The following text was deliverd by the Rev. Russell L. Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches, on Monday, November 19, 2007, at a conversation on Christian unity hosted by Radio Peace at Barry University, Miami Shores, FL. The panel discussion also included Rev. Fr. Mark Wedig, Department of Theology and Philosophy, Chairman, Barry University; Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, Episcopal Bishop of Southeast Florida; Rev. Melissa Pisco, St. John’s On The Lake First Methodist Church, Pastor; Danny Loffredo, Miami Shores Presbyterian Church, Youth Director.
On Christian Unity
It is a pleasure to be with you all tonight. I want to thank Chris Willis, Radio Peace and Barry University for sponsoring this event. I bring greetings from Bishop Edward Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as from the judicatory leaders and member churches of the Florida Council of Churches.
Our topic tonight on Christian Unity is, in mind, the most fundamentally important conversation that goes unspoken in both church and society. It seems to lack any urgency. Yet, if I grasp anything of scripture and the Christian tradition, when I hear the news that counts for urgency today-the emphasis on negativity and cries of fear, violence, and anxiety-I sense the failure of making a common witness to the faith we share. C. S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters, among other pieces) once remarked that a Martian visiting earth would not be able to tell Christians apart. Perhaps on occasion aliens can see what we cannot. Perhaps we would be more fully one if we looked at our own traditions with alien eyes.
Before I go forward, though, let me say something about the current ecumenical condition. Compared with 50 years ago, great advances in manifesting Christian unity have been made. There is a general acceptance among Christians of the majority of Christians of other communions. In fact there is great fluidity among the baptized in moving from church to church – sometimes to the consternation of church leaders. Nonetheless inter-marriage among Christians is commonplace now in a way it has not been previously. Much of this lowering of the defenses, if you will, is the result of Vatican II and numerous ecumenical dialogues in which churches have learned better about themselves and other communions. The major ecumenical thrust today is “reception,” or the living into the possibilities of the new relationships made possible by ecumenical advancements.
In what follows I will sketch the core of the convergence that is widely shared about Christianity and then address some obstacles that lie in the way of our forming a more visible common witness. I begin with a story.
As a young pastor in Baltimore two decades ago, I led a popular Bible study. Participants came from my congregation, neighboring congregations and Towson State University. A few weeks into one session, a group of Japanese students stopped me after class to ask a question. The students were disciples of Rev. Sun Yung Moon, who was sponsoring their education. They were in my class for two reasons: one, to improve their English skills and, two, to learn more about Christianity. So in broken English, one of them asked: What is Christianity about?
What would you say? There’s a lot that can be said. But I had to boil it down so that they, with their imperfect English, and me, with my immense learning, could actually communicate. Perhaps you’ve already decided what you what would say. I gave an initial one word answer: Gratitude. Christianity is about giving a grateful response to a loving God made known in Christ Jesus.
Christians have a word for this gratitude: Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. Jesus leads us in Thanksgiving at the Table – on the night he was handed over, he took bread and gave thanks – so we say in the mass, the service, the Divine Liturgy. The vast majority of Christians worldwide agree on the centrality of the Eucharist as the form of Christian worship. The convergence document Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry, published as the Lima document by the World Council of Churches in 1982, puts it this way:
4. The eucharist is the great sacrifice of praise by which the Church speaks on behalf of the whole creation. For the world which God has reconciled is present at every eucharist: in the bread and wine, in the persons of the faithful, and in the prayers they offer for themselves and for all people. Christ unites the faithful with himself and includes their prayers within his own intercession so that the faithful are trans- figured and their prayers accepted. This sacrifice of praise is possible only through Christ, with him and in him. The bread and wine, fruits of the earth and of human labour, are presented to the Father in faith and thanksgiving. The eucharist thus signifies what the world is to become: an offering and hymn of praise to the Creator, a universal communion in the body of Christ, a kingdom of justice, love and peace in the Holy Spirit.
9. The anamnesis [or, memorial] of Christ is the basis and source of all Christian prayer. So our prayer relies upon and is united with the continual intercession of the risen Lord. In the eucharist, Christ empowers us to live with him, to suffer with him and to pray through him as justified sinners, joyfully and freely fulfilling his will.
A convergence document tries to say what all find acceptable; it does not intend to be exhaustive on its subject. The Lima document starkly and clearly states that Christians find it possible to pray to God only through Christ who joins our prayers with his intercession before the Father. This intercession of Christ is founded upon the cross, resurrection, gifting of the Spirit and ascension -which intercession is ritually remembered at the Table of the Eucharist. Paul says in Ephesians, “one faith, one Lord, one baptism.” We, in faith, must seek to extend Paul’s thought as well to “one table.” Christ’s sacrifice is unique, singular and all-inclusive. His Table ought to be the same. If we recognize the presence of Christ in each other’s assemblies, then we have recognized the only Christ there is that joins our prayers together into his singular intercession. We should accept no excuses for division.
But alas, there are continuing substantive differences, questions of faith and morals. How is the church to be defined, understood and organized? What are the proper qualifications for ministry? What should constitute leadership in the church? Which histories should we keep, honor, respect, remember – ignore, forget or put on display as in a museum? Which moral practices faithfully express the Gospel? What principals rightly shape our response to the moral and ethical challenges arising from science and technology? There are a thousand reasons why we can say that we are not ready to give thanks and eat together at the Table of the Christ. And each one amounts to an impoverished prayer. We are like the disciples who said, “Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.”
Let me avoid a misunderstanding. I am not saying that if some fiat tomorrow made every eucharist open to every Christian, the world’s problems would dissipate. Our wounded communions are a reflection and symptom of the broken, unreconciled human family. What I am saying is this: as we work on reconciling at the Christ’s Table and achieve forms of reconciliation, we unleash truly healing powers throughout human society. My reason for saying so could easily be a book, so please accept the assertion at face value. Beginning with the Church and moving out through creation, a truly common witness would demonstrate in deed that “the Father has sent the Son into the world” to save it.
Such appears to be part of the reasoning why John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have said that the ecumenical imperative is irrevocable. We must pursue visible Christian unity; it is not optional.
Our common calling to form a common witness about a common Christ and a common faith nonetheless meets intransigence in our Christian communions, organizations, and institutions. There are inertias, pressing agendas, programming in place, needs for maintenance. Our imaginations are zapped of what could be by what demands out attention. It’s not hard to avoid companionship (which literally means “sharing bread together”).
Even now there are voices who’ve been involved in ecumenism for the last fifty years that suggest we should drop what we’ve been doing and try something simpler. They look at the numerous bilateral dialogues, see that the churches have not acted on them, and conclude that bilateral dialogues don’t work. Round 4 of the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue in the US concluded that there was no theological reason for not sharing the eucharist. Round 10 affirmed that same finding a generation later. Still there’s no common table between us. I understand the frustration.
Yet on the other hand, sitting here tonight, I can say as a Lutheran that bilateral agreements have allowed us to share the table with six other churches, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and now provisionally with Methodists. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of justification is a milestone accord originally between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. The Methodist World Conference has also signed on to it. So far it is the only ecumenical agreement Rome has officially received. For us the real intransigence lies in fashioning cooperative ministries and missions. More on that in a moment. Let me return to bilateral dialogues.
Mutually edifying conversation takes a lot of energy. It repeatedly produces new insights. And, it ends up questioning our own received opinions about ourselves as well as about others.
Once in a post-graduate course on human development that several fellow pastors were taking with me, our professor suddenly asked us together and in turns: What do you personally believe about the resurrection? You could tell he had played this trick before. We were all dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say. Sure, we had preached Easter often, but we had never before been asked to give a personal account of the hope that is in us.
Bilateral dialogues between churches are just that sort of thing. When we engage in it, we end up stripping away the accumulated customs that have defined us in isolation, that make up our brand of Christianity. We arrive at foundational concepts. Then we publish the findings and discover that our own folks prefer the customs they’ve become accumulated to rather than the foundational concepts. The cry goes up about the dialogue findings: that’s not us, we’ve been misrepresented, the dialogue members compromised wrongly.
You see, the difficulties we face in manifesting the unity that Christ gives us go down deep in our communities. The ties that bind us together in our separate churches tie together Pope and widow, presiding bishop and layman, executive presbyter and lay elder. The findings of bilateral dialogues threaten whole networks of relationships within our existing churches, networks that are not used to being asked to give an account of the hope that is in them. Making visible are oneness in Christ means changing the way we do business – and that requires a power greater than any one person. Come, Holy Spirit!
There is now a substantial body of work that can rightly be called ecumenical theology. It represents the best that Christianity has to say about itself in the late 20th century and the beginning of the third millennium. This theology does not belong to any one church. It has come into being only out of mutual conversation. It is the child of our global Christian village: a vulnerable child because it has no single set of parents to protect it. We hold it, for better or worse, in common. And as our common progeny, ecumenical theology will shape us forward, willingly or not. Our churches will be remembered, if they are remembered, by whether or not we embraced with shared gratitude our unity in Christ.
Cardinal Walter Kasper has written a primer called Spiritual Ecumenism, a copy of which has been given to all board members of the Florida Council of Churches. By “spiritual” the Cardinal refers to a variety of very practical means by which the Holy Spirit manifests itself in and among believers. Common prayer, common action, common bible study, common reflection are the spiritual works that will lead us to the common Table. As every pastor knows, encouraging the faithful to take up spiritual practices in a disciplined way is often frustrating labor. We hear a thousand excuses for failing to meet together and pray together. The challenges are even greater for church leaders. The current culture urges us to avoid things religious. The Spirit of Christ is calling us to meet together, pray together and plan mission together.
At the neighborhood level, it’s often easier for pastors to cross denominational boundaries to meet together. One reason is that there tends to be a level of competition and rivalry within denominations, and so it can often be safer emotionally to meet with pastors from other traditions. But when we get into offices that have geographical oversight, there is a kind of reverse inward focus. Judicatory leaders find that it’s all they can do keep their congregations and ministers on track. And it’s here that one sees the fissures that will lead to change.
The next ecumenical breakthrough, in my opinion, will come organizationally, rather than theologically. It will look like a growing alliance across communion and denominational lines among judicatories. It will be uneven as well. Already in Minnesota Roman Catholic and Lutheran bishops have an annual retreat together – no doubt motivated by the fact that they share both dominance and parity in Minnesota, where they are truly social peers. In other places, differences in size and influence still seem to determine the degree (or lack thereof) of ecumenical engagement that occurs between judicatory leaders. But surely, as society continues to become post-Christian, the pressures for mutual understanding and cooperation will grow. Surely we will continue to find ways to address social policy and concerns together. We will also face either doing ministry together in innovative ways, or not doing ministry in certain places. There are many ways in which we may draw on each others’ gifts and strengths and without being swallowed up by their traditions. Such things will require that greater consultation and interaction occur among church leadership. It may be that because of our intransigence in willfully refusing to manifest Christian unity, the Spirit will bring us together to face an increasingly hostile culture.
In any event, as a pastor my conscience tells me this much: my prayers cannot be fully joined to the intercession of Christ if I offer them at the expensing of praying with other Christians. There is much more that we should be doing together that we can do together; only unfaithfulness finally explains why we don’t do it. I hope this event tonight here at Barry University will inspire us to greater common faithfulness and thanksgiving for what Christ has done for each and all of us – together.