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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Transformed Lives

In the past few weeks I have been following the discussions between the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference on Eucharistic hospitality towards interchurch couples. This question concerns me quite directly as I am Anglican and my husband is Roman Catholic.  Bishops, cardinals and theologians spend endless hours, months and years debating whether or not to open the table of the Lord to Christians not in communion with Rome, but whose baptism is nevertheless recognized by Rome. Jim and I are united in two sacraments: baptism and marriage. But the Church separates us at the table of the Eucharist. This cuts deep, undermining the integrity and ecclesial value of our marital union.

I have profound respect and affection for the Eucharist. Participating in the Eucharist, consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus has been pivotal in my own faith formation. The centrality of the Eucharist has continued in my new Anglican discipleship. But from this Anglican perch, I am becoming more and more puzzled and saddened at the sacramental antics in Rome. It seems that for Rome institutional communion trumps unity in faith and in Christ Jesus. It also seems that the table of the Lord is being treated as the table of the Church. Finally, it seems that a medieval philosophical category (transubstantiation) trumps transformed hearts and minds.

I don’t in any way intend to be disrespectful, but my deep love for the Eucharist and for the church prompt some serious questions. Is Jesus more fully present in a Catholic Mass than in an Anglican Eucharist or Lutheran service of Holy Communion? When I moved into the Anglican tradition, one faithful Catholic lamented that I was leaving the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” This betrays not only a lack of ecumenical knowledge, particularly about the Eucharist, but also a limited understanding of Christ’s Real Presence. I moved so as to grow more fully into Christ’s Real Presence in the world and in the church by living out the priestly vocation God had placed in my heart (despite my objections, I may add).

If the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is truly superior to anyone else’s celebration of the same, then why does this not show in a multitude of changed lives on fire with Jesus? Does the transubstantiation of hearts not take priority over the philosophical minutiae over how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus? *

I know the theological and ecclesial arguments well: it has to do with validity of Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession and visible ecclesial unity. But each of these terms suffers from a constraining definition, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out so succinctly in his seminal work Models of the Church.

In a 1993 letter to a Lutheran bishop, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a Eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit.

Holy Communion is meant to change us, Pope Francis said recently. Echoing St. Augustine he stated: Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! In fact, we invoke the Holy Spirit upon us God’s people to effect this transubstantiation in our own lives as part of every Eucharistic Prayer. Instead, a Catholic Mass can be as mediocre as any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in another church. Worse even, studies have been done on why Catholics arrive in church late and leave early.

I have been at many a Eucharistic celebration in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and now preside at the same in both. Never have I seen people leave before the end of the service. Moreover, every hymn gets its full verses sung as an expression of praise rather than only a couple of verses serving as “traveling music” for the priest. There is a gusto and an engagement in these services that I wish more of in a Catholic Eucharist. If the Catholic Eucharistic sacrament is somehow more whole, more authentic, then why does this not find expression in all who receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus in radical lives of service to others, simplicity of lifestyle, outreach to the poor, and advocates of justice for the oppressed?

It would behoove us all to sprinkle our private and institutional judgments of one another with a good dose of humility and self-examination, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. The Gospels are embarrassingly candid about how little the disciples actually understood Jesus during his ministry. None of us, not even a Pope, should place higher demands on one another than Jesus ever did for those who broke bread with him.

Clearly, none of us fully grasp the meaning of Christ`s sacrifice any more than the first disciples did. And none of us can add anything to our worthiness in receiving Christ’s sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist than what Christ has accomplished in his suffering and death for us. In fact, the seventh century mystic St. Isaac of Nineveh is quoted as saying, ‘Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So then — do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.

What would happen if the validity of the Eucharist was determined by “discerning the Body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29) and measured by transformed lives instead of institutional membership?

  • I highly recommend Gabriel Daly’s paper Eucharist: Doing the Truth with Christian Faith
  • Excerpts from a summary of the RC position on Eucharistic sharing:
    The norms published by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1999 stated, “Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.”
    At the same time, the 2008 guidelines of the Diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said, “the Church does not require other Christians to have more knowledge of the sacrament or more faith and holiness than the Catholic faithful have. This principle is particularly pertinent in applying terms of the law that speak of the other Christian ‘manifesting Catholic faith’ in the sacrament, having the ‘proper disposition’ and being in ‘spiritual need.’”
  • The final reporting on the meeting between the German bishops and the Vatican can be found here. Interesting to note that Pope Francis did not give the bishops a final answer, but sent them home with — work it out, boys.
  • Update May 12, 2018. Cardinal Willem Eijk from the Netherlands (my country of origin) has unleashed a sharp critique on Pope Francis about the matter. Dutch friends have been sending me responses appearing in Dutch publications, fiercely criticizing the cardinal, summed up in: dear Cardinal, close the book and open your heart.
  • Update May 28, 2018: This interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading and pondering for both Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike. Again it raises the question: what is non-negotiable in ecclesial unity and what is acceptable diversity? Rome approved the Eucharistic Prayer of the Armenian Church which does not have an Institution narrative or consecration of elements. What will it take for Rome to accept the Eucharistic prayer of other Christian traditions?
  • Update June 4, 2018: Pope Francis seems to claw back his command to the German Bishops Conference’s to “work it out.”
  • Update June 12, 2018: RC German Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg responds to Pope Francis’ most recent decree.
  • An interesting article sharing the story of a Lutheran-Catholic couple in Germany.

And the beat goes on …

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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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