Friday, May 8, 2015

The Untanglers

Stop #2 on my Religious Unity Tour!
The National Workshop on Christian Unity, part 1
Jesus calls us to be "fishers of men," but our nets are all tangled up.
It is absolutely wonderful when Christians can demonstrate profound unity when gathered for a common purpose, such as the social justice activism featured in my previous post.  There is no question that these expressions inspire our imaginations as to the unity that is possible.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that the denominations themselves still have on the books doctrinal differences which make for greater and lesser fractures in the Body of Christ. 

Some folks see beyond those differences, focusing on the unifying aspects and trusting that in a mystical way Christ unites what people think is divided.  Still, those differences--and what they mean for the life of the community--can only be waived away for so long before they require attention.  They found their way onto the books for good reasons.  Their continued presence on the books says something about who we are and what we mean to each other.  Centuries of separation, misconceptions, theological and even physical battles have left the visible unity of Christianity in a tangled mess. 

In the midst of all this, some people have the noble calling to meet these differences head-on.  They do the painstaking work of untangling this mess bit by bit--reconciling what can be reconciled, differentiating between style and substance, healing wounds, building relationships and trusting in the Holy Spirit to help Christian communities transcend this quagmire.  They are on a quest to discover that New Testament ideal of unity in diversity in a very imperfect but blessed world.  Someone has to come along to cross the t's and dot the i's.  This is the setting for the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU)

The modern ecumenical movement has been going strong worldwide for over a century.  The Catholic Church officially joined the conversation during Vatican II with decrees on both ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.  It was in the wake of Vatican II that the NWCU began.  It is an event guided by the official ecumenical officers from Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran churches.  Representatives from other denominations are present, as well, with a hope for more denominations in the future.  A growing presence of evangelical Christian leaders has been featured in recent years, as well.

Advice from Islam and Judaism

Given that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate--the Catholic Church's groundbreaking document from Vatican II on its relationship to non-Christian religions--there was a strong focus on interfaith relations at the NWCU this year.  While it may seen incongruous at first glance for a workshop on Christian unity to feature non-Christian voices, it is those outside voices which can offer both refreshing and challenging perspectives.

Dr. Sandra Keating (pictured at left) shared valuable insights from her decades-long work in Catholic-Muslim dialogue.  Her words during the opening plenary were challenging and seemed to hang over the assembly as the week progressed.  She brought this perspective:  "For many Muslims, the fact of Christian disunity is a clear sign of the lack of truth of Christianity."  She points to statements in the Koran which demonstrate that even in the fifth century, "the infighting among Christians was already an obstacle to bringing people to the faith."  That was 1,000 years before the Protestant Reformation and 500 years before the schism between Catholics and Orthodox.

Keating affirmed strongly the importance of the work of Christian unity.  She mentioned that a lot of Christians are not concerned with "visible unity," thinking it has little relevance outside of the church.  However, a Muslim in dialogue with a Catholic may wonder what that dialogue means since a Catholic does not speak for all Christians.  In addition, to many Muslims, "divisions in Christianity are a sign that Christianity is dying, not protected by God and not chosen by God." 

Keating points out that the ecumenical movement in the past 50 years has gone a long way to help this perception with denominations doing a lot together out in the open.  Much work remains.  "Interreligious dialogue has told us that the need for some kind of Christian unity is essential for Christian witness in the world.  However legitimate the differences and divisions may be, on the outside it seems very different."  Many outside of Christianity see a "lack of charity" in these disagreements, she says, which calls into question the credibility of Christianity itself.  This is feedback she has gotten over and over through the years.  Islam partially came out of this context and looked to Christian divisions as an example of what not to do.  Why take Christianity seriously if Christians themselves cannot even agree on what it means?

Most westerners may think that the same kinds of divisions exist in the Muslim world.  Keating pointed out that those divisions are perceived as less doctrinal and more political.  The average Muslim would not see them the same way that Christianity has splintered over nuanced interpretations of theology and doctrine with some groups claiming exclusivity of the tradition over others.  While there is certainly room to interpret whether this is a fair estimation of the world of Islam, nevertheless, it is a common belief of many mainstream Muslims and it impacts their perception of Christianity.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (pictured at left) treated the assembly to extended discourses on the nature of Judaism.  In particular, she pointed out places in which Christian preachers tend to misrepresent and misunderstand the Jewish tradition, both in Scripture and history.  She focused on what Christian preachers get wrong in their readings of the parables and other Gospel narratives by not understanding Jewish tradition well enough.  Check out this interview or her books (which you can find online) for a more in-depth study. 

"The more you know about first century Judaism, the more profound the parables become," she argued.  As the article says and which her talks expressed so well, "a better understanding of Judaism can make one a better Christian."  Without that background, we can miss so much of the symbolism and meaning.  For example, Jesus was born in a manger, which happens to be a feeding trough.  It is related to the word mange, in modern Italian. "Where else would you put the person who was going to become bread for the world?"

There is not room here to present all that she taught, but it is enough to say how vitally important a Jewish perspective can be for Christians.  As Levine pointed out, Scripture is clear that the disciples of Jesus were often unaware of the depth of Jesus' teaching and the meanings of his stories and parables.  With that in mind, we should consider that the wisdom handed down to us through our respective traditions (which comes handed down from those very disciples) may benefit from some additional perspective.  As a result, a place where Christians can find unity is in scientific, historical evidence.  On this plateau, we are all united as we have access to the same information.  We may go beyond what history teaches based on what our respective traditions have taught, but we can all be on the same page as far as historical understanding.

Visible Partial Unity

The NWCU features worship services at local churches of various denominations, talks on relevant topics and breakout sessions where denominational representatives discuss the current state and stage of their dialogue.  The worship services themselves tell a story on a visceral level that perhaps cannot be understood any other way.  

The opening worship was at Little Rock African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  It calls to attention the history of the Methodist Church which has been divided more along the lines of race and worship style than by theological differences.  The history is long and complex, and I do not want to oversimplify it here.  It is enough to say that race often comes up as a critical factor in the quest for Christian unity. Churches segregating themselves by culture can be either benign or oppressive depending on the circumstances, so it is always worth keeping that discussion at the forefront with a watchful eye.  On a related note, Rev. Ted Sample offered two sessions during the workshop on "The Talk and Practices of Poor People."  How we use language matters, and differences in economic class and race must be considered when working toward the whole, unified Body of Christ.

The choir at Little Rock AME Zion Church.

St. Peters Catholic Church, Charlotte, NC.
The next day featured a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Peter Church, with Eucharist offered to only those in "full communion" with the Catholic Church.  The following day, a Eucharist service was held at St. Peter Episcopal Church.  A Lutheran minister gave the sermon, a testament to the unity between Lutherans and Anglicans.  Yet, Catholic policy would have Catholics abstain from communion there.  Songs and Eucharist prayers were intentionally repeated between the two services to show parallels and suggest continuity.  The fact that both churches are named "St. Peter's" adds another level of symbolism.

St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Charlotte, NC, full view of the pipe organ.
Evangelical Christianity enters the discussing by offering itself as an example of how to break through all this.  Christian identity to them is rooted almost entirely in an individual profession of faith in Jesus Christ and his Scriptures.  Christian unity can be built on that and that alone, they argue. 

In light of this, an excursion was made to CharlotteONE.  This is a worship service targeted to millennials.  It is open to all, regardless of denomination.  It typically features contemporary Christian music and preaching.  It was showcased as a possibility of how to transcend denominational lines, especially with a younger generation which has far less allegiance to denominational membership than previous generations.  It acts in some ways as an entry point to Christianity, and organizers can help participants discern a formal church membership with any number of denominations.

CharlotteONE:  A new way to bring young people to church.

The setting for CharlotteONE:  An historic Methodist Church.
The difficulty with "non-denominational" events is that they are mostly expressions of evangelical Christianity rather than something fully inclusive.  Like most efforts at unity, they shows positive "signs of the Kingdom" which call us to imagine what is possible.  But while they are open to all, they require some Christians to give up or downplay many pieces of their Christian identity in order to participate.  As a result, they are oddly fully open and very limited at the same time.  CharlotteONE seems to offer evangelical Christianity as the unifying force in Christianity.  There is promise is this method but also shortcomings, and it is important to acknowledge both.

While most hierarchical denominations would agree that there are pieces of their tradition that are more central than others, the evangelical alternative falls short to many.  Evangelical Christianity can have a strong role to play in the quest for Christian unity, but by itself it cannot be the answer, because for better or for worse it has become one tradition among many--albeit a popular and powerful one, perhaps even a meta-tradition. Focusing on a few core beliefs in common is a healthy exercise for all Christians.  However, I have to believe that the answer to the prayer of Christian unity is not stripping away all of tradition down to a few fundamental building blocks, but rather acknowledging all of our traditions in their sum total and reconciled with each other.  Still, that core relationship with Jesus Christ is the foot in the door that brings us all together, and the importance of that in creating a common language and family bond between Christians must be acknowledged.  To the extent that evangelical Christianity has loosened the denominational approach of Christianity and reclaimed Christianity as a movement of the people, much fruit will come of this.

Contemporary Christian music at CharlotteONE.
All in all, this is a snapshot of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  It is worth pointing out that 50 years ago it was often forbidden for members of one denomination to attend services of other denominations or even step foot into their worship spaces, except for extraordinary events such as a funeral.  We have certainly come a long way in a short time.

VIDEOS:  Some videos and audio recordings of the NWCU are available from EDEIO (Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers).  Their first installment includes portions of Dr. Sandra Keating's talk on Muslim perspectives on Christian unity and the song "By the Grace of God" by the Little Rock AME Zion Church.  More will be uploaded to their site later.

Coming Up...

In the next installment, we will look at the National Workshop on Christian Unity in terms of the vibrant Catholic and evangelical Christian dialogue!

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