Friday, August 8, 2014

Back for the Future: On Ecumenical Relations in the Church

Anyone who knows me knows that over the past year and a half, I've been pursuing the Anglican church. We were looking for a more liturgical form of worship and something more grounded in the robust history of Christianity. As a result of the Anglican church, my wife and I have experienced more stability as far as practicing the spiritual disciplines than we had at any other church we'd visited before. The Anglican church is very supportive of missions work and focuses on a global Christianity instead of exclusively American. The Anglican Communion features different Anglican branches from all over the world who are in fellowship with one another. It is a wonderful picture of both the unity and diversity that should make up the Christian church.

I've been thinking a lot about how we, as new Anglicans, should be interacting with other denominations. As someone who is in seminary and was a Biblical Studies major during my undergrad, I can easily get sucked in to nuanced and minute theological debates that aren't incredibly significant to the life of the church. For me, it can be easy to be theological but it's harder to be pastoral and eccumenical, which is unfortunate. To be clear, I'm not saying that what we think about God and our various theological stances don't matter--knowing who God is and being able to articulate that is of premium importance. We just shouldn't take our eye of the ball as a result of our theological "testosterone." I remain firmly in what I would call orthodox Anglo-catholicism where my beliefs can essentially be summarized by the phrase: "what has been believed always and by all." 

I recently came across some articles by Peter Liethart which frustrated me because he seemed like someone who should be Anglican because he's very critical of some of the mainline Protestant attitudes but can't theologically justify becoming a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. I actually wrote a blog about how this frustrated me because I think he'd be a good Anglican. As my frustration culminated, I actually sent him an e-mail asking him why he wouldn't just convert to Anglicanism and be done with it (I phrased it more politely than that, I think...). His response was actually very challenging to me because his argument is that we should be developing a sort of eccumenical catholicity but that requiring people to leave their denominations where they've been rooted for a very long time isn't necessarily going to fix the disunification of the church. 

After thinking about it more and more, I can't really disagree with him. If the mainline denominations pursued a more catholic faith, over time, I think there would be no significant need for denominational differences, creating a real, true, and organic catholicity. This of course, raises a plethora of logistical questions about how that's done. I certainly don't have definitive answers but I would like to offer three suggestions. 

1) Denominations should emphasize what they have in common.
I can list about 10 reasons why I'm not Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal (I could list a lot more than 10 for that one), Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. off the top of my head if someone asked me about it. In a way, that's probably a good thing because I like to think I know what I believe and why I believe it but it's definitely missing the point. Instead of listing why I'm not __________ (insert denomination here), I should be explaining what I have in common with others from those groups. This can be harder to do than list the differences but I think just the way we frame our answer can absolutely impact eccumenical relations in a positive way because when I'm remembering what I have in common with my Presbyterian friends, I'm not looking at them like they're theological enemies who could collapse the entire church if they are allowed to express their views (I guess the Reformation kind of proved it didn't so their off the hook for now). 

2) Denominations should be aware of their historical situation.
I was raised in mostly Baptist or non-denomational churches growing up. As such, church history wasn't the most talked about subject. What I knew was that Jesus came and taught the Apostles, then Calvin and Luther had to reform the place because of the Catholics and here we are today worshipping in jeans and t-shirts with coffee in hand and a smoke machine. Once I began being immersed in the story of Christian history, I realized things weren't so simple. There is a richness to historical Christianity that I had been missing out on because I wasn't interested in reading what the eccumenical patristic fathers had to say because I was waiting for the next Rob Bell or Greg Boyd book (not that those books are bad but they're definitely no Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa). If members were more aware of how their denominations were formed, it would be harder to be partisan. If we were aware of the different fractures that caused us to end up as whatever group we are affiliated with, we would realize our denomination has about as many flaws as any other. If Nietzche taught Christians one thing, it's that the genealogies of ideas are important. I think Christians can appropriate that idea in a reconciliatory and catholic way. It's about tracing the historical narrative of Christianity and finding the furcations so we can begin to fix them. 

3) Denominations should go backwards before they go forwards.  
The reason furcations are so detrimental to the church is because the longer we allow them to exist, the harder it is to fix them. The Reformation has absolutely proven that point. While Calvin and Luther were successful at a huge paradigmatic shift in the Church, I don't think they would be pleased at all with the fracturing that has resulted to Christ's Body as a consequence. As time goes on, denominations get more and more theologically distant from each other because they are on an isolated progression guided by their own ideological niches instead of being in unity with the entire Body. I propose that denominations should throw on the brakes when it comes to their individual progressions and put it in reverse so we can all go back to a common starting point.

I can hear the skeptics already asking, "Who gets to decide what the common starting point will be?" Well, I think we can take a lesson from the ecumenical, primitive catholic church before any of the major schisms. There were eccumenical councils that occured early in Christianity where the essential keys to the faith were hammered out. I suggest that we go back to these statements of faith and then begin working out from there. Here are the two creeds things I think we should use:

The Apostles Creed (390 A.D.):
I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead. 
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, 
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The second creed is a little more explanatory which is why I think it should included. It is the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.):

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty, 
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made. 
For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. (Dear Eastern Orthodox, I am okay with getting rid of "and the Son" just FYI)
With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified. He was spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.