Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Great Ecumenical Slow-Cooker

This is a talk which I gave (on Friday evening, 8th August 2014) to the young adults' group at All Saints' Anglican Church in South Hobart, Tasmania.  This talk was the first session in a series in which representatives of other faith communities will speak to the group about their faith community and its life.  Some of the faith communities whose representatives will speak are other Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Friends, Latter-Day Saints ...).  Others are representing faiths other than Christianity.  The purpose of this talk was to assist the group to have some idea of the purpose of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. 

I wish to thank the young adults' group at All Saints' and the parish youth worker (Gemma LeMesurier) for making this evening possible.

First of all, many thanks for inviting me, not only to be part of this series of sessions about the great variety and diversity of the world of faith, but also to be involved in introducing this series.

Over the next few weeks and months, you’ll hear people from a variety of faith perspectives, some of whom are broadly part of the Christian faith and some of whom are not.  And I hope to get to many of these sessions myself.

There will be a great diversity among the people you’ll hear from.

Among the Christians you’ll hear from will be people from the Roman Catholic Church, from the Greek Orthodox Church, from the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers), and from the Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormons).

Among those outside the Christian faith, you may hear from members of the Jewish, Muslim, and Baha’i communities.  (And, possibly, some of these sessions may need to be at times other than your normal Friday evening meeting time, because Friday evenings will be difficult times to find a speaker from either the Jewish or Muslim communities to come and visit this group.)

First of all, there’s a question of the language we use.  We’ll use words such as “ecumenical”, “interfaith”, and “multifaith”.  These terms aren’t really identical.
  • Ecumenical” comes from the Greek word for house “oikos”.  Other high-powered English words that come from “oikos” include “economics” and “ecology”.  The term “ecumenical” is usually used to refer to relations between groups of Christians.  So, for example, the global dialogue between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches is an ecumenical dialogue.
  • "Interfaith” and “multifaith” activities involve people from distinctly different faiths:  Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus.  If it involves people from two faith groups, it’s an “interfaith” activity.  If it involves more than two faiths, it’s “multifaith”.  For a number of years, I was a member of the national dialogue of the Uniting Church and the Jewish community.  This was an interfaith activity.  Some people use the term ecumenical when speaking of an interfaith or multifaith activity.  I try not to.
After this, I’d like to make a few other points.

1.  First of all, and this point is a bit longer than the others, there’s the reason for doing this (in addition to the fact that you told Gemma you’re interested in doing this).

This is not to try to convert anyone else. 
  • No one who will be speaking to your group will be trying to make you anything other than Christians. 
  • No one who will be speaking to your group will try to make you anything other than Anglicans.
  • Similarly, your intent will not be (or at least, should not be) to turn Quakers into Anglicans or Baha’is into Christians.
Neither is our goal to create some sort of religious porridge, blancmange, stew, or curry, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, all thrown into the Great Ecumenical Slow-Cooker.
  • The point of the whole ecumenical enterprise is simple, it is to be part of God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 “... that they all may be one ....”  Particularly, and I feel very strongly about this, it’s about enabling any Christian to receive the eucharist in any Christian church in the world.  (Progress has been made in this area in many churches, but there is still a long way to go.)
  • The point of the whole interfaith exercise is, in our world of conflict, people of faith are called to be peacemakers.  People of faith are far more effective peacemakers if we understand each other’s beliefs and practices.
To do this well we need to encounter each other on each other’s own terms.  In these conversations, you’ll be hearing contributions from:
  • Roman Catholics being Catholic, without apologising for being who they are;
  • Mormons being Mormon, without apologising for being who they are;
  • Baha’is being Baha’i, without apologising for being who they are.
  • And you’ll be participating in these conversations as Christians being Christian, and as Anglicans being Anglican, without apologising for being who you are.
And, in my observation, people who know a reasonable amount about faith traditions other than their own become better-informed and more committed members of their own faith communities.
  • By learning some accurate information about Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Quakers, and Mormons from members of their own communities, this will enable you to be better-informed and more committed Anglicans.
  • By learning some accurate information about Jews, Muslims, and Baha’is from members of their own communities, this will enable you to be better-informed and more committed Christians.
  • And by encountering you and your faith position, this process is helping the others become better Catholics, better Quakers, better Jews, and so on.
2.   Secondly, we all need to spend some time thinking about our beliefs about people of other faith perspectives.  I’ve got an article here from my blog, which introduces some of these concerns.  To be able to engage in these conversations, we need somehow to reach the point in our own minds where we can say, here are people of faith – whose faith stance is clearly different from ours – but whom we can see that God recognises as being part of the people of God. 

3.   Thirdly and finally, there’s an idea I’d like to share with you about an important thing that happens when people of faith share with each other across the normal borders of our faith traditions.

This idea is called “Holy Envy”.  It comes from a man named Krister Stendhal, who was a Swedish Lutheran who served both as the Bishop of Stockholm and as the Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.  He was active in both ecumenical and interfaith relations.

Stendhal coined the phrase “Holy Envy” to speak of the experience when – either in ecumenical relations or in interfaith relations – a participant in the dialogue sees something in another faith tradition that leads him or her to say, “I wish my faith tradition had a bit of that.”

It doesn’t mean that the person wants to become part of that other community.  It doesn’t mean that the person wants to throw a few bits of both communities into the Great Ecumenical Slow-Cooker.  It simply means that here is an aspect of another faith community that provokes the person to say, “I wish we had a bit of that”:   “Holy Envy”.

To give some examples, speaking as a member (and as a minister) of the Uniting Church speaking to a group of Anglicans, there are two things about your church (at least two) that provoke this sense of “Holy Envy” in me.
  • The first is in the area of worship.  I honestly wish that worship in the faith tradition of which I’m part would be characterised by a similar sense of beauty and elegance as I see in Anglican worship, not just at its best (as you find it here at All Saints’) but even at its “average”.
  • The second is in ministry to people who are “occasional” worshippers.  I wish that the denomination of which I’m part would be as comfortable as the Anglican churches I know as we minister to people who merely turn up to church at Christmas, ... or at Easter, ... or for Baptisms, ... weddings, ... or funerals. 
In any event, if you experience this “Holy Envy” some time during this series of gatherings, this will make the whole exercise worthwhile.

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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.