It has been a heady month of October on the global ecumenical front, in no small way thanks to Pope Francis. A man of action, and cognizant of the power of gesture and relationship, Francis spent October 2016 — inaugurating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation — in key encounters with leaders from the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and LWF President Bishop Mounib Younan both signed Joint Statements with Pope Francis; a Joint Statement with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was signed earlier this year. Each statement confesses the sins of conflict and strife over the past 500 years (1000 years in case of the Orthodox!), reaffirms Christ’s own animating and salvific presence in one another’s traditions, and commits its leaders and faithful to new paths of joint witness, prayer and mission. Without glossing over disagreements still present, each statement includes a clear commitment to address these differences by “walking together” as one Body of Christ.
These are no small matters. This is history in the making. Publicly signing formal agreements at the highest ecclesial levels has clout and raises the bar to a new level. Many are bursting with joy and relief, praise and thanks to God at this monumental development in the Body of Christ. Our church leaders are now able to admit that historical and theological divisions, though painful and full of conflict at the time, nevertheless have enjoyed the blessing of God’s Spirit as evident in the particular charisms, strengths and gifts of each tradition: Lutheran, Anglican, Roman, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, United and later on the family of Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches. Not everything is resolved, to be sure, but our conflict-ridden world is in dire need of concrete global examples of reconciliation and healing. The Christian family has a particular responsibility in this area as we claim to follow our Lord and role model, God’s own Son Jesus Christ, who came to “reconcile the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) and that “all may be one” (John 17:21).
While so many positive steps are being made, it is hard to keep the negative at bay. Dan O’Grady, a psychologist, has been quoted as saying that “our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away.” A bit of this happened in the aftermath of all these momentous ecumenical gatherings. When interviewed by journalists aboard the papal plane returning from Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis once again reiterated the Roman Catholic ban on the ordination of women. Instantly social media erupted with knee-jerk reactions, expressing outrage and profound disappointment in some quarters and dismay over pestering the Holy Father with this perennial question in other quarters.
That is too bad, for the positive ecumenical steps of the past 50 years can nevertheless provide some important solace, lessening the need for such negative reactions. Let me try to tease out a few.
For church traditions who have shared literally centuries of suspicion, judgment and conflict, it is a monumental step to acknowledge Christ’s saving action in one another’s faith and spirituality, liturgy and mission. In other words, Christ is present and active in those ecclesial communities which have developed separately from Rome. This acknowledgement is extended to several major traditions which ordain women, i.e. the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. Rome does not consider itself to have the authority to change its teaching on women’s ordination, but that does not preclude that Christ can work through ordained women in other traditions.
Even acknowledging that the fullness of the church subsists in the Catholic Church (Par. 8, Lumen Gentium) may be quite acceptable to other Christian traditions. The same paragraph in Lumen Gentium adds that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” But the burden of proof and of greater responsibility rests on the one who makes the claim to total fullness. Just because the “fullness of the church” subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, it does not automatically follow that the same Church lives each aspect of that fullness to its best. Some aspects have gathered dust in obscure corners of the Church’s own archives; other aspects have withered because of neglect. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to live that fullness is precisely what may have given rise to other traditions, some of whom live these aspects better and more faithfully, as articulated eloquently in paragraph 4 of the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio). Could it be that ordaining women is one of those aspects?
The fruit of ecumenical learning leads to a realization that we need all churches together in order to provide a full and complete witness to the Gospel. For the neglect of one church could well be the strength of another, and vice versa. If we could truly realize how much we need each other, then the gifts and graces of one tradition, including ordained women, can serve to hold accountable and guide the other traditions.
My personal response to Pope Francis’ reiterating the ban on the ordination of women is quite simple: “If women are not to be ordained, then please tell God to stop calling us.” God’s calling activity in the heart and mind of a faithful Roman Catholic woman is a mysterious and challenging dance, one which is rarely chosen at will by the woman herself and despite her personal fear and resistance. Rather, it is a dance in which we women (yes, I include myself) feel seduced (in the loveliest sense of that word) by a divine Partner who fuels our human desire for fullness and surrender, for wholeness in ministry despite the official teaching of the Church, a dance which is at the same time recognized by the faith community in surprising and genuine ways despite the prohibition from on high to do so.
There is an authenticating force that arises when one has lived with such a deep divine calling for a lifetime. Such a calling does not rest until it is consummated in ordination as the most complete expression of the gift of one’s very self in service to God’s holy people — an apt example of losing one’s life in order to find it.
Yes, I have moved into another room in the Christian household to pursue this priestly ordination. But I have not left the Christian household. The tradition I have embraced, with valid differences in some key aspects, is nevertheless endowed with many of the gifts and charisms as the one which gave birth to and nurtured my calling so well in the first place, thereby affirming the words in Lumen Gentium. If the ecumenical agreements of the past 50 years mean anything, it is that denominational moves such as mine are no longer the scandal they once were. I am convinced of one thing: Christ is still leading and guiding me, and will continue to bless my journey. What’s more, Rome’s best ecumenical insights now agree with this. Who knows what “new thing” the Holy Spirit can do with this:
God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new”. A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”! (Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)
“We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 244)
This reflection was also published in the Prairie Messenger, November 16, 2016
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