Getting the Stories Straight

What are you telling me? Ecumenical dialogues have been taking place for 50+ years?! And have produced substantial officially recognized agreements?! I have heard these questions, with the exclamation marks, too many times from well-meaning and committed Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others. Yes, we have been in conversation with one another for a good half a century; yes, we have published official statements on several aspects of our faith in Christ Jesus. And yes, this growing ecclesial relationship is bearing profound positive fruit in both our churches. After frozen relations of several centuries, we are finally recognizing in one another the presence and witness of our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are also recognizing the serious need to walk together as an expression of faithfulness to our Lord’s dying wish that we all be one. It is only in Christian charity and unity that the Gospel can be credibly preached into a hurting world.

The above questions point to the ongoing challenge of Reception, i.e. the process by which official statements trickle down to the ordinary people in our pews to be embraced in their local context. This challenge was once again the subject of the most recent National Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (ARC Canada) meeting in Ottawa.

But this time there was good news to share. For the past two years the ARC Canada group has been collecting stories of lived ecumenism on the ground between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  New Stories to Tell was launched in conjunction with the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The collection is a rich tapestry of inspiring accounts in which individuals from both traditions rediscover our common heritage in Christ Jesus, thus contributing in no small measure to healing the wounds of our historic ecclesial divisions. Each story is followed by a brief theological reflection with references to one or more ARCIC documents, and by study/discussion questions.

The collection is dedicated to a renowned theology professor and ecumenist, Dr. Margaret O’Hara, who is considered a giant in her long-standing involvement in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Stories include experiences of interchurch families, bishops befriending each other and in some cases sharing living quarters (!), encounters at the TRC hearings, covenant agreements between dioceses, joint work with refugees, ecumenical retreats and parish missions, theological study groups etc.

Here is the opening story of this lovely new collection:

An Anglican priest shared the following experience: He had not come to this Truth and Reconciliation hearing with anger, and he had not come with blame. But he said that he wanted me, a Catholic priest, to know that he was not afraid anymore, nor ashamed of who he was. He was confident and secure and even proud of his identity as an Indigenous person, and he wanted me, wearing my clerical collar, to sit with him and hear that from him, because he had never been able to say that to any priest before.

It became clear that there was a misunderstanding. He had attended a school operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, not the Anglican Church of Canada. I was an Anglican priest. So what were we to do? Should I offer a word of apology anyway? Or should we find a Catholic priest and start the process over again? Before I could decide, the man uttered: “Catholic… Anglican… It’s all the same. It was Christians who ran these schools and who did these things to my people. You are all responsible together. You all need our forgiveness. Maybe you should get your own stories straight before you talk to us.”

This encounter speaks clearly about our shared identity as Christians in the present, and about our dividedness in the past. It speaks clearly about our need for right relationship with Indigenous neighbours, as well as with one another, and about the way one relationship affects another. It points to the work of reconciliation as the way forward for healing. The Indigenous man in the above account speaks prophetically when he challenges us to “get our own stories straight” as churches. But already back in 1848, our divided heritage discredited us as messengers of the Gospel:

“Mr. Rundell (Rundle) [Wesleyan Methodist] told him that what he preached was the only true road to heaven, and Mr. Hunter [Anglican] told him the same thing, and so did Mr. Thebo (Fr. Thibault, Roman Catholic), and as they all three said that the other two were wrong, and as he did not know which was right, he thought they ought to call a council among themselves, and then he would go with all three; but that until they agreed he would wait.” [Great Plains Cree chief, Maskepatoon, in conversation with Paul Kane in 1848; James G. MacGregor. Father Lacombe. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975]

We arrived in Canada as divided churches. Our separation was transmitted to Indigenous people during the earliest missions in New France and British North America. It was a stark reality in colonial life, as a Catholic majority came under the rule of an Empire whose established religion was Anglican. It continued to resonate in the ways the Protestant population expressed prejudice towards Catholics (who gladly returned the favour) and in the separateness of our educational, language, and legal identities.

That separateness is a reality which looms large in our present-day experiences as Christians together, and which affects the perceptions our society has of us, the stereotypes we have of one another, and the ministry we can offer. The work of ARC Canada, the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, and the stories of people and communities encountering one another in new ways, present a way forward. The path involves facing and reconciling memories, and making new history together.

The language of reconciliation and of right relationship is a gift we are learning, ever more deeply, from people like the Residential School survivor who challenges us to “get our stories straight.” The broken relationships which we Christians brought with us continue to affect the way we relate to the land, to its First Peoples, and to one another. Yearning for and coming back into right relationship involves all these aspects.

Ironically, in many other ways the world sees us as one even before we see our own unity. When it comes to negative press about one of our churches, we are all perceived in the same light. When it comes to martyrdom, we are not asked first whether we are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox.  As Pope Francis stated a few years ago, to those who persecute and kill we are simply Christians.

Would that the world could see positive signs of our unity! For the sake of right relation and the integrity of Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation, let’s get our stories straight.

New Stories to Tell, published by ARC Canada, can be accessed at www.churchesindialogue.ca

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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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