The Entangled Beauty of Ecumenism

On Christmas Eve I had the privilege of attending two Christmas services: a 4pm Evangelical Presbyterian Church service focused around children and an 8pm Roman Catholic Mass.  Although the differences between the two services were stark in many ways, these were mostly expected.  What struck me, surprisingly, were the similarities–especially in the people attending.

Besides the fact that a higher percentage of families with children attended the Children’s Liturgy, I found similarities across the board: families with children, rebellious teenagers, devout older couples, absent-looking younger couples, single men and women, groups of friends paying attention most of the time, a pastor obviously struggling to convey the importance of this overly secularized holiday.  Even the sermons had the same motive: the Presbyterian pastor waxed eloquent about the history of God’s interaction with the world that had led to Christ’s coming.  The Catholic priest took a different route, calling to mind a “golden era” where Bing Crosby opened his annual Christmas program with a Latin and English version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  While this left me suspicious, I appreciated his general call towards faith in this time of Christmas celebration.  Alternatively, while I appreciated the depth of the Presbyterian pastor’s sermon, the large percentage of children present left me wondering if any children understood what he said.

But of course, you would say, denominations are not separated by social, race, or economic status.  Denominations are determined by faith, belief, and tradition.  And I would agree, citing the 2007 Pew Forum detailing the religious landscape of America. By and large, every denomination of Christianity (and pretty much every major religion) encompasses people from all walks of life within the US.

Nevertheless, I would say, my experience remains significant because it is exactly that–an experience.  While going to two services on Christmas Eve is not the easiest of achievements while visiting family and taking care of two children, I learned a lot from this experience, and I’ll let you in on some of that today:

1. Differences in faith can incredibly frustrating

I imagine you already knew this, but think about it a moment.  Lets say Alice is raised Roman Catholic in a predominately Catholic neighborhood, goes to Catholic school, and practices Catholicism her entire life.  Alternatively, Bob is raised Lutheran in a predominately Protestant neighborhood, goes to public schools while attending Sunday school regularly, and is a practicing Lutheran his entire life.

When Alice and Bob meet and talk about faith, no matter what, there will be differences.  Specifically, barring a few exceptions, they will likely discover that:

A. Both have support for their views: scriptural, traditional, experiential.
B. Because of the various methods of support, they will find it hard to agree on devisive issues (e.g., the presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the general view of the Sacraments).
C. They still enjoy talking about Jesus together (hopefully), and they have many similar church-related experiences (some type of small groups, service outings, pastor issues, etc).

The only exceptions are as follows:

Exception to A: One person is much less educated about their tradition than the other.
Exception to B: Agreement happens because someone shifts their belief system, departing from a previous one for certain reasons (not too attached anyhow, losing faith in that system, appreciating the community or certain aspects of the new system, etc).
Exception to C: One person’s level of satisfaction in their own church or tradition is significantly different than the other’s.  E.g., Bob is really dissatisfied with the Lutheran Church these days, and could see Catholicism as an interesting option, given Alice’s similar devotion to Christ.

General exception 1: Mutual attraction and romantic relationships.
General exception 2: Hatred/vilification of the other’s denomination.

From a theologian’s point of view, this can be incredibly frustrating.  There is a great post-reformation story (legend?) that Luther and Zwingli desperately wanted to agree on the nature of the Eucharist: Zwingli taking a purely symbolic route, Luther taking a literal but not Catholic route.  After agreeing on a time and place, they met and discussed their views for weeks on end.  At the end of this meeting, out of sheer frustration, Luther carved the word “EST” into a table in their meeting room (As in “hic corpus est”–“This is my body”).  Zwingli was not persuaded, and they both felt the sting of differing beliefs.

Today, while many are apt to brush over denominational differences for the “greater good,” these differences cannot be ignored theologically. The Eucharist either is or isn’t the actual body of Christ, baptism either is or isn’t more than a symbol.  These are no details to be brushed over or ignored.  They are differences, significant ones, that require study, work, and prayer.  But, many times, they simply engender frustration, from the exasperated cries of Alice and Bob after many hours trying to understand each other to the quiet moments of prayer when Alice or Bob asks God why Christianity is so broken today.

2. Differences in Faith Are Fulfilling

For a long, long time, ecumenism was out of the question.  Heresy was heresy and heretics were corrected or ostracized or, in some case, killed.  As the church grew in power and influence, “heretical groups” became more difficult to squash.  As early as the 11th century (the split of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Latin Church), the term “heretic” was a difficult one to employ well.  As the 16th century rolled out the Reformation, nearly everyone was a heretic to everyone else.  By the time of the 2nd Vatican Council, “denominations” of Christianity numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.

Echoing a desire that had been with the leaders of the Church for a little while, the 2nd Vatican Council produced the Decree on Ecumenism which stated:

The daily Christian life of these brethren [non-Catholic Christians] is nourished by their faith in Christ and strengthened by the grace of Baptism and by hearing the word of God. This shows itself in their private prayer, their meditation on the Bible, in their Christian family life, and in the worship of a community gathered together to praise God. Moreover, their form of worship sometimes displays notable features of the liturgy which they shared with us of old….

This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time.

This, without question, was a watershed moment for the Church.  Pope John XXIII, in addition to inspiring the above decree, began what is now called the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity–a multifaceted and quite remarkable arm of the Church that hosts official dialogues with over a dozen different denominations throughout the world.  Among other accomplishments, these dialogues have led to “full communion” being established with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, reversing enmity that reaches back to 1054.

Now, while this is all very nice and clearly shows an ecumenical desire in the church today, it does not explain why the differences in Christian faith can be fulfilling–so I will try.

Differences in faith can be fulfilling because differences in faith require dialogue, dialogue requires relationship, and relationship requires faith, trust, and vulnerability.  The important thing about my attending two Christmas Eve services wasn’t that I witnessed differences between two denominations but that I was forced to be aware that two very similar groups of people were worshipping quite differently for the exact same reason: Christmas.

It is easy to know the differences between denominations–comparatively easy, anyhow–the sacramental definitions, the theories of leadership,  the thoughts on priesthood.  It is difficult, however, to get to know someone of a different Christian tradition, to exchange beliefs, to wrestle with the uncertainty, to argue, to wonder, to pray.  This is ecumenism–a surrendering of the hubris that only a specific Christian interpretation reaches salvation upon realization that others claim Christ’s name with strength, resolve, humility, and love.  To be clear: this surrender is not to disembark from the ship of Catholicism, for example, but it is to realize that the ship you are riding is quite larger than you may have anticipated.  This surrender is the realization that if you’re fortunate to reach Communion with God in the end, you might find some people who swore up and down that the Eucharist was only a symbol of Jesus’ presence. (Although, clearly, in the afterlife, these people will understand that Catholics were right all along…)

3. Ecumenism is dialogue

My wife was raised Presbyterian and I Roman Catholic.  From our first meeting this was both a difficulty and a blessing.  It was a difficulty because we held different fundamental beliefs concerning what being Christian means; it was a blessing because we constantly challenged each other to define such beliefs and accept the differences as both acceptable ways to Christ.

The fulfillment of broken Christianity and the beauty of entangled ecumenism lies only in the closest connections and the devoted investments of time, energy, and understanding where the otherwise frustrating differences of faith can be understood and accepted.  Not solved, perhaps, but understood.  Not fixed, perhaps, but accepted as the manner in which God calls literally billions people to the discipleship of Christ throughout the world.