Winter in Church

My move from the Roman Catholic fold to the Anglican branch of the Christian family has been surprisingly smooth sailing. I’d like to think that several factors played a role in this ecclesial transition. While my reflection on these factors is articulated in previous blog entries, let me simply summarize them here.

One, the move was motivated, not by negative reasons away from Rome, but by clear positive reasons of sensing a deep call into the Anglican tradition. While I was drawn because of the possibility of fulfilling my priestly vocation, this was by no means the only motivation. It had better not be, for there was no guarantee that the Anglican bishop and the Anglican vocational discernment processes would recognize my calling as valid and suited for Anglican priestly ministry. I vividly remember realizing that my spirit was ready for the stretching and growing that the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship would afford me. The past nearly five Anglican years have only confirmed this.

Two, because of the above, I made sure that any negative ecclesial baggage was left behind or at least dealt with. The last thing Anglicans need is an angry, frustrated and resentful RC woman joining their ranks. What we do not allow God to transform, we transmit in unhealthy ways. It is one thing to experience righteous anger and frustration, but it is quite another to keep tapping that negative energy as a habitual way of life. I know other women who took their unresolved pain and anger with them into another denomination. While some may have good reason to do so, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for me.

Three, I was very intentional about sharing my denominational transition as an internal move within the Christian family of God instead of treating it as a family rupture. It is for this reason that a public liturgical ritual was celebrated to mark the denominational move, with an affirmation of our common baptism, and a ritual of “handing me over” to the Anglican family. I remember preaching at that liturgy, saying that, referring to Jesus’ words in John 14:2, I was only changing rooms in the Christian household, I was not leaving the house.

Finally, I have discovered that, while the institution no longer considers me a card-carrying Roman Catholic, my Catholic heart is alive and well. All the best and the finest of the Catholic tradition has gone with me in my spirituality, my theology and even in my ministry. I would be remiss to leave out the gifts and lessons learnt from intimate engagement, to this day, with our Lutheran siblings as well. In fact, the profound sense of ecclesial union/communion in my heart and mind tells me in unmistakable ways that I have not “left” anything or anyone. On the contrary, the Anglican move has expanded and deepened my Christian discipleship while I continue to drink deeply from the spiritual wells of my ecclesial family of origin.

So now, here I am, fully ordained and ministering happily in a rural community on the Canadian prairies. And the news broke a few months ago that this Anglican room in the Christian family home is rapidly emptying out, with its parishes in a major numerical free fall. What is it like to be a spiritual leader in a church that could see the lights go out in about 20+ years?

Well, I can honestly say that it is fascinating to be a part of a spiritual family that is told from all sides that its days are numbered. As for the causes of this numerical free fall, there are plenty of speculations out there, all vying for first rate attention. I feel no need to add my two-cents worth to this chorus, so I will simply limit this reflection to my own personal musings and spiritual experience.

First of all, church and ministry is about real people, real lives with all the joys and sorrows. Yes, my two parishes are small, unable to afford full-time ministry services even between the two churches. But in those small church families life happens, folks. And where there’s life, there’s love and hate, there’s joy and grief, there’s hardship and accomplishment, there’s hope and despair. Recently I celebrated with a 94-year old parishioner who still drives her own car. I delight in our 4-year old parishioner who, at every hymn we sing, steps un-self-consciously into the centre aisle and loses herself in a spontaneous and unique liturgical dance, much to the awe of all present. I attend to the sick and visit the lonely, bringing Christ’s holy food of communion and God’s mercy. I lend a listening ear to those overburdened and struggling with challenges too big to bear. I preach and preside at the Holy Eucharist, an act that fills me with reverence and awe every time. To feed God’s people with holy food and merciful words, to bring Christ’s gaze of love into hurting hearts, to pray the Holy Spirit into lost souls and lives — that holy work continues even in seasons of decline.

Second, there is a strange refreshing wind that begins to blow in seasons of diminishment and loss of influence. The wind of decline is pushing us on our knees, forcing a spirit of humility and self-examination. This honest knee-bending scrutiny is quite easy to avoid when we can take comfort, however false, in numbers and importance, whether that’s our parish, our theology or our tradition. In fact, humility retracts into the shadows when self-righteousness, superiority and pointing fingers assert themselves. We are reminded quite starkly that this is God’s church, and not our project for self-glorification. Given that we follow One who suffered death on a cross, we should not be surprised to suffer a similar lot. It is in fact quite biblical to become the counter-culture instead of being part of the culture that calls the worldly shots.

Three, there is a sense of moving closer to the early church, when Christians met in homes to break bread and share the Word of Life. The Christian community originated with very small beginnings; I wonder if becoming small again might allow us to recover what we lost when we grew too big. There is a sense of being pushed into one another’s ecclesial arms for sheer necessity. I think here of the many Catholic religious orders who are living their own diminishment, a diminishment that for some looks to become the end of their witness in church and world. The Anglican Church is not alone — we’re in this together. The sooner we admit this sober fact the sooner we can allow God to show us the way into the future.

The other thing to remember is that this numerical decline in institutional Christianity is not uniform across the globe. In fact, all mainline churches are experiencing significant growth in developing countries, which we refer to as the Global South. The Anglican Church is no exception. It is primarily in western cultures that Christian witness is waning. Guess what — we are not the center of the universe, far from it. Keeping the global view in mind helps to put our own diminishment in perspective; it might even raise different questions for self-examination than might otherwise appear.

In this sobering moment of organized religion’s decline in the western world maybe Christian unity might now get a fair chance, provided we are willing to carry burdens together (Gal. 6:2), to learn from one another, to confess our sins together before the cross of Christ, seeking mercy together. The most recent Anglican—Roman Catholic Document Walking Together on the Way considers us fellow pilgrims journeying at the summons of God’s Word. … Walking together means that, as traveling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness (Par. 21).

Asked how we should pray for the church, Canadian Anglican Primate Archbishop Linda Nicholls replied, “Pray for the Spirit to blow through the hearts and minds of everyone, and open our eyes to see where Jesus is calling us to be at work. It’s not that God isn’t there in the community already. And it isn’t that God isn’t calling us—sometimes we’re just expecting God to be in a different place, and so we don’t see God where God actually is. Pray for us to be flexible and open in how we express the gospel. And pray for that deepening of discipleship in us that will lead us there.

So, on our knees, let us pray, together, for one another, and for the world. Pray that we will be open to new wine in new wineskins, and in the process be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:32

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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I Wonder as I Wander

This past spring, in a meeting with the Anglican — Roman Catholic International Commission, Pope Francis pointed out that working toward the restoration of full unity between Christian traditions is not optional but is an urgent summons of Christ himself. This was not the first time Pope Francis made such comments. In the nearly three years of his pontificate the Holy Father has taken every possible opportunity to stress this summons.

I am immensely grateful for his words. My many years of ecumenical ministry have given me numerous friends in a wide variety of Christian traditions. But more importantly, these involvements and precious relationships have greatly expanded my understanding of church. I have come to realize that it is only together that we reflect the fullness of the Gospel message. It is only together that we can credibly proclaim Christ’s saving love and mercy in an increasingly skeptical world. In fact, the task of unity among churches is a question of sheer survival in some parts of the world — see this article. We become a stronger witness when we learn to bind as one the various aspects of the witness of Jesus perfected in our respective denominations. Cardinal Emeritus Walter Kasper referred to this notion in a recent article as follows:

There is no ecclesiological vacuum outside the Catholic Church. Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches – and these often give clearer expression to individual elements of being church than the Catholic Church – the complete realization of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin. (Mercy is the medicine to heal the wounds of the ChurchCardinal Walter Kasper   – The Tablet, November 12, 2015)

Back in 1952, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Lund, Sweden. As the churches were searching together for the means of common witness, they asked each other earnestly whether they were doing all they could to manifest the oneness of the people of God: “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” The answer to this urgent question has become known as the Lund Principle. This means that Christians and churches should try to act  as much as possible ecumenically, in particular, to bear witness together to a common life in Christ.

Ecumenical involvement, therefore, is by no means limited to experts and scholars. In fact, much of the real ecumenical work occurs among ordinary people in the pews – the rubber-hitting-the-road type of stuff. Last year I was part of a Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue process. Seven Lutherans and seven Catholics (chosen from the pews) met on a regular basis to read and discuss together the new document entitled From Conflict to Communion, a text written by an international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue group in preparation for the year 2017, the year which marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The text bears witness to the good news that we are finally living in a season of reconciliation between our churches, a reconciliation which allows us now to tell the story of the  500 year old break-up together. Given the length of this separation and the centuries of mutual disregard, each tradition developed in isolation from and in contrast to the other. Fortunately, the time of such mutual distrust and condemnation is behind us and the time of recognizing our common faith in Jesus has been ushered in.

Thus was created From Conflict to Communion – the title aptly captures the reconciling movement and growing convergence  between churches. Our group participants would prepare  assigned reading at home; then we would gather to discuss and learn together by bringing questions and insights, as well as joys and sorrows about being Lutheran and being Catholic. The experience was electric; friendships were born, understanding grew through conversations which made dry words leap off their pages and take on flesh in real people’s lives.

This past spring another ecumenical milestone was reached in Saskatoon with the creation of a Common Statement of Faith. This text is the fruit of local dialogue meetings which took place over three years between 10 representatives from Evangelical Churches and 10 members of the Roman Catholic Church, both clergy and laity. Formal dialogues between mainline Christians and Evangelical Christians are not as old as some of the other dialogues, but they are a fresh expression of increasing numbers of Christian sisters and brothers desiring to come together in order to encounter Jesus Christ in one another’s faithful worship and witness.

And lo, as I am walking the “road to Canterbury” another delightful gift has recently been prepared for the people of God in the pews, this time from the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada. A unique series of short videos featuring Anglican and Catholic presenters offer “small answers to big questions.” The series is entitled Did you Ever Wonder? and can be found here. Each 8-minute presentation is followed by a few discussion questions at the end of the video. The series is an ideal recipe for a delightful encounter with fellow Christians. I wonder as I wander … is it thanks to my expanded experience and understanding of church that my current transition to the Anglican Church does not feel like a “leaving”?

Some seasoned professional ecumenists have called this era a winter of sorts in ecumenical relations. But this brief sampling of recently produced resources, themselves the fruit of faithful discipleship in Christ, indicates anything but a winter. Clearly even in winter we walk together, and never more so than among ordinary people in the pews. So if you have been wondering about “those Christians in other churches,” be bold. Go knock on their door, attend their worship or invite them to yours. Then suggest that you meet for shared prayer and learning; delve into From Conflict to Communion (if nothing else, at least study the Five Ecumenical Imperatives in its last chapter), propose a joint prayerful study of the Common Statement of Faith, or enjoy some of the lovely online videos produced by the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue. Other Christians belong inside our comfort zone instead of outside of it, even if their Gospel expressions challenge us. There is no more excuse not to know each other, no more excuse not to befriend each other. There is no more lack of resources and study materials, no more excuse not to see Christ in one another. Pope Francis himself says so: it is an urgent summons of Jesus Christ whom we all profess as Lord and Saviour.

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