedian Stephen Colbert.  But I’m told it originally came from the queen of daytime television, Miss Oprah Winfrey.  Oprah was conned by a writer into promoting as a true autobiographical story a book that proved to be very much an imaginative work of fiction.  She promoted the book on her TV show and in her book club.  At one point, as the truthfulness of the book was being questioned but before the full extent of the con really dawned on her, Oprah defended the book by saying something like “Even if it’s not completely true, there’s a lot of truthiness in it.” 

“Truthiness” is artificial truth.  “Truthiness” is anything that feels true when it isn’t.  It’s the sort of thing that “everyone knows is true” even when it isn’t really true.  It’s the sort of thing that Hitler spoke about when he spoke of “The Big Lie”.  If you tell a whopper, but look very sincere when you do so, and act very sure of yourself, many people will find you very believable, even if they know you’re not telling the truth.

·        Racial, ethnic, and sectarian stereotypes are exercises in “truthiness”.

·        Many of the old proverbs you were taught on your granny’s knee contain as much “truthiness” as they do truth.

·        The professional bigots who are active in commercial talk-back radio are past masters of the art of “truthiness”.  So are the people who try to sell you dodgy investments.  So is the religious leader who tries to gain converts by putting down other faiths, other philosophies, or other lifestyles.

 “Truthiness” is all around us.

In politics, business, and the media, “truthiness” is often called “spin”, and the people who engage in it are called “spin doctors”.  It used to be called “PR”.  There are far more colourful terms for “truthiness” as well.

“Truthiness” often functions as an attractive substitute for the truth for many people.

·        Sometimes when the truth is unpopular, a more palatable “truthiness” will be regarded by many people as more true than the actual truth.

·        Sometimes when the truth requires us to change our ideas or to abandon our treasured prejudices, a less demanding “truthiness” will be regarded by many people as more true than the actual truth.

·        Sometimes when the truth is complicated, as the truth often is, a simpler “truthiness” will be regarded by many people as more true than the actual truth.

Oscar Wilde, in The Importance of Being Earnest, probably the greatest comic play ever written in the English language, tells us this very clearly.  One of the lead characters in the play, Algernon, was asked for “the whole truth pure and simple”.  Algernon wisely replied “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”  Truth is frequently complicated.  Truth needs its space.  Truth is often too complicated to be expressed fairly and accurately in a politician’s “30-second grab”, in an advertising executive’s “elevator speech”, on a bumper sticker, or on a t-shirt.

 “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”  The problem here is that “truthiness” often looks single-mindedly pure, and that “truthiness” is always simple even to the point of simplistic.

The real problem with this palatable, undemanding, simple and simplistic “truthiness” is that it’s not really the truth.  And as it’s not really the truth, it does not liberate.  “…[Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  But if you are satisfied with a mere “truthiness”, that “truthiness” won’t set you free.  Truth liberates.  “Truthiness” enslaves.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.

We too are challenged to seek the truth that is the Living God and to participate in this truth.  To do so, we need to see through the artificial truth, the “spin”, the “truthiness” that our culture often promotes as a substitute for truth.

As Jesus followed the liberating truth all the way to the cross, let us challenge anything in our culture (and in our own lives) that is satisfied with anything less than the truth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

On guys, blokes, chaps, dudes, and geezers

Every now and then, I hear someone on talk-back radio (or read a comment in a "letters to the editor" page) complaining about the use of the word "guy".

Some complain about the word "guy" because of its popularity in youth culture.

Others complain because they see "guy" as an American word and would rather promote the use of the "more Australian" term "bloke".  (They ignore the fact that "bloke" was originally a British term, rather than an Australian one.)

And, really, both "guy" and "bloke" are international words.

As British a source as Gilbert and Sullivan (in "The Mikado") told of "a lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy".

Similarly, as American a source as Cab Calloway (in his song "Minnie the Moocher") described Minnie's boyfriend as "a bloke named Smokey".

The problem, really, is that we need a casual term for an adult, male human.   And "guy" often works pretty well ... often better than the alternatives.

There are problems with the formal term for an adult, male human:  man.  The problem is that many cultural ultra-conservatives want to hijack man to speak, not only of an individual adult, male human, but also as a collective term for all people.  So, if I use the word man, people may be confused if I'm using the word the way normal people use it, or in the way cultural ultra-conservatives use it.

As a result, we need other - colloquial - words for an adult, male human.  And so many of these colloquial words only describe some men, but not others.

A bloke, for example, is normally a working-class man, or a man from a working-class background ... or at least one with working-class pretensions.  A bloke is usually a heavy drinker ... a problem gambler ... sports-mad ... smokes like a 1970s cab-driver ... good at D.I.Y. ... swears like a cop ... farts like a Labrador.

A chap is the opposite of a bloke.  If one man describes another man as a chap, they're both upper-class twits.

Normally a younger man, a dude is overly fashion conscious ... obsessively grooming conscious.  A dude frequently fancies himself as God's gift to women.  A dude frequently fancies himself ... full stop.

A geezer is a bloke who has passed his "use-by date"A geezer is an older bloke who is very opinionated ... frequently bigoted ... ethically "flexible" ... not averse to operating on the wrong side of the law ... occasionally hygenically-challenged.

And what do you call a man who doesn't qualify as a bloke, a chap, a dude, or a geezer?

Why he's just a regular guy, that's what.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The ethics of the Trinity

I want to begin by saying something you may find rather surprising.  The Bible doesn’t really say a lot about the Trinity.  In fact, the Bible doesn’t really say anything about the Trinity.  This shouldn’t be as surprising as it is.  The idea of the Trinity did not really take shape until a few centuries after the New Testament was completed.

As a result, the people who compiled the lectionary had a hard job in finding scripture passages for Trinity Sunday each year in the three-year cycle.  They tended to select passages where references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mentioned together: 
·         Paul blessing the Corinthians in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
·         Jesus teaching the disciples to baptise in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This all teaches us an important lesson.  While our Christian beliefs begin with the scriptures, they can never end there.  Something as central to the Christian faith as the Trinity is not found in any significant way in the Bible.  I’ll be very Wesleyan here and say that our beliefs as Christians are the result of the interaction of Scripture, our church traditions, our reason, and our varied experience.
Anyway, back to the Trinity, a classic depiction of the Trinity, an image that has been rediscovered by many Christians in recent decades, is found in an old Russian icon by Andrei Rublev:  I have a copy of this icon over my desk.  It’s shown at the beginning of this blog.  Like many icons from the Orthodox tradition, Rublev’s icon is about two things:
·         The first thing is the story in the book of Genesis of Abraham offering hospitality to three strangers, who announce the startling news that Sarah is to have a child in her old age.
·         The second thing is the Trinity: 

The connection between the story from Genesis and the Trinity sounds pretty far-fetched to us now, but that is how many Christians interpreted that passage at the time when Rublev painted his icon.  It was a much less critical age than the one in which we live.  In those days, many Christians regarded the three strangers in the Genesis story as a symbol of the Trinity.
Looking at this icon, some things may strike us.
·         In the icon, there are three distinct figures sitting around the table, representing the three distinct identities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
·         Each figure has the same face as the others - a youthful face that can be the face of a person of either gender.  The single face represents the one central reality of the living God.
·        The three figures together form a circle, representing the profound unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the living God.
·         There is a fourth place at the table.  The dynamic love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the living God draws the world, the worshipper, you and I, into the picture to share the banquet.  The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other overflows into a creative, self-sacrificing love for the world.

Now, thinking of this overflowing, creative, self-sacrificing love of Father, Son. and Holy Spirit, how does this help us in our lives to follow the ethics of the Trinity?  I have three ideas I’d like to share.

1          Firstly, within the Christian Church, there are three main branches:   Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, a Trinity of Traditions, if you will.  Can we say today, within the life of the Christian Church, that the love of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox for each other overflows into a creative, self-sacrificing love for the world?    (We are doing a lot better in this regard than Christians did fifty years ago, but there is still a long way to go.)

2.         Secondly, within the wider people of God, we find further possibilities.  One of the names of the Rublev icon is the Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham.  There are the three Abrahamic faiths, the three faiths that trace their heritage back to Abraham’s journey of faith: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
We need to be cautious here.  For both Jews and Muslims, the idea of the Trinity poses a real problem.  Judaism and Islam are both much more radically monotheistic than Christianity. 

But, using a bit of poetic license, we still can see a Trinity of Faiths.  Can we say today, that the love of the various faiths for each other overflows into a creative, self-sacrificing love for the world?   (If anything, it seems at the moment like a cruel joke to even suggest it.)

3.         Thirdly, how about something a little less “religious”.  Here in Australia, we have a Trinity of Cultures:
·         We have the indigenous people of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, ancient custodians and stewards of this land, people for whom this land is profoundly sacred.

·         We have the Anglo-Celtic “settler” culture: those who came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and other English-speaking lands (not to forget their descendants over the generations); bringing language, laws, and a range of institutions that - for better or worse, probably a bit of both - have made up the dominant culture from 1788 through to the foreseeable future.

·         We also have the migrant communities: those who in recent decades have come to this land bringing their skills, their cultures, their faiths, and their cuisines, who have enriched this land immeasurably, who have helped to make Australia a far better nation (even in the face of massive prejudice).  Not the least of the ways they have enriched this land is seen in the fact that today in Australia you can get a decent cup of coffee in even the smallest country town.

In Australia, we have a Trinity of Cultures.  Can we say that in contemporary Australia that the love of indigenous, settler, and migrant Australians for each other overflows into a creative, self-sacrificing love for the world?  
Christians – at least those within the Christian mainstream - worship God as Trinity
·         God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
·         God as Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life

In the life of God as Trinity, we have the image of the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other; love overflowing into a creative, self-sacrificing love for the world.  In this image, God gives us both a word of challenge and a word of hope.
The word of challenge is that this overflowing love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit calls us to participate in the ethics of the Trinity, with all its radical implications for us:
·         for us as Christians, with our Trinity of Traditions;
·         for us as part of the wider people of God, with our Trinity of Faiths;
·         for us as Australians, with our Trinity of Cultures.

The word of hope is that this overflowing love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit invites us to attend God’s Trinitarian party, to share God’s banquet of love.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Pentecost and Babel: a sermon (Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-13)

When we heard the story of the Tower of Babel, some of us may have thought that most cultures have old stories a bit like that. Whether they are
· the Dreaming stories of Aboriginal Australians,
· or similar stories told by Pacific, or African, or Native American peoples,
· or the old Norse or Celtic myths,
· or the myths of ancient Greece and ancient Rome,
· or these old stories in Genesis, the stories of the Jewish Dreaming;
these old stories all have this feel to them of the adults in a culture trying to explain the realities of the world around them to their children in a way the children can grasp.

It begins when a child asks a question: “Daddy, Why is the sky blue?”

“Er … um … ask your mother.”

“Mummy, why is the sky blue?”

“Have you asked your father?”

“Yes, Mummy, he told me to ask you.”

And the eventually the question gets referred to the ultimate source of knowldege of such things:  Grandma, Gran, Granny, Gan-gan, Nan, Nonna if your family is Italian, Oma if your family is Dutch, or whatever she was called in your family. (Or whatever you are called if you happen to be an Oma yourself.)

And a wise Oma often answered the question with a story, the sort of story only an Oma can tell. We have a lot of these Oma stories in the book of Genesis, found in the front end of the Bible, these early stories of the Jewish Dreaming. And one of these Oma stories is the story of the Tower of Babel.

“Oma, why do people speak different languages?”

“Nonna, why are some people nasty to people who look – or who speak - differently from themselves?”

And so, back in the ancient days of the early Hebrews, one Oma told a story. And this Oma story was so good, we still have it today, and we find it in our Bible.

There was a time when everybody spoke the same language. And, as well, people were, to use a good Australian expression, getting a bit full of themselves. They had the idea, “Hey, let’s build a tower … I mean a big tower … a huge tower … a gigantic tower … a gy-normous tower … a tower where we could touch the sky … a tower that could put us at the same level as God.”

The people all liked this idea but, obviously, God didn’t.

God had a different idea, and said to Godself, “I’ll confuse their language. I’ll get them speaking all sorts of different languages so they can’t understand each other. This will be their punishment for trying to play God.”

The confusion that resulted meant that the idea of the big tower was abandoned, as all anyone had time to do was to find a few others who could speak the same language.

And the moral of the story depended on whether the Oma telling the story was a wise Oma or a silly Oma.

· A wise Oma would say something like, “But of course people are people, and deep down inside we’re all the same, however we look, however we sound, or whatever we believe.” That’s what a wise Oma would say, but (unfortunately) not every Oma is wise.

· A silly Oma would say something like “And, of course, this story tells you to stick with your own kind, so that bad things don’t happen to you.”

The important thing to remember about the old Oma story from deep in the Hebrew Dreaming is that this division into racial, national and language groups was because people were getting a bit full of themselves. It was never part of God’s original intention.

And, when the story of Pentecost was first told by the early Christians, it was told by – and it was told to – people who knew the story of the Tower of Babel very well. The presence of God’s Spirit that the first group of Christians experienced soon after the first Easter was explained in terms of a reversal of that old Oma story from the Hebrew Dreaming, the one about the big tower.

· In the Babel story, God confused people’s speech so that people who could once understand each other could no longer do so.

· In the Pentecost story, God “un-confused” people’s speech so that people who once could not understand each other could now do so.

And if the Babel story tells us how racial and national divisions among people are a result of people being far too full of themselves, the Pentecost story tells us that being full of God’s Spirit, being God-intoxicated, can lead us to the realisation that, as far as God is concerned, all humanity is a single family.

And so may it be for us all.

Uniting Church people and light globes

(Please adapt this to your own denomination, if applicable.)

How many Uniting Church members does it take to change a light globe?
  • Eight to develop a strategic plan.
  • Seventeen to arrive at consensus.
  • One to complain to Synod that he didn't give permission to change the globe, even though his great-grandfather donated the original globe in 1904.
  • One to complain to the National Trust on the grounds that it was the oldest light globe in continuous use anywhere in the state.
  • Twenty-five to hold a thanksgiving service for the old globe (and singing "God gives us a future ...").
  • Eighteen to hold a dedication service for the new globe (and again singing "God gives us a future ...").
  • Thirty-eight to review the change at six-month, eighteen-month, and five-year intervals.
  • Twenty-three to leave the congregation because something in the process irritated them.
 Oh, and I nearly forgot, someone to actually change the light globe.

Monday, 6 May 2013

A hymn about diversity

This hymn is set to the tune Grand Isle (AHB 551). The rhythm of the words is very irregular. I tried to keep the playfulness of the earlier hymn associated with this tune, the classic children’s hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God …”.

This hymn probably won’t suit every worshipping congregation, but it’s offered with joy to those who can use it.

Let’s sing a new song of the people of God,
who are found all around the earth.
All are diverse, and each is unique,
and all are of priceless worth.
And some are Irish, and some are Dutch,
with Maori, Koori, Cherokee, and such --
none is remote from God’s sacred touch.
All people can know God’s love.

Some worship God with ancient words,
with icons and incense and bells.
Others clap their hands to drums and guitars,
but each of God’s mercy tells.
And some are Uniting, and some R.C.,
Anglican, Orthodox, or A.C.C. *
With unity in diversity,
all people can know God’s love.

They all pray to God using different names,
and the one God hears them all.
With different traditions and paths of faith,
each seeks to heed God’s call.
And some are Christians, and some are Jews,
some are Muslims, and some Hindus,
some are Buddhists or Sikhs -- still the Spirit will choose
all people to know God’s love.

Their household patterns and family styles
will not always look the same.
Though we can’t understand all ways of life,
it’s not our place to blame.
And some are lesbians, and some are gay,
some are straight, some follow a celibate way.
If it’s loving and faithful, still we can say
all people can know God’s love.

With different talents and gifts and skills,
all can from each other learn.
All sorts and conditions of human life
are blessed by our God’s concern.
Some are deaf, some are fat, and some are blind.
If you’re bald or left-handed you won’t be left behind.
God is loving and merciful, generous and kind.
All people can know God’s love.

Copyright: Robert J. Faser, 1996, with various revisions, this version 2013. (May be used in worship with acknowledgement.)

  * This is the Australian version of this verse. (ACC stands for “Australian Christian Churches”, a Pentecostal denomination.) Other versions can be used elsewhere, i.e.:

In the United States:
And some are Lutheran, and some RC,
AME Zion or UCC.

In England:

And some are Methodist, and some RC,
United Reformed, or C of E.

If you can can come up with words for your context, please share them.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

An ecumenical fantasy (a post for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)

Christian churches around the world observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Most churches observe the Week in January.  In some southern hemisphere countries, such as Australia, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed during the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost.

This reflection was written with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in mind.

Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples and, by extension, for all his followers in later centuries “... that they may be one, as we are one.”  Given the reality of our diversity as the Christian Church today, how can we realise the unity that Jesus intended for the Church?

What would the Church’s life be like if each of our traditions could bring the best of our life together to the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ?

One possible answer can take a form that is a bit like some of the old jokes that make the rounds on cyberspace, like the one with the title “Heaven and Hell According to the European Union.”  In this frequently e-mailed joke, usually originating in the UK, the European Union has just redefined Heaven and Hell, at least as far as Europe is concerned.  Now, according to the EU, Heaven is where:
·           all the police are Irish,
·           all the lawyers and judges are English,
·           all the doctors are Scottish,
·           all the motor mechanics are German,
and it continues in that vein, ending with Austrian musicians, Dutch brewers, French winemakers, and Italian cooks.

C’est magnifiquewunderbarbellisismagood show, old boy!

Also, according to this joke, the EU has also redefined Hell, using a list that usually begins with German policemen and ends with English cooks.

Not so magnifique … not so wunderbar … not so bellisima … not such a good show, old boy!

In the light of that old joke, what would the state of the Christian Church be if each one of our Christian traditions could bring the best of its life together to the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.  Let’s fantasise a bit.  In my mind, it looks like this:

First of all, the Roman Catholics (being the largest single group of Christians) will have particular responsibility for two areas of the Church’s life, each highly important, for which they have a long tradition of excellence.

·           One area is that of spirituality:  spiritual direction, retreat leadership, and so on; teaching the whole of Christ’s people to pray:  to pray deeply, reflectively, passionately and creatively.

·           The second area is that of the practical, serving dimension of the Church’s ministry of compassion in the wider world: welfare agencies, social justice ministries, schools, hospitals, and the like.   Despite the problems caused by a relatively small percentage of unhinged individuals in our own day, the tradition of Christian compassion embodied in such people as Frederic Ozanam, Caroline Chisholm, Mary MacKillop, Father Damian, Mother Theresa, and many others can still be a source of Christ’s wholeness in a broken world.

In my ecumenical fantasy, other Christian traditions will also work in their areas of excellence.

·           The Anglican Communion will be in charge of the area that Anglicans do best:  the Church’s public worship, so that all Christian worship may reflect the dignity, the beauty, and the elegance of traditional Anglican worship at its best.

·           The Lutherans – who may not have invented congregational singing but who made it an important part of Christian worship, … who in past centuries gave the church many great hymns that Christians of all denominations still sing with gusto today, … who gave the church and the wider world the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – of course the Lutherans must be in charge of the Church’s music.

·           The Orthodox will have the job of making each physical space where Christians gather to worship a place of such awe and such beauty that any casual visitor may be moved to remark, as did some visitors to Orthodox worship over a thousand years ago:  “We could not forget that beauty.”

With the various “Protestant” churches (ecumenical churches such as the Uniting Church in Australia and United Church of Canada; along with churches of Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Moravian, or Disciples heritage) our contributions to this ecumenical fantasy could be seen not as individual denominations, but in terms of the two broad traditions of faith and spirituality that co-exist within each of the various “Protestant” churches:

·           Those who make up what is variously called the “mainstream”, “mainline”, or “ecumenical” strand within the “Protestant” churches, will get the task of preaching and teaching.  This would include all teaching within the church, for everyone from little children to graduate theologians, and everyone in between, with the intent of encouraging serious and intelligent biblical, theological, and ethical reflection among all Christians.

·           Those who make up the “Evangelical” wing of the “Protestant” churches will be given the task of developing local congregations as warm, supportive fellowships, resembling extended families who eat together frequently.  (And to help them out, the Anglicans and Lutherans will be asked to take charge of providing the liquid refreshments.)

Then, the newest fellowship of Christian churches, the Pentecostals, will be given the task of assisting the whole of the Christian church in becoming more media-savvy, more technology-savvy, and more youth-culture savvy.  But perhaps we’ll ask the oldest fellowship of Christians, the Orthodox, to mentor them in this task so that the Orthodox reverence for the ancient and the Pentecostal reverence for the contemporary can develop together into something creative.

My ecumenical fantasy also includes very important jobs for two denominations that traditionally have an ecumenical significance far in excess of their actual size.:

·           The Society of Friends – the Quakers - will take charge of the churches’ administration and business.  This will have three main positive effects.   (1) It will rid the churches of all remnants of discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, or sexuality.  (2)  It will drastically reduce the level of official pomposity found in all our churches.  (3)  It will also lead (I hope) to the business life of all churches being transacted with strict Quaker principles of openness and integrity.
·           And then The Salvation Army will take charge of the area it does best:  fundraising and public relations.

To quote that noted Australian Greek Orthodox thinker, Con the Fruiterer, “Bewdiful”.

Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples and, by extension, for all his followers in later centuries “... that they may be one, as we are one.”  How can we today realise the unity that Jesus intended for the Church?

The sad reality is that we have inherited a Christian church that is divided. Some of us still remember the “bad old days”, when the church you attended at least partly determined such diverse things as:
  • the jobs for which you applied,
  • the political party for whom you voted,
  • the families with whom your family socialised, and
  • even the football team which you supported.
Thankfully, those days are over.  The worst of the evil sectarian attitudes of the “bad old days” are only present in a handful of diehards.  But we have still inherited a Christian church that is sadly divided.  The words of Jesus’ prayer remain a challenge to all Christians: “... that they may be one, as we are one.”

And a major part of this challenge is for each part of the Church to bring the best they can offer to enrich the life of the wider Church, be it Roman Catholic spirituality, Anglican liturgy, Lutheran hymns, Orthodox icons, or Baptist fellowship dinners.  May each section of Christ’s body bring the best of its life together to enrich each other, in service to Jesus’ prayer “... that they may be one, as we are one.”