February 22, 2010

Ecumenism or Elitism?

Hello my friend,

My last word to you intimated that I would come back around to the subject of how we (particularly women, but really all people) ought to regard theology.  I do intend to write on that subject again soon, but I typically must write what's currently on my mind or I'll lose it somewhere in the time-space continuum.  This semester I have the privilege of taking another class with the illustrious professor Michael McDuffee.  (By the way, if you enjoy thinking when you read, and have a desire to be blown away by the beautiful poetry of theology, do check out his blog when you have the time to really ponder something truly beyond profound.)  The class is entitled The History of Ecumenism, in which we're exploring just that... the long history of a movement in the Church (big "C") to bring unity among churches (little "c").  One of the biggest issues, of course, is the ecumenical movement as it relates to Catholic and Protestant churches, which to me has been so fascinating.  One statement I recently read for this class was the Canberra text, The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling, which states:

The calling of the church is to proclaim reconciliation and provide healing, to overcome divisions based on race, gender, age, culture, color, and to bring all people into communion with God.  Because of sin and the misunderstanding of the diverse gifts of the Spirit, the churches are painfully divided within themselves and among each other.  The scandalous divisions damage the credibility of their witness to the world in worship and service.  Moreover they contradict not only the church's witness but also its very nature.

We acknowledge with gratitude to God that in the ecumenical movement the churches walk together in mutual understanding, theological convergence, common suffering, and common prayer, shared witness and service as they draw close to one another.  This has allowed them to recognize a certain degree of communion already existing between them.  This is indeed the fruit of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of all who believe in Christ Jesus and who struggle for visible unity now.  Nevertheless churches have failed to draw the consequences for their life from the degree of communion they have already experienced and the agreements already achieved.  They have remained satisfied to coexist in division. (Canberra, 1.2, 3)

Sorry for such a long quote, but isn't it interesting?!  The fact that most churches say they desire unity, but don't actually do anything about it, are rather "satisfied to coexist in division," is extraordinary, and -- I think -- a failure.  You don't truly want something unless you're willing to fight for it.

Now, back to my point about Catholic and Protestant relations... I was raised in a Southern Baptist culture (though not in a "Southern Baptist Church" after the age of 13 or so), which was permeated with the understanding that Catholics are not really Christians and need to be evangelized just as much as the atheist next door (not that there were that many self-professing Catholics or atheists in my community, which is perhaps why this understanding stood).  I've since come in contact with and even developed friendships with a few Catholics who are definitely gospel believers... but I've also come in contact with and developed friendships with ex-Catholics who never heard the true gospel in their Catholic churches, but were only nominally of that tradition until they heard the gospel via some Evangelical ministry.  So, I must conclude that there are both believers and non-believers in the Catholic church.  Even so, from looking at Catholic texts and canon laws, I'm inclined to believe that a lot of the Catholic tradition centers around works-based justification and sanctification.  How do I deal with this?

Well, one realization I've recently come to is the fact that many Evangelical (Protestant) churches are really not so different than the Catholic church.  Sure, many Catholics are only nominal Catholics.  But how many Baptists are only nominal Baptists?  From experience, I can say: a lot!  The truth is, the Bible Belt of the Southern states is full of nominal Evangelicals, who understand the gospel as well or as inaccurately as nominal Catholics, often also with a works-based understanding of salvation.  Instead of pointing fingers at one another, we need to look into our own communities and see where we are being unclear about the gospel, and clarify!  And instead of building up walls of division between one another, we need to be focusing on what we can (or at least ought to) agree on: Salvation is an act of God's grace through our faith.  Anyone who trusts in that statement, I consider my brother or sister in Christ.  That's it.  The traditions that we (both sides!) tack on to this statement are obviously going to be divisive if we consider them part of the gospel.  They're simply not.

That's all I can say for now... Alas, it's time for class again!  But what do you think?  Do we make unnecessary divisions in Christ's body?  Can Catholics and Protestants really consider one another brothers and sisters?  Should we?  All I've written, I confess (as Dr. McDuffee often does of his own statements), I will be judged for.  I don't proclaim to be right in all things... I'm just throwing this out there as my current understanding, with the hope that God will make these things clear to me over time or, at least, when I enter His presence with the community of all my brothers and sisters, whoever they are.  

grace and peace,

Disclaimer:  What I've said is not necessarily McDuffee's understanding; just want to be clear on that.  You'll have to read his own blog to hear that!

1 comment:

  1. I blame Screwtape, myself, since we're doing long quotes:

    "...it isn't the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say 'mass' and those who say 'holy communion' when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men's minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the 'low' churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his 'high' brother should be moved to irreverence, and the 'high' one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his 'low' brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility."