Ecclesial Cross-Pollination

Those of you who know me, know that I live with a seed grower (Prairie Garden Seeds) whose daughter is following in her father’s footsteps. So the seed language kind’a rubs off on me — I can’t help it. Once in a while, though, that language actually sheds a delightfully new light on church-stuff. Hence the title of this reflection.

Recently I preached on Ephesians 4:1-16. Especially verses 1-4 are classic words in ecumenical circles: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

It is a massive embarrassment to confess that, over the course of 2,000 years we Christians have utterly failed … utterly failed to live up to this urgent command.  Too often we have acted as though the purity of the church could only be achieved/preserved by dividing, by walking away from each other, by denouncing one another, until the only ones left are those who look, talk, think, and act … like us. Differences are no reason for divisions! Spirit-given differences are not a problem but are God’s good gift so that together we can learn how to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). God’s calling, the unity of the church, in all its diversity, is God’s gift. How have we distorted and denied this gift! We have outright condemned the gifts of others – often and harshly. Paul’s words therefore should be painful, really painful.

Divisions in the church betray God’s overflowing grace. Divisions in the Body of Christ reveal our self-centeredness: we prefer to be right in our own eyes. We have no time or interest in others, we don’t want to bother learning how to love those who are genuinely different, whether that involves our atheist neighbour, or the congregation down the street, or our brother/sister in the next pew.

Fortunately we can slowly breathe a collective sigh of relief: in the past 100+ years we have been learning to reclaim our God-given unity with fellow Christians. We are working hard to heal the wounds of divisions. We are helping each other to regard differences not as dividing, but as the gifts of God to build up the Body of Christ. Reconciliation and healing, unity in diversity, are the new ways of being church today – whether this pertains to our Indigenous sisters and brothers, to our gay and lesbian fellow-Christians, or to relations among the church traditions.

This summer Anglican Bishop Rod Hardwick from the Qu’Appelle Diocese cycled across Canada (yes, Victoria to NFL) in 62 days (completed on July 31) to bring the message of healing and reconciliation to all he encountered. In the past fifty years numerous ecumenical agreements and milestones have been achieved on local, regional and global levels in the church. Shared ministry arrangements are growing, such as my own Anglican/Lutheran partnership in Watrous; inspiring examples of recognizing each other’s gifts and of healing Christ’s Body on earth. Last year’s world-wide events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation were a shining witness to Catholics and Protestants recognizing Christ in one another, from our own small parish studies, right up to Pope Francis himself. Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, to join the Lutheran World Federation in prayer. Francis co-presided in prayer with the Archbishop of Canterbury and together they commissioned 18 pairs of Anglican & Catholic bishops for the work of reconciliation and healing between our traditions.

Then just as I was enjoying well-deserved time off this summer, a new ecumenical document was released: Walking Together On The Way, written by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Given the ecumenical animal I am, I didn’t waste time. I read the entire document while relaxing in my backyard (and I’ve passed it on to my RC colleague for his summer reading!). I was utterly surprised and delighted at the message in this text. Compared to other ecumenical texts, this one differs significantly in content, tone and methodology. More than any other, the document truly does justice to Paul’s words to the Ephesians.

What is so different, you may ask? Well, instead of stating the usual, “these are the gifts from our tradition that you need in yours,” it reversed the sentence/ question: “what gifts do you have in your tradition that we need in ours?” The entire text is marked by a profound trust and appreciation for the other’s witness to Christ and the Gospel. This appreciation is then coupled with a new, deep humility and honesty about one’s own denominational weaknesses and shortcomings. This is the first official document that applies the principles of what has come to be known as Receptive Ecumenism: Instead of asking what other traditions need to learn from us, we ask what our tradition needs to learn from others, and what we can receive from others which is of God.

This approach requires an ‘ecclesial examination of conscience’ with all the challenging implications of those Gospel words – the courage to be self-critical, to make humility a virtue, to risk openness to conversion, reconciliation and healing.  Here is truly a refreshing wind blowing in ecumenism-land, opening new pathways towards realizing the unity Christ won for us. While this approach is particularly courageous (and therefore new) for the Roman Catholic Church – which is not known for readily admitting shortcomings or errors – every tradition falls into traps of self-righteousness and arrogance. In fact, faced with difference, each of us can fall into the same trap. It’s not easy to stay out of that trap but it’s mighty important lest we betray our baptismal commitment to follow Christ. What would happen if instead of distancing ourselves from different people, different opinions, different perspectives, we learn to seek that of God in the difference? Ecclesial cross-pollination – do you see it?

And so, while Paul admonishes the Ephesians and us, his words don’t spell despair. In verse 13 Paul recognizes that we are still growing toward maturity. If that growth depended on ourselves, we would be doomed. But Paul reminds us that we are held by the calling of God, we are given to one another by the Spirit, and we are united in the Lord who is head of the whole body. The church’s growth into Christ (verse 15) is God’s gift and God’s promise. We have not yet grown up, but it is happening as we continue to foster relationships across differences, encouraging ecclesial cross-pollination, as we encounter one another at the Holy Supper, as we hear and sing the holy Word, as we reach out to meet the needs of the world, and as we serve in the ministries of the church. As Martin Luther once wrote:
This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well, not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.

  • Excerpt from the new ARCIC document:
    It is our hope that Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal will be a part of an ongoing process of honest self-reflection and growth. In their 2016 Common Declaration, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby declared: ‘While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred. In our trust and joy in the Holy Spirit we are confident that dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his Church.’ It is important to make clear that by ‘together’ the Commission envisages each communion attending to its own structures and instruments, but aided by the support and example provided by the other communion. The sense is of our two traditions each walking the pilgrim way in each other’s company: ‘pilgrim companions’, making their own journey of conversion into greater life but supported by the other as they do so.

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Celebrate and Mourn

Yes, this is “the” Big Weekend — Reformation weekend. I remember Reformation Sunday 1999 well. It was the first time I found myself, a Roman Catholic then, preaching in a Lutheran pulpit at the invitation of the local pastor. It was a momentous day in Augsburg, Germany, where representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core argument from the 16th century, that lead to Martin Luther’s excommunication, was finally laid to rest. Since that momentous event other church bodies have signed on this Declaration, including the World Methodist Conference, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion. The gaps that have separated the followers of Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, the great Reconciler — are closing and healing. Across most of the Christian world a collective sigh of relief and gratitude can be heard —  reconciliation at last.

I have lived the painful divisions in the Body of Christ quite personally for the past 27 years and continue to do so.  As a good Catholic girl I studied at a Lutheran seminary, and discovered to my great surprise that Lutherans and other Christians can indeed be authentic living witnesses to Christ Jesus. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am an Anglican deacon, soon to be priest, and live the deep pain of a closed Roman Catholic communion table, where ecclesial divisions apparently trump the marital communion I live with my own RC spouse on a daily basis.

So when I read about Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols embracing in tears at communion time, I wept my tears with them. This line in particular hit home: Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past. And Pope Francis said today: “For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”  How did it come to this?

If nothing else, I hope with all my heart that we have learnt some hard lessons in humility, restraint and remorse towards one another. In this anniversary year, none other than Pope Francis is illustrating with bold gestures and words that the Christian family has indeed buried its hatchets and is ushering in a new era of healing divisions. This 80-year old pontiff is living up to his title — building bridges wherever there is an openness of heart, risking new initiatives of reconciliation and dialogue. In today’s meeting with the leadership of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland Pope Francis noted that “Christians of different denominations are living today as true brothers, no longer as adversaries.”

In my own little community on the Canadian prairies, we are slowly following suit. Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics are gathering on a regular basis now to engage in common prayer and to learn about one another’s faith traditions, assisted by ecumenical documents produced by national and international dialogue groups. With internet access these great ecumenical documents are only one click away. What is harder is to find enough good church folk willing to risk the learning and growing with their sisters and brothers in another church. But in our small prairie town we are making progress. While our Lutheran-Catholic Lenten study this past spring lacked some important conversation partners, this fall’s Anglican-Catholic-Lutheran study is seeing a great three-way denominational mix at the weekly sessions. The discoveries and learning are creating surprise and enthusiasm, yet generating tears of both celebration and mourning. We have so much in common yet, like estranged siblings, we have lost out on so much in these five centuries apart.

In our zeal to confess Christ Jesus as Lord, we still fail miserably to live up to this claim. Let us heed our sorrowful history of internal conflict and strife as a shameful betrayal of the very unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed so fervently when the cross loomed. While old barriers are indeed dissolving, new ones are waiting to take their place. As my little ecumenical study group on the prairies is learning, some church traditions continue to resist relinquishing their own security of being right in order to further the unity for which Christ died. Others look upon smaller traditions are somehow less than, thus ignoring Paul’s summons in 1 Corinthians 12 to regard those members of the body that we think less honourable (to) clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members with greater respect. Time will tell whether we have learnt the lessons both from history and from our Lord Jesus himself.

That Reformation Sunday in 1999, preaching with joy on the Joint Declaration as the fruit of fraternal dialogue, an older woman greeted me after the service. She grabbed both my hands while tears streamed down her face. “I’ve prayed for this all my life,” she managed to say with great emotion. “When I married my Lutheran husband 42 years ago, the Catholic priest told me not to bother coming back to church.” Her words hit me in the stomach. “And when I saw you up there,” she continued, “I knew this was God’s doing.”

Little did I know that my words and presence unleashed God’s healing waters in this woman’s spirit. Words preached that Reformation Sunday by a Roman Catholic woman in a Lutheran pulpit stitched her shattered heart together again. I have carried her, and many others since, with me in my heart and prayers. And so this weekend I both celebrate the remarkable reconciliation we have achieved in the past fifty years as well as shed tears of lament  for the unity which still eludes our reach.

Logo in top image: from Lutheran Church Canada

Update Reformation Day Oct. 31 — Joint Statement from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

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No again … and Yet …

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 Bblessingwelbyfrancisody 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.

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill hug each other after signing agreements in HavanaFor 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?

lund-2016-peace-of-christThe 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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