Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Choosing Death or Life: Reflections on 21st Century American Ecumenism in Light of the NCC's 2014 Christian Unity Gathering

We are at the end now of the 2014 Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches. I was sent by the Churchwide Office of The Episcopal Church to represent our church at the Conventing Table for Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith and Order.

At which point, I imagine, about half of you have already checked out of reading this post.

Still there?


Because I think that what this Gathering is wrestling with (and what this Gathering has not wrestled with) involves some profoundly important questions for contemporary Christianity. I hope you'll listen in as I think through some of them because I, because all ecumenists out there, need the wisdom of the larger body.

So, I want to begin with describing the Challenges of this Gathering but then I want to say what I find Hopeful about this Gathering.

Before I do, though, I want to be clear about something. I am a young clergy person, not an academic, and so I enter ecumenism with a very different lens than many of my other colleagues. Others have more experience and a broader view of the lay of the land—I think particularly of Crusty Old Dean (otherwise known as the former Assistant [and then Interim] Ecumenical Officer for The Episcopal Church) and his fantastic posts on the "Ecumenical Autumn" (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I don't have the training nor the breadth of him or other ecumenists who were cut from that cloth. Also, I am from the "Millennial Generation," but even I sometimes wonder if I am an aberration or example of that generation's impulses. Who knows. But the questions of Millenials and our engagement with the Christian Church are questions that are increasingly pressing.

All I do know is that I think the Ecumenical Movement is still desperately needed in today's Christianity. The question will be whether or not the current trajectories of that movement will lead to growth and vibrancy or only prolong an inevitable continued decline.

That said...

Challenges of a Struggling 21st Century Ecumenism
The National Council of Churches (NCC) recently went through a pretty significant restructuring of their work (you can read the report of the Task Force that engaged that work online here and the actual Restructuring Overview online here). This restructuring included the elimination of all former Commissions (including the Faith & Order Commission on which I served and which, as many Commissioners told me, predated the NCC). At the same time, the restructuring group created several "Convening Tables," including (ta da!) a Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order alongside of three other Convening Tables. So, it's not like Faith & Order has gone away... perhaps.

Whereas the former Faith & Order Commission met twice a year, now the NCC calls together one annual Christian Unity Gathering at which all the Convening Tables are present. Supposedly, this will help ensure we are in communication with each other and working together towards issues of mutual concern to the member communions of the NCC.

However, there is a part of me that feels like this is so much re-arranging of the deck chairs—and not a very good rearranging at that. It seems to me that what has actually happened is that Justice & Advocacy has now taken the lead role at the National Council of Churches. The NCC offices are now located in Washington, DC. Our First Christian Unity Gathering was held at the Washington-Dulles Hilton. The restructured NCC has laid out two key issues for us all to focus on: (1) Mass Incarceration and (2) Interfaith Relations with a focus on Peace-making.

Justice. Advocacy. Let's sign some petitions and change policies and programs in our government given the mandate of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to be very clear. I am a huge proponent of Justice and Advocacy work. Go to Twitter and search for #NCCCUG — you will see some fantastic points made by the speakers in our plenary sessions about the scourge of Mass Incarceration, several of which I myself quoted in tweets. The church must be mobilized around this and other issues of our day. Absolutely. I cannot wait to get back to St. John's in Grand Haven and talk to people about how our parish can engage this issue.

What I wonder, though, is whether Justice & Advocacy truly is the sole work of ecumenism in the twenty-first century. Is other ecumenical engagement (like, for example, traditional Faith & Order discussions on church-dividing and church-uniting issues) now going to be co-opted, used entirely in service to Justice and Advocacy concerns?

But perhaps even more troubling is that the pivot to Justice & Advocacy seems to continue the great weakness of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American (particularly mainline) Christianity—a longing for the return of Christendom. We want to come together to be a powerful voice to get Congress and the Courts and the President to listen to us. We want to be a force to reckoned with in Society. Because we know what's right.

Yet, we are not. We are not a force to be reckoned with. In the end, very few media outlets or news organizations probably care about the work and energy stirred up in these past two days at a hotel outside of Washington, DC. And even if they did, the question remains: should we, as the church, want them to care?

When we had power, back in the days of Christendom, we had a pretty bad habit of using that power poorly. We protected ourselves instead seeing a mandate to act in ways both healing and reconciling. If we get the power back, would we use it better than we used to?

Maybe instead of mobilizing around petitions, we should mobilize resources in local ways, help congregations see the plight of prisoners in jails and correctional facilities near them, encourage those congregations to become communities who truly care about prisoners, who advocate for forgiveness, who ensure they can indeed re-enter society in a way that is healing and healthy.

Maybe instead of cozying up to power to get the church's way, we should cozy up to Christ in the powerless that Christ may have his way with us.

My other worry about the pivot to Justice & Advocacy is that it seems to accept division among churches as a given that should not be worried about. We have lost a sense of the sin of schism that still besets the Church. As COD quotes H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Social Sources of American Denominationalism in one of the above essays, “Denominationalism in the Christian Church is an acknowledged hypocrisy. It is a compromise made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of society.”

Take the question of Eucharistic hospitality, for instance. My heart breaks that at a Christian Unity Gathering like the one I have attended, we cannot bless bread and wine and eat it in memory of Christ. The fact that we are so broken that we cannot partake in the sacramental act that unifies believers with Christ and his sacrifice is tragic—the fact that it doesn't seem to bother anyone is unconscionable.

Not only is this accepting of the sin of division troubling ("why talk about theological issues that divide us when there is real work to be done?" seems to be the thinking of the day) it is bears a remarkable ignorance when it comes to the current re-arranging of Christianity happening all around us. These theological issues still divide churches but they rarely divide the Christians in the pews.

Which brings me to my hopes...

Hopes for a Flowering 21st Century Ecumenism
More and more, people choose a local congregation because of they like the social justice work, or the programs for formation, or the worship... rarely do they choose a local congregation because it is a member of their denominational affiliation. The old labels of "conservative" and "liberal" of "mainline" and "evangelical" are becoming increasingly nonsensical. Clergy and parishioners are both increasingly identifying around new polarities, many of which are yet to be identified.

I, for instance, represent a stream in the Episcopal Church focused on traditional approaches to liturgy and music, drawing from the well of the Christian spiritual tradition, intent on arguing for the inherent belovedness and dignity of all people, particularly the marginalized, and yet still formed deeply by the Biblical text and a passion that people come to know the grace of God. To put it more simply, my politics are liberal, my liturgy conservative, my preaching evangelical, and my spiritual life pietistic. Furthermore, a lot of those choices don't come from traditional sources. I am liberal on same-sex marriage because I believe this so-called liberality comes from a close reading of the Biblical text, not because I buy the traditional arguments of liberal Christianity. I believe in same-sex marriage because I believe in marriage—and I think that is a counter-cultural statement in today's context.

All of that to say, we now face the possibility of engaging in ecumenical dialogue that recognizes that many of our old categories simply no longer ring true. There is renewed possibility for convergence and communion. A careful analysis of the new polarities and streams arising across denominational lines, streams that are already present in the pews if not recognized by the leadership of communions, could yield remarkable fruit for a new unity that seems to be breaking out among Christians.

But if Faith & Order is only seen as the "theological dialogue" portion of Justice & Advocacy work... well, then we will miss this opportunity.

Now, after being admittedly a bit grumpy about the Justice & Advocacy work, I need to say that there are other aspects of it that make me profoundly hopeful. For example, our focus on the scourge of Mass Incarceration during the past two days was very clear in acknowledging the racial dimensions of this work. An increased awareness of the persistence of racism both in Christian division and also in societal issues is one that is deeply needed.

This new era into which the ecumenical movement is entering needs to continue to look closely at the racial dimensions of what divides us as Christians. The comfort (or ignorance) many predominantly white churches have when it comes to the slow holocaust of young people of color occurring in our prisons and correctional facilities is heartbreaking and terrifying all at once.

And this awareness of the racial dimensions of struggle is also entering more fully into Faith & Order concerns in ways that are new and life-giving. At our final Convening Table meeting today, one participant shared the pain that discussion of Mass Incarceration brings up in his spirit, given his own experiences of racial profiling and mistreatment by the authorities.... and he brought that up in a conversation regarding the theological predispositions our respective traditions bring to the table when considering these issues. We need more engagement around these realities, recognizing that theology is lived out in the bodies—particularly the mistreated bodies—of the baptized.

So, where do I go now?
I came to this Christian Unity Gathering intending to determine whether or not I will continue to accept my appointment to this work or if I would write the Churchwide Office and ask to exit out of it. It's too early to tell, I think, what direction this restructuring will take. I have significant concerns, as I've outlined above, but I have just enough hope to want to try and see if I can be a part of the solution, even if only a small part.

So I accepted a role as Co-Convener of a subgroup of the Convening Table on Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith & Order. I'm going to work with a colleague I just met and try and facilitate our subgroup's engagement with the question of how our theology informs the justice work we do when it comes to the issues of Mass Incarceration and Interfaith Relations. (Spoiler alert: I have a feeling one of my strongest emphases is going to be on Eucharistic hospitality and our ability to discern Christ's body among the incarcerated, drawing a bit, perhaps, from one of the most powerful books I've ever read on Eucharist).

I'm going to dig in and see what work I can be a part of because I truly believe these issues and questions, these challenges and hopes, are simply too important for me to bow out at this point.

I titled this post "Choosing Death or Life," drawing from the choices laid before the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30. I don't know which choices will bring death and which will bring life when it comes to contemporary American ecumenism. But I do believe that if we are willing to wrestle with these choices, to wrestle with the challenges and hopes of the many who do care about modern ecumenism, that God will bless and guide our work.

And we will see... in the weeks and months and maybe even years to come we will see what will become of the Ecumenical Movement in 21st Century America. We will see what we can do to fulfill, as best as we are able, Christ's prayer that we all be one.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect at the Great Vigil of Easter, BCP 291)