Monday, May 26, 2008

Ecumenism and Denominational and Ecclesial Identity

R. M. Keelan Downton also took part in a presentation at NWCU, and commented on my third post on my thoughts and experience of NWCU. He linked to his portion of the panel presentation he took part in at the NWCU in Chicago, but also a panel discussion on Evangelicalism and Ecumenism. I have listend to about 1/3 of the panel discussion and am finding it very interesting in relation to my own spiritual journey and my interest in ecumenism and eventually finding myself in an ecumenical work. An intriguing thing that the panel discussed was how many Evangelicals are very suited to be in Ecumenical dialog and work but also how those things that make them suited are also barriers in the ecumenical movement. As I understand the panel was presenting this as especially true of young evangelicals. There are various issues here but the two that struck me most were around identity and borrowing, and coming from denominations that don't usually partake in ecumenical work and dialog.

I found some of this fitting my experience (though I don't really identify as Evangelical though I also cannot entirely reject that label, much like I wont entirely reject the Emergent Church identity though I also don't so identify). Part of the difficulties in my being a pastor of an ecumenical congregation is that the Evangelical Covenant has never been active either in the National council of Church nor the World Council of Churches, though our sister church in Sweden is a founding member of the World Council of Churches. So I could identify with the characterization of some Evangelicals involvement in the Ecumenical movement as a lonely activity and one in which it is difficult to say whether one is actually representing ones tradition or denomination because one is pushing the boundaries and crossing boundaries. This crossing boundaries and being at the edge of the boundaries of ones denomination or tradition is also characteristic of how some younger Evangelicals engage ecumenism according to the panel. Such an evangelical will self identify as Evangelical but then describe being part of a variety of denominations and even in someway connecting with the Roman Catholic Church (RC) or Orthodox all the while retaining an evangelical identity and perhaps not staying in a Catholic or Orthodox context but retaining elements from those traditions even as they move on and continue to identify as Evangelical. I find that experience close to my own : I have retained over time and my journey thus far an identity as a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church while engaging Episcopal, RC and Orthodox and in that engagement taking on aspects of those traditions, even to the point of painting Icons and accepting the veneration of Saints and finding "liturgical" worship the most meaningful and best way to express the faith, in contradistinction to where a large segment of my denomination is going. The difference is that what allowed me to retain a Covenant identity was not identifying as an evangelical but as a Lutheran Pietist (the original but not necessarily the primary identity currently of the denomination)which is not a typical contemporary Christian identity. I don't know many people identifying as Pietist or Lutheran Pietist these days, in the Covenant yes but even there it is increasingly rare. But even that was an identity that seemed to connect me with a longer and broader line of continuity than simply Covenant or Evangelical. So what seems to me to be the difference between my experience and of the Evangelicals described and who spoke in the panel is that I was driven into an ecumenical work out of a dwindling of my original Christian identity and out of a desire for a faith with historic continuity. What this means is that while I may still identify as a Covenanter and Lutheran Pietist the catholic and orthodox aspects of my faith take precedent over that which could be labeled as more Protestant or Evangelical.

So, I could be described as an Evangelical that has spent time in various traditions, The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, Catholic and Orthodox churches in varying degrees, but whose identity as an Evangelical, or Covenanter, or Lutheran Pietist was eroded by that expereince, and whose ecumenical work has eroded that identity further to the point that not only doe I question my Covenant or Lutheran Pietist identity but even of a Protestant one. Yet, I have not become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, at leas am finding it difficult to make such a move. So, the ecumenical space is at times comfortable but because the ecumenical space tends to assume a strong denominational or traditional identity it is also an uncomfortable and slightly confusing space. In some sense I have an ecumenical identity without a strong denominational or traditional identity, or a failing identity as of being from a particular tradition and feeling unable to identify strongly or at all with other possible identities.

I will post more on this once I finish listening to the panel presentation.