Where does the quest for Christian unity begin?
The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is coming up in 2017. Catholics and Orthodox have been divided even longer than that, since the schism of 1074. There are other churches where the divisions go back even farther. Many strides have been made in the last century toward reconciliation, or at the very least, politeness. However, the wounds and misunderstandings go deep. Further still, the sheer impact of being divided for so long has left people with very different histories and traditions. What can a person do to attempt to bridge this gap?
The following applies to all Christians but is especially geared toward Catholics and evangelicals.
Ecumenical exchanges are doomed to frustration if people believe that their group is the only place where truth resides. The quest for unity ends up being reduced to an exercise in missionizing others in an attempt to convert them. The implied message is: "Everything about you that differs from me is wrong and must be eradicated." This is nothing more than zero-sum thinking in disguise, and there is a sinister violence which underlies it. Instead of expecting others to simply join our particular group, how can we maintain the truths of our respective faith traditions while at the same time crossing denominational barriers in order to realize the unity that Christ prayed for? This takes innovation. It is a transcendence, not a simple lateral move from one group to another.
This does not mean that people have to give up the claims of their specific tradition! Some people believe that their denomination holds the fullness of truth. They sincerely want to reach out to others, but at the same time they do not want to undermine their own church. The good news is that the methods outlined here do not require people to give up these deeply held beliefs.
For other folks, reaching out to other denominations is easier, because they already believe that most denominations are roughly equal and that differences are more a matter of style and context.
Many Catholics appreciate evangelical Christianity but worry that it lacks the fullness they find in the Sacraments. Many evangelicals respect the traditions of Catholicism but fear than many individual Catholics lack a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. The path of Christian unity does not require that people give up the claims of their tradition or the concerns about their neighbors--it just requires opening up to the possibility of the good elsewhere. I believe this is good news.
A Catholic PerspectiveThe Catholic Church admitted at Vatican II that "many aspects of sanctification and of truth can be found outside her visible structure [i.e. the Catholic Church]" (Lumen Gentium no. 8).
This is very freeing. It has freed us from an all-or-nothing fallacy. Whether someone is a staunch traditionalist or a progressive-minded reformer, this speaks to all. You see, from this vantage point it does not matter if a person thinks the end result is that everyone needs to convert to his or her denomination or not. The end goal is not as important as the task to do today. When we meet someone from another church, we can seek out the good that is there. We can name it and celebrate it as the gift from God that it is. We do not have to know ahead of time what the Holy Spirit will do from that point forward. There may be a transformation in store, perhaps even a mutual one.
In previous time periods, there was a general fear commonly held to even acknowledge that anything could possibly be good about other denominations. This has long since been put to rest. We can expect that good things are present everywhere, as we know that God is always speaking to everyone in every place. There is no need to be suspicious about things that seem good which are outside of our tradition or be threatened by them.
For a Catholic, this is the starting line: A sharing of gifts. We can stand strong on the shoulders of Vatican II and all subsequent popes and live out the mantra for unity that St. Pope John Paul II so often named. It works this way: When two people from different denominations meet, they can both testify: "This is what God has done in my life and in my church community. Please share with me what God has done for you and your community." We share by word and by deed. And we keep sharing and sharing and sharing. Through this sharing, we come to realize new things. We listen with our minds as well as our hearts. Walls break down, glaciers melt and coldness is replaced by warm regard. Perhaps in time the various groups move into a new form of unity that in our present context we cannot imagine. Such is the Kingdom.
When Catholics bring their non-Catholic friends and family to Mass, many report that they feel embarrassed that communion is closed. The Catholic Church officially allows the sharing of Eucharist only with Catholics. While this may feel unwelcoming, and it is certainly a painful reminder of the separation of Christians that still exists, we must also remember that the Catholic stance on Baptism is extremely open and welcoming. There is a very wide space for grace and creative possibilities.
An Evangelical Perspective
Evangelical Christian leader Kevin Offner (pictured at left) shares where he believes the starting points are from the vantage point of his own tradition in this talk:
"The centrality of the gospel and the authority of the Bible—With this lowest-common-denominator, non-ecclesial mark of orthodoxy, the room for unity across denominations and traditions is great. In fact, this surely is one of evangelicalism’s most significant legacies to American Christendom: the ability to cross denominational lines for the sake of the gospel.”
Offner is urging Christians to focus on what they have in common. Stick to the basic core beliefs in Jesus Christ and His Gospel, he says. By being freed of the other "stuff" of religious tradition, evangelical Christianity becomes a very swift and mobile phenomena. It can adapt and assimilate many people to itself and itself to many contexts easily.
While evangelical Christianity is often very adamant about these fundamentals, it also can, in some cases, lower the stakes about some of the other nuances. This is not to say that evangelical Christians do not take very seriously some very detailed theological points. What Offner is suggesting, however, is that inherent within evangelical Christianity is the ability to move forward from a few basic, fundamental points. Once folks can mutually affirm these basic core beliefs, then they have a platform for conversation in true brotherhood. This implies saving energy for the non-negotiables of the faith and letting secondary differences be secondary.
While evangelical Christians have historically been more reluctant about the movement for Christian unity than other groups, Offner sees a bright potential: "Evangelicalism is uniquely capable of promoting ecumenical gatherings of Christians."
For Both Catholics and Evangelicals
We can all start from a standpoint of humility. All of our churches bear some responsibility for divisions. The Catholic Church is not living up to its mission to be truly universal. Evangelical and Protestant churches have splintered into many denominations and they just keep on splintering. We have all failed to maintain oneness and no group can claim a blameless record in this long and sometimes even bloody history.
It can start with friendship. The difficulties of navigating sensitive theological matters is often best weathered when there is true mutual regard on a personal level. "I don't know where it can go, but I can tell you where it can start: With friendship" says Pentecostal Pastor Bryan Wheble (pictured at left) from Revival Vision Church of God in Maynardville, TN, speaking Christian unity. Friendship opens the heart as well as a space for true dialogue.
For Glenmary Brother Craig Dignmann, the first step is "you just start talking." He was struggling for a while trying to discern the direction of his ecumenical ministry. He knew he wanted to reach out to Christians outside of his denomination, but he did not know how. The answers just started falling into place once he was present and in conversation with people. One conversation lead to another question which lead to another contact and so on and so forth. The Spirit did the rest.
What we have above are several different yet very similar ideas of how anyone--a lone individual or an entire church parish--can start the process of building bridges between Christians: Start a dialogue of mutual testimony centered around how God has gifted you and your community. Be open without giving up the claims of your faith. Stay rooted in common, core beliefs. Be humble. Open the door to friendship. And just start talking.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are many more methods and practices for the journey. But like the subject matter of this post itself, this is a start.