Friday, November 6, 2009

One Body…

I grew up Episcopal, as you may know. It’s a neat church, which, if you’ve never been, Robin Williams famously described as, “Catholic Light.” My Episcopal priest buddies, Revs. Callahan and Haverkamp, would laugh at that, and then say, “Shane, there’s a lot more to it.” And they’d be right, but it’s still funny.

I’ve been thinking of them recently, ever since the October 20th developments between Episcopals (aka- the American branch of “The Worldwide Anglican Communion”) and Roman Catholics. The Catholic Church announced it will now allow Anglicans to become Catholic (“enter into full communion”), but keep their churches, Anglican worship elements, even married priests. Also, Rome will appoint permanent leadership for these Anglican-Catholic churches and priests, allowing them to self-perpetuate as Anglicans within the Catholic Church. It’s a stunning change. Some Anglicans claim they’ve waited decades for this; many others feel offended, like another church is ‘fishing in their pond.

As an ex-Episcopal, this interests me more than most. And one part of me dismisses it as a family tussle between estranged siblings. But I’m a Disciple of Christ; my church’s fundamental claim and identity is Christian Unity. We care about other things, of course, but we’d cease being Disciples if we stopped worrying about a unified Body of Christ. So I can’t just ignore this news, which feels like a step away from real Unity.

The background, as the Vatican press release states, is a 16th Century split between Rome and the Anglican Church. Over intervening centuries, there’ve been reconciliation attempts, but no re-merger has occurred. Indeed, many Anglicans/Episcopals enjoy worshipping as they do- outside Rome’s authority and tradition, but grateful recipients of its ancient ecclesiastical wisdom. However, in recent decades, an(other) internal fight has bubbled up within the Anglican Communion, threatening to split the church. I don’t know how Rome responded to such divisions before, but this time it weighed in. It created this ‘Anglican Ordinance,’ purportedly in response to Anglicans who’ve asked, “To return home.”

News reports claim, about the Anglican Communion’s strife, that the warring factions only care about women’s and gay ordination, gay marriage, and abortion. I.e. it’s American Culture Wars, fought globally. And the Vatican’s recent Press Release plays into this narrative by singling out these issues as legitimate grounds for their new behavior.

I find that story incomplete, however, for at least two reasons: 1) Internal dissent and debate have always characterized Christian life together, i.e. these so-called ‘culture wars’ are nothing new or newsworthy; just read 2 Corinthians. 2) These fights are always deeper than one social issue or another, however simple or politically advantageous it is to pretend otherwise. What’s really at stake, I think, is how much freedom people have to follow Jesus in unique ways, and the pressure we all feel from changing cultural dynamics that embolden or threaten our faith and worship. That’s deep stuff! How churches respond to this stuff matters in deep places! So as churches explore evolving strategies for reaching this contemporary world with God’s message of eternal love, it’s no wonder battles lines get drawn, and proxy wars arise. Even Christians, of all ideological persuasions, get tempted to elevate power and control over love and understanding.

But again, I’m a Disciple of Christ. My fundamental conviction is- a) Jesus is Lord, and b) see above. With that baseline, I think Unity is possible, despite ongoing fights, because (Disciples insist) neither you nor I define whose claim of “Jesus is Lord” really counts. Jesus has the final say; we’re simply called to love God and neighbor. So, with all due respect to my Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ, I worry their recent changes harm Christian Unity, by encouraging rivals in another church to abandon each other during difficult times, rather than work for deeper understanding and relationship.

So, given this context, what would it look like for Disciples to work for Christian Unity? No answers today; just questions I find vexing and important. I look forward to your thoughts, whether they agree with mine or not. In all things,

Grace and Peace,

P.S.- Check out Adult SS for the next few weeks; DVD-series of America’s leading “Historical Jesus” scholars!