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.”

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.