Just spent a wonderful weekend helping host a visit to Perth by Professor Paul Murray of Durham University. “Receptive Ecumenism” is his forte. It is about opening heart and mind across the traditions that identify the diversity of the Christian story yet also divide and fragment its unity. We stand at a time in history where correctives such as programmes, councils and committees seem to lack energy and impetus. The spirit of receptive hospitality, invitation and immersion in the possibility of enrichment by the other is stirring. Great stories, examples and possibilities.
What a council we had today!
It was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church, a small community which is itself hosted by the Norbertine Priory in Queen’s Park – a unique partnership. The richness of the opening prayer service in Aramaic (also bilingual) heralded a morning of celebrating good news of inter-church sharing at the grassroots.
- Perth Prayer began as a small group of praying businessmen in a tall office building. It expanded quickly to other offices in this boom town. Such was the variety of Christian traditions represented that a very simple common manner of praying and sharing over a Wednesday lunch hour has been adopted. The move to the central venue of the Wesley Uniting Church in the middle of Perth and the imprimatur of the council of churches has seen this initiative become a powerful witness to the unity to which Christ calls his churches.
- Project54 is calling individual churches across all traditions to adopt a Commonwealth nation for prayer during the lead-up to CHOGM 2011 which is scheduled for Perth in October (12 months from now). To participate, all a church has to do is register through the website at www.commonwealthprayer.org
- Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft shared his journey as a participant on the International Anglican-Orthodox Commission. In particular he noted the respectful candor of the talks as potentially divisive issues sought a basis for discovering unity in diversity of theological perspective (eg ordination of women). In particular he noted the challenge of the assertion that if we do not express that to which we are most passionately convicted, we are acting hypocritically, and the dialogue fails to accomplish its purpose. Fr Boutros Issa of the Syrian Orthodox Church responded, outlining the history of Anglican Orthodox relations.
- We explored the challenge of ecumenical work across Australia as we pondered the slow takeup of the National Council of Churches of Australia “Covenanting Together” initiative. It was hoped that the process, commenced in 1996, would have greater traction now. It was discerned that different contexts gave different means of expression to some of the intent behind the document. Although it reveals an important historic marker in the national ecumenical journey, there are more fluid church relationships alongside the traditional institutional expressions which must be taken into account.
- Changes in governance, staff job descriptions and a freshly articulated commitment to grassroots ecumenism are pointing to a currently energised and focused council.
Great celebration of Edinburgh 2010 in Perth today. 100 years ago missionary organisations came together in Scotland in the recognition that Christian mission could only advance with a united front. The modern ecumenical movement was born. We celebrated at St Peter’s & Emmaus (a combined Uniting Church/Anglican parish) with the help of choirs from local Indonesian and Korean congregations, a reading from Matthew 28 in Aramaic (courtesy of the Syrian Orthodox Church) and a challenging message from the Anglican Dean of Perth, the Very Rev’d John Shepherd.
It’s a tradition in these parts now. Every Pentecost over the last four years we have joined with the Uniting Church at St Paul’s Anglican Church to celebrate Pentecost with an Anglican Eucharist. Everyone wears red and the sharing of communion is a highlight. Here’s the reflection I shared on John 15:27-16:4
As well as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that culminates today, we are in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation that focuses on Aboriginal Australia. Some of us are involved in the process of planning a series of meetings involving indigenous liaison that includes a weekend retreat and some time away on a Kimberley field trip. We are calling it “Listening Journeys.” For those of us that are action focused, the planning and negotiating is a slow and frustrating process. Listening’s not our favourite game, we want to get in there and fix things. For those of us that are more reflective, it seems more appropriate to apply the brakes rather than the accelerator. We want to ask, why are we doing this? What is the best outcome for all? Should we even go if we are not invited?
Today’s celebration is helpful as we process and receive again the wisdom of the Word.
John’s Pentecost is not focused on a single invasive event as recorded by the writer of Acts. The coming of the Spirit is all pervasive, both at the same time anticipated and realised amongst those who fellowshipped with the pre-crucifixion Jesus and joined others in enjoyment of the companionship of the post resurrection Christ.
John’s writing draws on the memory of Jesus enfleshed – walking, talking, back-slapping, foot-washing, comforting and confronting – living, sleeping, eating and finally dying. But the Easter story tells us Jesus was raised so John’s gospel entices his community and ours to awareness of the same along-sidedness – the Holy Spirit, invoking the presence of the risen and ruling Christ, to encourage, protect, invoke, confront, rebuke and enfold all who are committed to his way.
The emphasis in Acts is, as the name suggests, on action. The events generated by the day of Pentecost set off a flurry of activity. The ministry and proclamation of an emboldened band of apostles draw crowds who are overwhelmed, converted and baptised – there are journeys and expeditions, persecutions, jailings, trials, confrontations – but all along the way churches are planted and universalised to include both Jew and Gentile. By the end of Acts, the presence of those who follow the Way has taken firm root throughout the Mediterranean.
The emphasis in John’s gospel, on the other hand, is on relationship – the intimacy of the presence of the Spirit. No spectacular crowd drawing visitation of wind and flames here. The risen Jesus quietly breathes upon his disciples in the privacy of a locked room, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
From John’s gospel we draw the assurance of God’s intimate involvement in every fibre of our living – yes, enhancing our unique and individual human contribution to the world by drawing us together into that expression of human community we call the Church.
No longer need we objectify God as someone who is out there that I must seek out, puzzle out, and somehow pacify through good works. It is about relationship. Not God and me, but as intimated by the medieval contemplatives, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, God in me and I in God.
This is the closeness of advocacy that John’s gospel speaks of when Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter, an Advocate, a “come alongsider.”
Acts and John need each other. Action that is not guided and discerned by intimacy with the Spirit is simply spinning wheels in the mud and digging a rut. Internalising our whole attention within to the exclusion of acts of service and mission leads to irrelevant quietism that changes nothing and eventually shrinks to nothing.
The journey inwards is incomplete unless the journey outwards is engaged, and vice versa. Action needs reflection; reflection must lead to further action.
Working together into the future: ecumenism and Churches of Christ
I missed the earlier presentations on identity and the Restoration Movement, but suspect that these would have been related to the kinds of conundrums that were inevitably raised here. The questions were not new but were arising in fresh contexts.
How does a movement such as ours, marked by its simplicity, structural lightness and commitment to unity based on New Testament principles defend its continuing existence when it can be argued that much of its raison d’être has been absorbed into the contemporary spectrum of today’s church? Is it time to invoke the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery and cease to exist, “being absorbed into the body of Christ at large?”
Of all movements, we seem to sit astride the range of traditions most easily. In most states, there are significant partnerships with the Baptists. We also punch above our weight in more formal, but diminishing, ecumenical arrangements across a number of traditions in several states. We are generally renowned for our proactive energy and commitment to all that expresses visible unity amongst Christians in fulfilment of the vision of Christ’s prayer in John 17.
To dissolve would be to surrender an important contribution to the Australian Christian landscape. We would also lose over 200 years of formed DNA. In spite of ourselves and our altruistic vision, we have become another “tribe” amongst many, and somehow there is a feeling that the human race would be depleted if this tribe disappeared.
Perhaps we are not so much at a crossroads but in a trackless wilderness in terms of our ecumenical expression. I suspect that where we can contribute well, we will continue to do so. We continue to exhibit great diversity amongst ourselves in terms of how we give expression to the vision of the call to Christian unity. In these post-modern times our very looseness on the ground can be a blessing, though its accompanying frustrations sometimes cause it to feel like a curse.