On That “Thing” Holding Us Apart

This is my entry for the 4th Christian Reconciliation Carnival, which is … here very very soon (get your post in). See our founder’s site at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength courtesy of Weekend Fisher for further information for how to enter. I’ll also be (presently) also penning an essay on the question for the month. This essay is of a more general nature pondering the ecumenical crises and its structure … for the rest continue on below the fold.

Four things drive the ecumenical movement. These are theology, habit, distance, and structure. What do I mean by this? I’d like to explain further what I mean by this descriptions of the division (not difference) in the Church Catholic and then attempt to suggest ways of proceeding.

Theology is the first and most obvious thing keeping us apart. The obvious theological issues are clear. From the filioque of the last millenia, to Arminian/Calvinist, to paedo/adult baptism various theologies drive practices which have driven members and groups of the church away. Distance leads ultimately to estrangement and difference. Defining adiaphora and heresy is crucial in bridging what gaps might be bridged reasonably. The Eucharist is, and has always been, somewhat central in these discussions. From a theological perspective, does our Trinitarian Theology, Christology, and Pneumatology arrive at an understanding of Eucharist that allows us commune together in any sense of unity. Churches have two different levels of “being in communion”. The first or “outer” sense, is who do they allow to commune with them. The second is who can lead their communion service. For example, the ECUSA has a very open notion of communion, every Baptised Christian is welcome at their Table … but I think it not the case that a Southern Baptist preacher could lead their congregation at the same rite. This apartness is set by theologians on theological principles. Those theologians have determined carefully what for their confession, creed, or faith determines adiaphora and what constitutes heresy.

The second thing keeping us apart is habit. Adam’s sons and daughters are creatures of habit. We grow accustomed to the same rites and rituals. Different liturgies speak differently to each of us. The style of music, the particulars of rubrics, the look of the church all connect with habitual use and to what we have become accustomed. These habits of worship become things we attach to and thereby keep us apart. I’ll admit this is true of myself as well certainly. Heck, I’m somewhat disconcerted by acoustic guitar being used in service not to speak of electrified ones or percussion more sophisticated than a tambourine. Now in fact, I’m attending to a church holding to the Byzantine liturgical rite, where the only music praising God is that produced by the human voice. a cappella choir alone embellishes the service, which on the other hand is, with very few exceptions, sung in its entirety.

Distance keeps us apart as well. Putting it simply as possible, we worship in different buildings. We travel in different circles, form friendships based on association. Face to face, I think Christians from any walk of like find much in common and grow quickly to love one another. But, distance encourages difference, which over time and through the estrangement of distance … becomes division.

The final thing holding us apart is structure, that is, the authority and legal structures we attach to our worship. Each church and denomination has its own particular way of governance, be it Episcopal or not. Geographically these different denominations overlap. Even when churches are in complete communion if the structural elements conflict there can be problems achieving unity. The Orthodox “situation” in America has been described as a heresy by Metropolitian John Zizioulas for example. As America was settled various autocephalous (independent) ethnic groups of settlers came in and installed their own Episcopal oversight. In the 20th century the Russian church, having its own issues with the Soviet regime, granted the Russian church in America independence. These churches are in complete communion theologically (barring a somewhat minor calendrical issue), in my area have a great deal of movement between churches, breaking down distance, and their practice is virtually the same, that is the “habits” are identical … all use the Byzantine rite. But the question still remains how to break down the overlapping authority structures holding us apart.

How do we solve these problems. I think the third element is the most important. We need to break down our distance. We need to meet, to commune (if not commune), to break bread together in meal, in mission and in our daily life. We need to encourage those things in our life which bring us face to face and shoulder to shoulder with those of other churches. And when we meet, after we have established some bonds of friendship and brotherhood, we need to talk shop. We need to bring out those notions which we each find in the other that we think are in error. I think the natural impulse to avoid those things which might cause division is mistaken. For by not discussing these things, errors persist (if they are errors), we fail to identify adiaphora, we continue in misunderstandings and mistaken beliefs. But instead, if we bring our differences out in the open, we can define the scope of our difference, understand the other’s understanding and work on it. for if, instead we choose hide them, our division can only grow.

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  1. […] to wrap things up, a final essay of mine, in which I try to consider break down and categorize those things holding us apart. Different […]