Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some thoughts on the National Workshop on Christian Unity

My first foray into the official ecumenical movement was simultaneously oddly common place and foreign. Common place in that these sorts of conferences are held in hotels that provide space in what seem to be fairly uniform modular spaces with beige walls white ceilings and odd chandeliers, that for the artist in me provides for what is invariably aesthetically impoverished and depressing spaces. Except for the presence of clericals and habits it almost could be any sort of conference. Foreign for some many reasons. First My denomination has only recently officially entered ecumenical dialog and relations by being a participant of Christians Churches Together, though our sister church the Covenant church in Sweden was a founding member of the World Council of Churches. An interesting symbol of this is that my name tag for NWCU stated that my affiliation was Episcopal. I joked with my colleagues that apparently in ecumenical circles Episcopal trumps Evangelical Covenant. Also, foreign because so few spaces these days feel entirely like home, because I move between so many different contexts. Foreign also because I continually got long glances, as I was dressed in an admittedly striking combination of Goth and Clerical. By appearances I was in the wrong place, but also in the right place.

We had arrived early to be sure that we could set up for a slide show and DVD as part of our presentation and then hear the key note address given by the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon. My colleagues thought the address was a little dry. While I have to admit it was not the most riveting or entertaining speech, I found what Kinnamon said to be very profound and important. He spoke to the possibly splintering elements of the ecumenical movement but tried to show these differing elements as tensions that needed to be kept together. He also critiqued his fellow ecumenists of what ever stripe of at times falling into the temptation of seeing goal of Christian unity as a purely human achievement. Countering this temptation he called those assembled to embrace the tensions within the movement. In so doing he exhorted us to remember that the unity we seek is not only a call of Christ, but also is a gift from God. The rest of his address was exploring how we may receive and be prepared to receive this gift from God. It was at this point he picked up the them of this years NWCU "Pray without Ceasing." Here he exhorted us to seek to repentance and be open to God's transforming work. I have experienced this in my own work at Reconciler. Yet, this very experience has lead me to recognize the limits of Protestantism and brought me much closer to entering either the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. While there are things I still value in my own tradition and within Protestantism in general, as I have allowed my ecumenical work to be an act of repentance and transformation of my own self, I have found myself letting go of most things that would make me a Protestant. The first was to repent of my own and Protestantism ease of separation and leaving. But that was only the beginning, some of which I have already explored on this blog, other things that are only now coming to the surface. So, I wondered if Kinnamon knew the possible consequences of his exhortation. I feel I am rare in Protestant circles (even ecumenical Protestant circles) to openly and readily admit the schismatic spirit that is strong in protestantism. We generally seem to in the final analysis justify our division around some issue that we feel warrants the separation, and either label it an issue of the Gospel or Kingdom, or of being prophetic. But what I heard in Kinnamon's address was a call for us to let go of those justifications even if we can seek to justify them with our interpretation of the Gospel or the Kingdom of God, or what it means to be prophetic, and to admit our poverty before God and let God take us where God wills into the full unity of the church. Though I wonder if Kinnamon meant what I heard and if anyone else at the NWCU heard the same thing.

I also got the sense from Kinnamon's address and my own observations that the ecumenical movement is an ailing movement, one in which many of its most ardent supporters are wondering at the fact of its ailment and faltering. I wonder if there is much concern for forming a grass roots ecumenism, one related but unfettered by ecumenists.

Of course this thought is related to what I am involved in, and Reconciler's founding vision and the growing relationship between St Elias, Immanuel and Reconciler. at first I was disappointed in that we had only a handful of people show up, most of whom were themselves from the local planning committee. Why did a story of grassroots ecumenical activity draw such limited interest? But I was encouraged by the intensity of the engagement of the few who came. They asked us many incisive and insightful questions. I have been part of conference presentations in a much large group that elicited far fewer questions with far less insight. So in the end I was encouraged by our presentation and we all felt it was overall a good experience.

I am finding myself in one of those interesting situations, I feel like I should be more involved with this official side of ecumenism but do not feel drawn into its institutions and patterns of life. They seem like strange shadows of truth and the reality I seek. It actually isn't much different from how I feel about the Emergent Church movement. I am interested in what they do and engaging from time to time in their conversation and engaging them but have no desire to be Emergent. There are a number of reasons for this, on some level I am not a joiner. I live on the borders and kind of like it there. But the reason I am not a joiner is I want to be able to be apart of many contexts and not be limited by one. It fits also with my sense of identity, one that is multiple and not singular (for example, artist, pastor, theologian Goth, screen writer, etc.) each of these identities could lead me into a fairly singular context, the art community, the world of film, etc.

So, ya I'd like to participate in stuff like this more and feel I need to for the sake of Reconciler and its vision, and surely ecumenist is among my growing identities, but I don't know that I am committed to this movement. Perhaps I am in fact emergent in this way as well, certainly those who attended our seminar thought Reconciler sounded like an emergent church.