Miscarried or Still Pregnant?

This past Lent my parishes (Anglican and Lutheran) invited the local Roman Catholic parish to engage in a study on the Reformation. After all, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century event that splintered western Christianity into a number of different church traditions, traditions that remain divided to this day. However, intense dialogue in the past 50 years and new agreements on key aspects of our Christian heritage have now ushered in a new era of rapprochement, one that needs to be shared and embraced by the ordinary disciples in all church pews.

It seemed timely and such a good idea to gather participants from three traditions to learn and discuss together about the events of the 16th century, acknowledge the significant agreements and convergence that has have been achieved through dialogue at the highest levels for the past 50 years, and to look towards a future of community and unity.

Now I tried very hard to remain realistic; I minister in a small prairie town so I had no illusions of this venture drawing a big crowd. Nevertheless, I was surprised when 14 people showed up for the first of five sessions. The numbers fluctuated somewhat each week but remained steady between 14 — 21 participants. This number was amazing; moreover, people were committed and open to learning. Hearing about the significant dialogues and agreements between our church traditions was a real revelation for most folks, one that clearly inspired and engaged them in new ideas and visions for the future.

To this effect, the parish study, designed by a Canadian Catholic-Lutheran working group and entitled Together in Christ, gave five clear directives to be discussed and endorsed by local churches. These same imperatives were agreed to and signed between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in a joint worship service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, attended by Pope Francis himself:

  1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

This major step towards mutual recognition at such a high church level definitely moves the process towards full visible unity closer to its goal. There was, however, a slight problem in our local Lenten study, one that the group became more vocal about as we approached the last session. The majority of the participants had been Lutheran and Anglican! Despite support from the RC parish priest, alternating meeting venues between Lutheran and Catholic parish halls, and weekly notices in parish bulletins, the Catholic participation remained extremely weak (with the exception of one session which saw six Catholic participants but most didn’t return) and even zero at one session 😦 . It was painful and the group lamented this vacuum, feeling as if stood up on a date. After all, the study was designed as a conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (Anglicans came along for the ride). What could possibly account for this Catholic absence/disinterest?

And so when there’s a vacuum in reasonable explanation, the mind begins to speculate:

  • Were Catholic lives busier than Lutheran or Anglican lives and so they couldn’t make time for this?
  • Do Catholics remain fearful to engage too closely with “those” other Christians?
  • Are Catholics insulated from other Christians and don’t feel a need for serious engagement?
  • Are Catholics unaware of the monumental changes brought about through 50 years of ecumenical dialogues and agreements?
  • Do Catholics still believe the RC Church is the only true church, making ecumenical dialogue unnecessary?
  • Are Catholics overly obedient to papal authority and may fear losing this if engaging in ecumenical conversations?
  • Have Catholics inherited the historical disdain for Protestants through an ecclesial gene pool stretching five centuries now?

I’m still pondering whether this was a huge missed opportunity on the Catholic side, an ecclesial miscarriage of sorts, or if we are still pregnant with potential dialogue and conversation. The group that gathered decided to give the Catholics the benefit of the doubt and is opting for the latter. The group is currently preparing a letter addressed to the local Catholic parish community, indicating how much their voice and participation was missed and could we please talk.

By way of closing the 5-week Lenten study we shared, even if only with less than a handful of Catholics, we did mark Good Friday together with a joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican worship service. It seemed appropriate to come to the cross of Christ in contrition and humility. Lord, O Lord, have mercy.

Prairie Encounters

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A New Season

I owe you, my faithful readers, an update. No, I have not been “hiding” behind the past four postings on the Theology of the Body and Ordination. I felt it was important that these installments were posted in sequence to improve flow and accessibility for reading. But while these postings appeared, some significant changes took place in my own life and ministry, changes I am happy to share with you now.

If there is one thing I have learnt, and keep learning, on this life and faith journey it is the absolute importance of good discernment grounded in deep prayerful listening in community. When the Anglican family of faith opened its doors to me a couple of years ago, it wasn’t just a triumphant grand entry. These things rarely are; to expect otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The Anglican steps in the preparation process towards ordination challenged my capacity for both spiritual and ecclesial obedience in a spirit of surrender in freedom. I faced the need to stare down in my spirit impatience and entitlement, distrust, doubt and fear. These five amigos vied for a place in the driver’s seat of my denominational and vocational decisions. Each of them came with solid Scriptural backing, much like the devil did when tempting Jesus in the desert. It took courage to unmask their counter-witness; it took trust to turn away from their alluring yet shallow promises. It takes ongoing perseverance to wait in joyful hope.

It now looks like this discernment gamble is paying off. The developments of the past months were unanticipated, and thus can only be attributed to God’s own providence and blessing of this remarkable vocational journey. As of January 2017, I have been entrusted with the pastoral leadership of two small congregations in a rural community not far from home. What is more, all of my previous denominational and ecumenical ministry, as well as my vocational experience, are culminating in this new pastoral assignment, all of it. Why do I make this claim?

First, the two congregations belong to two different traditions – one Anglican and the other Lutheran (made possible through the Full Communion Covenant between the ACC and the ELCIC). Therefore two bishops had to approve my appointment. My Lutheran seminary training and my long association with all things Lutheran now stands me in good stead. As I quip to my Lutheran friends and colleagues, I may be Anglican now but you Lutherans got under my skin back in those seminary days and you clearly never left 🙂

Second, my continued grounding in Roman Catholic spirituality and theological knowledge is proving to be a rich asset. This Lent I am participating in ecumenical conversations in our little prairie town between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics through the parish study Together in Christ. I find myself answering questions from all sides with a deep affection and respect for each of the three traditions.

Third, I sense a deep convergence towards Christian unity in my own spirit, thanks to the blending of the various traditions in both ministry, spirituality and ecumenical collaboration among the denominations in the community where I serve. I am increasingly relating and ministering from the perspective of the Lund PrincipleI am acutely aware that the positive disposition with which I engaged my denominational transfer is now creating the inner freedom to engage in joy and affection with the local Roman Catholic parish priest and parishioners. Had my denominational move been motivated by negative reasons and unresolved frustrations, I likely would have been greatly hampered in the current building of new friendships with Roman Catholics.

This ecumenical convergence in my own spirit is circling back to growing my Anglican identity. For Anglicanism at its best in today’s Christian family is to be ecumenical in vision, in spirituality, in practical partnering, in common prayer and witness. The Anglican tradition is animated by a deep desire to embrace the best in both Catholicism and Protestantism, humbly acknowledging its own need for the other expressions of Christian discipleship.

Finally, I am experiencing the truth of what Frederick Buechner said long ago (and his words have become a classic saying): The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. For so many years I have sensed a deep call to parish-based pastoral leadership ministry. Already some 15 years ago I wrote in my journal: if only I could pastor a little parish in the country somewhere I’d be perfectly happy. Now it’s one thing to “dream” about something as if this is a true calling. It’s quite another to experience it in real time. But I am in real time now and I am pastoring in a small prairie town. And yes, I’m over the moon (the honeymoon!) with this new assignment; some of it will wear off over time I’m sure. But that is okay. The current synergy and the joyful energy welling up inside me, as if an artesian well has been unplugged, is unmistaken. There is something so right about where I am, and the people of God in both parishes have welcomed me so warmly. Preparing weekly sermons and preaching has never been easier; I am no longer the guest preacher who gets parachuted into a congregation, preaches without any bonds to the people, and then leaves again. Now I can build thought patterns with the Scriptures over the course of several Sundays, and to my great surprise some people are taking note and responding.

I experience spiritual and ministerial “highs” as I try out new pastoral initiatives, as I bring communion to shut-ins, as I lead worship in both the church and the long-term care facility, as I engage with the local refugee committee (small town–big project, refugee family arrived last November) and the Ministerial Association, and get to know parishioners. I pinch myself periodically; is this really happening?

I have worked in “church-land” long enough to know that it will not always be this way. I will hit new lows and collect new bruises on my heart. The artesian well will eventually run dry, the excitement of new beginnings will wear off. The hard balls of living will knock me over again – they always do. The cross always looms over the resurrection light, but its darkness does not overcome it. For now, in this little window of joy and excitement, this feels a bit like storing up blessings as preparation for the lean times which inevitably follow. The very fact of making the journey itself is truly the destination. And all this even before ordination – Deo Gratias 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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