Ecumenism, a personal history {Part Two}

The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ Our Peace- Phnom Penh (credit)

In grad school at Wheaton, I met with a small group to complete a project one day.  We started discussing our church backgrounds, and one woman described herself as “ecumenical.”  I was 22, and had never heard the word before.

“It means,” she explained, “that you believe that all branches of the church, all denominations, hold some truth about God -- that we need all of them to have a complete picture.”

More exactly, ecumenism describes the historical movement for unity within the global body of Christ. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson explains at CT this month that the movement was born in 1910 at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Missionaries from different denominations had been competing rather than cooperating in the field, and it was destroying their witness. 

“The primary goal {of the ecumenical movement} was not fattening up an underdeveloped doctrine or even reducing intra-Christian hatred. It was about making a credible witness to those who did not yet believe in Christ. ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,’ Jesus said (John 13:35, ESV).”

A hundred years later, the same kind of infighting erodes our witness. But Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 asked for us to be marked by unity. Have we given up striving for that goal?


Three questions:

1) Does unity require conformity?

To some extent, it does, of course.  Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius was on to something when he wrote "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  

Unity requires agreement upon {or conformity in} the essentials.

2) The next question, of course, is which things are the essentials. Will our attempts at unity let heresy slip in? And who gets to be the gatekeeper?

Perhaps when we cannot agree on what is essential and what is non-essential, we ought to remember what Meldenius suggested is needed in all things: charity.  

Love.  Grace.  Space for growth.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson suggests that heretics are more like the lost sheep to be sought than the devil to be turned out: “The truth is, no heretic will recover from his heresy as long as the orthodox permanently reject him. And there's always the possibility that buried beneath the heresy is a neglected shard of truth,” she says.

3) Why is unity worth pursuing?

Over at Her.meneutics this week, Karen Swallow Prior wrote about Hannah More, a British reformer and abolitionist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the keys to More’s influence was her “strong commitment to building bridges with others vastly different from herself.” Prior continues:
    Soon she was part of an intimate circle of activists and reformers known as the Clapham Sect, named for the area of London that served as their base. Its members (which included Wilberforce) were politicians, parliamentarians, ministers, and wealthy philanthropists. All, like More, were Anglicans of the Evangelical party. More was the sole woman in the circle of leadership.
    The great reforms the group helped accomplish—abolishing the slave trade, enacting animal welfare laws, establishing Sunday Schools, enacting prison reforms, increasing literacy among the poor, and promoting observance of the Sabbath (the only day of rest for the laboring classes)—were achieved by the group's willingness to work with co-belligerents of divergent political and religious affiliation, including Quakers, liberals, freethinkers, and unbelievers.
    Hannah More humorously referred to their powwows as akin to "Noah's Ark, full of beasts clean and unclean." Secular historians have noted the group's remarkable crossing of the rigid barriers of class, party, and creeds of their day, a model for Christians today, living in an even more pluralistic society. More and her friends poured their energies, not into in-fighting, but into world changing.

What if we were known for our counter-cultural willingness to partner with those unlike us? What if we poured our energies into something other than bitter doctrinal debate, scorn, and outrage?  

I’m not suggesting we give up theological study and discussion, or that we act as if truth is somehow subordinate to relationship. (Though truth is best discovered within relationship: Jesus said that he himself is the Truth - perhaps truth is better understood as a subject than an object.)

But could we change our tone?  Our posture?  Could we slow down with the outrage?  Could we do these things in the context of personal relationships rather than on platforms aiming at strangers?

What if we treated each other as members of the same team, playing different positions?
(Look, I used a sports analogy for probably the first time ever!)

I've seen this happen. For example, in the writing group I'm a part of online.

There are thirty of us, from all different backgrounds: we were raised in and are currently invested in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Mennonite, Episcopalian, Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Lutheran, CMA and Calvary Chapel churches.  We regularly dialogue about faith and culture, and we regularly disagree.  We disagree - about everything from gender roles and gay rights to eschatology, pneumatology, and which tv shows are worth watching --  but I still feel safe and respected.  We work toward common goals, trust and support each other. 

Ultimately, unity is worth pursuing because it’s what Jesus prayed for in the garden of Gethsemane before his death.  “The quest for church unity is a wild, wondrous, and strange act of penitence for Christians' often callous disregard of that little word one in John 17 and the Nicene Creed,” Hinlicky Wilson says.  

The gospel is a story of reconciliation, between God and humans, and within the church. “The church is the epicenter of enemy reconciliation in the world, starting with the severest estrangement possible—between God and human beings—and working out from there to repair all forms of human estrangement.”

That's the church I want to be a part of.

Little addendum: I've seen calls for unity used to mask oppression.  "Pay no attention to that scandal behind the curtain, just support us, we need us a show of church unity...".  Obviously that kind of manipulation is always insupportable. There is a kind of peace and unity that just keeps the voices under oppression silent. - that's not the peace of Jesus.

Ecumenism, a personal history {1 of 2}

We’ve been listening to a new CD in the car, a collection of old Baptist hymns sung by children. Some I know by heart, like “Blessed Assurance,” and others are new to me, like “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  My five year old asked, soon after we got the CD, how I knew all the words, and why we didn’t sing these songs at our church.  I explained that her Dad and I sang many of the songs at the churches we attended as children, but that our Episcopal church sings different old hymns. She tucked that bit of information away, and a few weeks later came back with a new question.

Mom, why do you go to a different kind of church now than you did when you were a little girl?

I paused. Said, there are a lot of reasons, I guess.

Mom, I think it’s because you can learn different things at different kinds of churches, right?

How does she already understand that?


I want to tell you about all of the churches I’ve loved.

The non-denominational church in San Antonio, the first one that felt like home.  Dad played guitar up front, and every week we sang kids’ songs, like “Deep and Wide,” as well as praise choruses and hymns.  In Sunday School, Miss Janie made up her own curriculum, and it took us through nearly every story in the book, including the awesome stories from Judges: Jael , the wily woman who killed her enemy with a the tent peg; King Eglon, who was so fat that the sword Ehud stabbed him with was swallowed up by his stomach.  Here I learned to love the stories, and I learned hospitality.  “You’re comfortable here,” mom said. “So when you see new kids in Sunday School, you need to welcome them.” That’s how I made my best friends.

The evangelical megachurch in Little Rock. The youth group that helped me make my faith my own. The people who sent me on short term missions trip.  The small group of girls I met with every week. The lock-ins, the retreats, the late nights singing worship songs at “catacombs”.  My first chances for leadership - leading junior high groups as a highschool student, speaking to the whole youth group about materialism as a Senior, speaking to the whole church about the power of community at our graduation service. My faith was forged in this passionate youth group and its many endeavors to be relevant. (We had hip names like Club X, XLR8, WInter Chill, and Summer Spree.  We had t-shirts. We once had a contest to see who could bring in the best roadkill. That was taking it a bit too far.)

The teeny-tiny Anglican church in Phnom Penh.  Twenty-five of us, on a good Sunday, and our quiet Malaysian rector.  Fragrant flowers curled around the gate outside the building. I’d arrive sweaty after just a short motorbike taxi ride from my apartment, and in the cool church, in the dark night of my soul, we’d pray the liturgy together.  I had no words left for God, who seemed to have no words for me, so in that silence I gladly adopted the words my brothers and sisters had used for centuries.

The Presbyterian (PCA) churches in LA and Seattle, where I got used to long sermons with smart pop culture references and beautiful music.  Where strangers welcomed me and my boyfriend (later husband) into their homes.  In these gatherings I learned to give up (or, ok, temper) my cynicism in favor of sincerity. The musicians put new melodies to old words and stirred my heart. My toddling daughter made her first friends here, and they all had names from the Old Testament. I became convinced that babies should be baptized.

Of course, the Episcopal church I’m a member of now. At this church, in the lonely midwest, I’ve found my best friends and closest community.  Here, my children feel at home just as I once did in San Antonio. This is the church where they were baptized, and now after the service Rosie and Owen run all over the basement with their friends, playing Secret Spies and making treasure maps.  We adults treat ourselves to coffee and donuts upstairs.  Once again, the liturgy shapes my soul, but what has become equally important to me is the weekly eucharist, which nourishes me in ways I can’t begin to define.

I don’t much want to tell you about the ways churches have hurt me, or the things these people and places have done wrong, because you’ve heard those stories.  They’re easy to find.  

But I need to tell you about one church I attended and how it hardened my heart.  It happened in slow, subtle ways, over the four years I spent there.  Incrementally, the church let me know that I wasn’t quite good enough. You see, there was a ladder.  The first rung: attendance.  The second: participation in a small group Bible study.  The third: leadership of such a study. From there, you could go on to be mentored by a staff person.  And eventually, you could be on staff.

I opted out, early on.  Church wasn’t a game, or a ladder, to me. But among my church friends I still heard things like this:  

  • Why would you join a sorority or play lacrosse when you could be using that time for a church Bible study?  
  • Avoid reading that theologian -- he’s a five point Calvinist.  That could mess you up.  
  • You’re not Dispensational? Oh….

The implication was always that you could be a Christian without adhering to their specific form of doctrinal orthodoxy, but you’d always be suspect.  You could be a Christian, but not a really good one. Theology was weaponized.

Church became about in-groups and out-groups.  It became less about growth and more about conformity.  It became less about relationships and more about image.  

When the church prioritized image and in-group,  I chose the out-group.  

Witnessing theology wielded for power, my love of doctrine shriveled.  

I grew very, very quiet.