Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Scarf for the Ecumenical Winter

Sarah Wilson’s editorials in Lutheran Forum are like Jason Byassee’s guest editorials in Theology Today: Not to be missed. I’ve already conveyed Byassee’s noticing a new – notably institutional - fidelity in younger Christians. And now Wilson, in "Why Stay?", chimes in with some reasons for traditional Christians to remain in denominations with, shall we say, “difficulties.” Though she has ELCA Lutherans in mind, her reasoning applies across much of the board. Her essay is both realistic and hopeful, though she admits that an argument to stay or leave will never have the mystical sheen of Nicaea or Chalcedon. Instead, it will be “a messy argument about the church and the sinners who populate it… neither self-evident nor conclusive nor susceptible of satisfying proof.” Inspired in part by Radner’s The End of the Church (which she suggests may be “tragically correct”), Wilson points out the need to love one’s enemies, quoting an obscure Scriptural passage that says something about “endur[ing] all things.”

Without downplaying the fractious issues at hand, Wilson reminds us that a church body “decreeing” something means little unless it is received. In other words, we need not get too worked up about “official” denominational pronouncements, as they may not ultimately matter. (Anyone who has attended such denominational meetings will, no doubt, concur.) More pressing should be the following concern: “You don’t want to face the Lord on judgment day and say, ‘I broke fellowship with the unrighteous because I was sick of dealing with them,’ lest He say the same thing back to you!” Mixed metaphors or not, the following phrase of Wilson’s is also a keeper: “It’s time to stop playing the game that actually plays us, jump off the hamster wheel of denominational splintering, and renounce schism once and for all as a solution to ecclesiastical trouble.”

In another meaty article on the liturgical movement, Wilson goes on to squeeze some lemonade from the lemons of our present “ecumenical winter” (mixed metaphors, it seems, are contagious). Summarizing a wide swath of recent scholarship, Wilson rehearses the gains and losses of the liturgical movement’s past 100 years, which is yoked to the same gains and losses of the ecumenical movement. Massive projects such as the international Lima Liturgy, Wilson suggests, have proven more reflective of those with the time, interest and plane fare to attend ecumenical world summits that anything genuinely “on the ground.” Bureaucracy, 20th century ecumenism taught us, can only go so far.

And yet, Wilson suggests that the apparent “decline” of the formal liturgical movement conceals an invisible success: “Nearly all the liturgy in our churches these days is ecumenical… Hymns cross boundaries… non-Roman Catholics sing Gregorian chants, non-Evangelicals sing contemporary praise songs… [all] a remarkable case of spontaneous reception.” Even if such success is due more to globalization than the liturgical movement itself, it’s an encouraging fact. Wilson sees a lack of formal, universal liturgy to be a plus. The holy grail (quite literally) of a shared eucharist need not be the only measure of ecumenical and liturgical success. Instead, we should be teaching how the common faith appears across boundaries, and learning how to recognize when it does not (as, for example, when Father, Son and Holy Spirit is replaced with “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer”). In other words, Wilson suggests we should be fostering receptivity for an ecumenism to come.

The theme of reception connects both of Wilson’s articles. Denominational statements (however vapid) and liturgical inventions (however ingenious) both mean little if they are not received by the laity. John Henry Newman famously articulated the same principle in his essay “on consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.” For another example of the need for reception, consider that fifteenth century “ecumenical movement,” spurred by Ottoman colonialism, which culminated in the Council of Ferrara-Florence. Like the ecumenism of the past century, this council too had a great deal of initial, outward success. But such success was not received. It gave church history a fleeting glimpse of Orthodox/Catholic unity, which the Orthodox back home simply did not buy. Fortunately, there is a much greater degree of receptivity for this kind of unity today, though it has taken five centuries, and may take more.

The point is this: Church unity is far larger, less detectable, and much more important than any of our official organizations, statements or meetings can convey. Hence, when one looks beyond such (lately faltering) formalities, things appear much differently. One may or may not find Wilson’s arguments for staying convincing, but her decision to endure is buoyed by ecumenical hope. Perhaps we Protestants should spend less time wondering whether or not we should become Roman Catholic or Orthodox, and more time marveling that the question is even a possibility. (Such marveling was the entire point of Noll and Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over?) Despite her dissatisfaction with the ELCA to which she is committed, Wilson sees new flashes of receptivity in the contemporary Christian terrain. Instead of looking back to an ideal “undivided” church, she proposes
that we consider the unified church for which Jesus prayed to lie not in the past but still in the future. When we have a true reconciliation of all baptized Christians, this will be a better unity than the church has ever known, better even than the unity of the early, non-yet-divided church.
I’m not sure if Wilson’s closing salvo is a punt to nowhere in particular, or a gust of warmth in the big ecumenical chill. But I like it (though I would have appreciated hearing more about the undeniable role that the See of Peter would play, and is playing, in such future reconciliation). At any rate, one may wonder why such proposed unity doesn’t happen more quickly, but one needs not: The Holy Spirit, after all, has to deal with us.