Thursday, 27 August 2015

Some thoughts on ministry and “Holy Envy”

(Address at the Annual Meeting, Tasmanian chapter of Spiritual Care Australia, 27th August 2015)

When I was invited to speak to this annual meeting, my brief was to speak on “Providing Pastoral Care to people of differing Faith Traditions to our own - and to those of no faith”.

Thinking about the topic, I tweaked the title, thinking of the experienced chaplains around this table and given that I am one of the “new kids on the block”, chaplaincy-wise, in Tasmania.

My title now is “Some thoughts on ministry and ‘Holy Envy’”, borrowing what I see as a very useful idea from a leader in ecumenical and interfaith relations in the second half of the 20th century: the late Krister Stendahl. Dr. Stendhal was a Swedish Lutheran who served for most of his career as Professor of New Testament at Harvard. Late in his career, he was invited back to Sweden to serve as the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm.

Much of Stendahl’s scholarly work was relevant to the area of the relationship of Christians and Jews. He served on many international dialogue groups involving Christians and Jews.

One phrase, however, for which Stendahl has become very well known in recent decades, comes from his involvement in another area of the relationships among people of faith. It’s the idea of “Holy Envy”. It actually arose in the context of the relations between mainstream Christians and Latter-day Saints. This idea of “Holy Envy” has been applied to many other areas of ecumenical and interfaith relations. (For example, I was introduced to the notion myself in the context of Christian-Jewish relations.)

In 1985, soon after Stendahl had begun his service as bishop, there was a public controversy in Sweden over the fact that the Latter-day Saints Church – the Mormons – were building a temple in suburban Stockholm as a regional centre for their ministry in the Nordic countries.

In the midst of that controversy, Stendahl suggested some principles for ecumenical and interfaith relations which he called “Stendahl's three rules of religious understanding”. They are:

1. When you are trying to understand another faith group, you should ask the adherents of that faith and not the faith’s enemies.

2. Don't compare your best to their worst.

3. Leave room for "holy envy."

By “holy envy”, Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.  In other words, you’re saying in regard to some aspect of the faith’s beliefs and practices, “Wow! I’d like it if our lot had a bit of that!” That’s “holy envy”.

Now, I can talk about some of my own areas of “holy envy” and some of you may find it interesting … and others may find it boring. And besides, I’m planning to write a book over the next few years using that actual theme … and I don’t want to discourage y’all from buying my book – when and if it ever comes out.

But, anyway, I think this time may be far more useful to y’all if you do some of the work yourselves. So that’s what we’ll be doing.

For the next few minutes, sit in silence, on your own and think for a bit about other communities of God’s people whom you know, but which are not your own. … For some of you, you may think of faith groups that are very similar to yours in many ways … for others, it may be faith groups that are radically different to yours. … Think about some aspect of some group – at least one aspect, but perhaps more - that leads you to experience “holy envy”, that leads you to think “Wow! I’d like it if our lot had a bit of that!”

(silence and reflection)

Now that you’ve had a chance to think about this, and come up with at least one example of “holy envy”, pair up with one other person and share your examples of “holy envy”.
(conversation in pairs)

Right, as the TV chefs frequently say, here’s some I prepared earlier.

I can think of a number of examples where I relate to another community of God’s people with some “holy envy”. But then, again, I’ve had a fair bit of time to think about this.

I’ll only mention two examples … but I can think of more. But I’d like for you do more of the talking (and besides, I want you to buy my book whenever it gets finished).

The two examples of “holy envy” I’ll mention today each relate to Christian churches (although I can also think of examples related to communities outside the Christian faith as well).

Firstly, I frequently say “Wow! I’d like it if our lot had a bit of that!” when I think of the practice of prayer and spirituality within the Roman Catholic Church. Wherever you go in the world, if a group of Christian are seeking to make their practice of prayer a bit deeper, a bit more profound, a bit more contemplative, and a bit less of a “wish list”, one thing is very likely. Whatever the denominational background of the group, the chances are high that the person leading the exercise is Catholic … or else learned much of their practice of prayer and contemplation in a Catholic setting. “Wow! I’d like it if our lot had a bit of that!” Holy envy.

Secondly, there’s the Anglican Communion. Those of you who are Anglicans have the good fortune to be part of a church whose practice of worship demonstrates that, when the people of God gather to worship God, it can be an occasion of great beauty and elegance. And this isn’t only for special occasions (even if you do pull off special occasions brilliantly) but even on the most ordinary Sunday sometime in August or September. “Wow! I’d like it if our lot had a bit of that!” Holy envy.

Those are my two examples. What are yours?

(Sharing and discussion)

Just in closing, for those of us who are involved in pastoral care in chaplaincy-type settings, we experience the practice of ministry that crosses the bounds of our regular faith traditions.
· Each of us is a person who lives and worships within a particular style of faith and spirituality.
· Most of us frequently minister to people of very different styles of faith and spirituality – on a regular basis – some more frequently than others.

Finding those aspects in the faith and practice of our neighbours which create this sense of “holy envy” within us may be a good start for us in the process of ministering to people who are religiously different to ourselves in a way that combines:
· integrity for our own faith and spirituality,
· integrity for the faith and spirituality of the person receiving pastoral care,
· compassion for all, and
· acknowledging the one God who is far greater than any of our theologies.


(general discussion)

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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.