Noah's ark ecumenism and Holy Ghost power

September 30th, 2014

Before suffering on the cross, Jesus prayed for us. He said, "I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me" (Jn. 17:21 CEB).

My friend Eric, the pastor of Servant Church in Austin, Texas, once told me that ecumenism has got to be a grassroots thing now. The time is past for waiting for theologians from various Christian bodies to work out everything statically on paper. Christian unity has got to happen dynamically through shared response to the Holy Spirit: in the neighborhood, neighbor to neighbor, pastor to pastor, Christian disciple to Christian disciple. Though I am a theology geek with ecumenical interests, and though I still pray and have hope that the Holy Spirit will bring visible organic unity to the churches, including at an institutional level, my mind has changed. I agree with Eric now.

At the end of his retirement celebration lecture, Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas was fielding questions. One came from a Catholic student from Milan, asking about work for Christian unity. Hauerwas' reply: "God is making our past differences less interesting, in a way that we're going to need one another for having any future."

Similarly, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House writes in his foreword to Longing For Spring: A New Vision of Wesleyan Community that, whereas we Christians used to be divided into neat little safe separate streams, the river has been rising. The streams are becoming united:

In the latter half of the 20th century, as the last vestiges of Christendom slipped away, many Christians have found themselves caught up in a current that defies conventional wisdom. I certainly have. Trying to make sense of the Scripture verses I'd memorized in the King James Version, I got to know a Catholic sister who worked with addicts in inner-city Philadelphia. An Episcopalian professor introduced me to monastic wisdom, and I started learning from Benedictines. I ended up studying at a Methodist seminary (Lord, have mercy). The landscape is indeed changing.

Wilson-Hartgrove writes that what we have now might be called "Noah's ark ecumenism": "Sharing a space with all God's critters ain't always easy, but it sure beats the alternative."

Given the rising waters on which the church floats, how might we do Christian unity practically? What kinds of opportunities should we keep our eyes open for in order to respond to the Holy Spirit?

A few thoughts come to my mind — please contribute your own ideas and experiences below.

1. Pray together

There is nothing more basic to experiencing and pursuing Christian unity than finding opportunities to pray together. Pope John Paul II taught this in Ut Unum Sint, and it blew my mind when I first read it since it made perfect sense theologically and resonated with my experience. I first became convinced of the importance of Christian unity by living in an intentional Christian community (made up of Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, a Nazarene and even a Presbyterian) where we prayed together nightly. The spiritual unity and catholicity we enjoyed living in that house has continued to be both a sign for me of the goodness and joy of Christian unity, while it has also made Christian divisions more painful.

Is there a way you can pray with other Christians in a way that crosses denominational lines? If you're a pastor, is there a pastor's meeting in your county or city? Or should you start one? While a pastor in the Texas Hill Country, I was blessed to be in a county where there was a weekly prayer meeting to which all the pastors in the county were invited. The prayer meetings let us enjoy spiritual unity and also get to know one another, which opened doors for further cooperation.

2. Work together

A second way Christians of different types can seek and manifest full unity is to pursue kingdom work together. This can look like many different things, and will vary depending on what your church's neighborhood/county/city is like. But certainly collaborating on service projects and social justice work makes sense. In some contexts, putting on evangelistic events together makes sense. In the Texas Hill Country, football is a big deal, so the various churches would collaborate on 5th Quarter parties after the football games. Also, there was usually collaboration on an Easter sunrise service for the community. (This took place in the unfortunately dry lake-bed.)

The above two ways we can seek Christian unity — prayer and work — are actually the Benedictine motto: ora et labora. Both are ways we respond to and participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit can start with one and bring us to the other. South of Boston, Massachusetts two Protestant pastors attended a Taizé prayer service at the local Catholic parish. After that prayer time, the two Protestant pastors contacted the Catholic priest about their congregations collaborating on social justice work. Go Holy Spirit!

Speaking of Taizé...

3. Follow the Way of Brother Roger of Taize

Brother Roger was a young French Calvinist pastor who wanted to be a monk and felt convinced of the importance of Christian unity and human peace. Some people who feel those kinds of urges for Christian unity leave the church of their birth and baptism and become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, seeking to join a visibly 'universal' church. Not Brother Roger. He started an ecumenical monastic order in Taizé, France. Today 100,000 young people each year, from all across the globe and all denominations (including Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), go on pilgrimage there. This has resulted in the community's distinctive "Taizé music" being used in churches around the world.

Not that we'll all start ecumenical monasteries in Taizé, France, Austin, TX, or Springfield, __. Though that's not a bad way to go either. But in what does the ecumenism of Brother Roger consist? It consists, first of all, in the love the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts (c.f. Rom. 5:5). Second, it consists in drinking from others' spiritual wells, without forsaking the unity we have in Christ with the baptized people who raised us and baptized us.

Drinking from others' spiritual wells is rather easy these days thanks to the interwebs and book series like Classics of Western Spirituality. (Though this book is still the best.)

One surprising thing about Brother Roger was that he was given Holy Communion by two different popes — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — yet never "left" the Calvinist communion that raised him or "became" Roman Catholic. Rather, Brother Roger pursued a Christ-like way of love for all his neighbors and Christians of all types and traditions. He once said, "I found my identity as a Christian by reconciling within myself the faith of my origins and the mystery of the Catholic faith, without breaking communion with anyone." Read all about it in this interesting interview from after Brother Roger's death.

This spiritual and interior and prayerful and practical ecumenism of Brother Roger works. He was able to be and provide a space of hospitality for seekers and disciples the world over. Following his path probably will not put us all in communion with each other during many of our lives (though even that is not beyond the Holy Spirit's power!) Yet we see in Brother Roger a way that is a real way, and it is a Christ-like way, and it may be our way.

So: Let's all pray for Holy Ghost Power!

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