Ecumenical 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Last week a group of about 20 of us from around the Partnership were reflecting
on priorities for the life of our 6 churches over the next 5 years or
so. One of the groups, one which I was assigned to, discussed what it
means to be ecumenical. The issue had arisen through the challenge posed
that we tend to be dominated by an Anglican sort of default mode. One
response to that has been simply to change our name from Stantonbury Ecumenical
Parish (an Anglican word) to Partnership. But it is not enough to change
our name, we need to reflect on the wider issue of how we experience and
express Christian unity in our local situation.
Week of Prayer
We are nearing the end of the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity.
It is actually an octave (8 days) which starts with the Feast of the Confession
of Peter (18th Jan) and ends with the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul
(25th Jan). These two towering figures of the early Church were very different
from each other, but equally important in the life of the Church. They
both appear in today’s Bible readings – Paul via his letter
writing to the Corinthians and Peter in the story of his calling by Christ.
Both of our readings are relevant to the subject of Christian unity. In
the Gospel we are reminded that we are all called to follow Christ and
to be involved in his mission. In the letter to the Corinthians we hear
again the appeal of Paul to his friends not to let themselves break up
into different fan clubs of various Christian missionaries.
Last year on holiday in Turkey we were able to visit the ruined city of
Ephesus. It was quite an eye opener and I found I was much better able
to understand the kind of world in which Paul lived. I imagine Corinth
was similar. In the 1st C it was a prosperous and buzzing metropolis.
Many different kinds of people were attracted there, including a flourishing
Jewish community, according to Philo, a contemporary Jewish writer. There
were many temples to the pantheon of Greek gods. It may have been as multicultural,
diverse and colourful as our modern European society. In some ways it
might have been difficult for Christian missionaries to be able to introduce
their message about Jesus Christ into such a rich society – rich
in culture and belief as well as material goods. Does that sound familiar
to you? There is much to enrich life and make it enjoyable in our culture,
but the gospel may not penetrate it easily. At one extreme, with so much
variety, the gospel becomes just one more option in the supermarket of
beliefs. At the other extreme, the message of the cross is foolishness
to those who live in a society that is fiercely competitive. The Christian
community in Corinth was in danger of losing the very thing that gave
them their identity. In the richness of their church life hid the danger
of splitting up into factions. In the danger of dividing up, lay also
the danger of forgetting the cross of Christ. St Paul had to remind them
that the cross was vital to their identity. The outward sign of the effect
a preacher or teacher had was when people came to be baptized by them.
Followers could wear this like a badge: Apollos baptized me! or Peter
baptized me! To his great concern Paul feared that some of those who had
responded to his preaching would likewise wear his name like a badge.
To his relief he didn’t recall doing much baptizing. What he did
lay great store by was proclaiming the gospel. If he had to make a choice,
it would be preaching not baptizing, that he would want to be remembered
for. Not that he was much of a public speaker, according to him. In fact
the worse he was at that, the better, because it left the cross to make
its own impact.
St Paul was desperate that his Christian friends in Corinth should not
split apart from each other. Stay together with the same mind and purpose,
he urged them. Here in MK we try to live that out in our church life.
Like many others, I feel at home in an ecumenical city because of my background
and my convictions. Last Saturday we were reflecting on our experience
of living ecumenism. I would like to pick out some of the things that
were affirmed and reflect further on them.
1. Enjoying variety
One commentator has suggested that even if Christian missionaries found
it hard to penetrate Corinthian society with the gospel, nevertheless,
they stayed there. Perhaps they enjoyed the lifestyle and that made it
easier to stay and keep trying! One of the things most valued by us is
the varied experience we have in an ecumenical context. We are able to
worship in a variety of traditions and styles and we feel enriched by
this. We like to be reminded of different emphases as we enter into Methodist
or Baptist worship, as we observe Anglican liturgy, or even join in with
specially devised worship in Iona or Lima services. Perhaps we feel that
this is like having a balanced spiritual diet. It also makes us feel that
this is right, that we should affirm and appreciate traditions other than
our own. This is one way of overcoming the divisions of the past and seeking
unity in the Christian faith.
However, continually worshipping in a different tradition each week can
have an adverse effect on us too. For some it can be confusing, especially
for newcomers who don’t realize straight away what we are about.
Worshipping in one liturgical style does allow the words and shape of
the service to sink into your whole being. We can “wear” familiar
liturgy like a comfortable pair of slippers. We sometimes need to feel
at home in one tradition. An obvious and simple example is the Lord’s
Prayer. Many are so used to the “traditional” version that
they find themselves tripping up when the “modern” is being
said. (And it can happen vice versa, too!) So we end up experiencing a
kind of tension in our worship. We end up never quite feeling at home
because the furniture or pictures keep on being changed each week. This
leads to a sort of spiritual disorientation, not knowing quite where we
are, where we belong, where we are going.
As we discussed these things in our small group last week I began to realize
that we were talking about a sense of identity. We were reflecting on
our experiences but struggling with the whole question of Christian and
human identity. When I engage in an ecumenical scene, who does that make
me? This was clear when one member of another church in our partnership
shared her pain. She said that she was continually being told “you
are not Anglican any more, you are ecumenical!” She found this very
difficult because she had been steeped in an Anglican background for a
great deal of her earlier life. For some, being ecumenical rather than
anything else is fine – it is not a problem. But I don’t think
it is always helpful to say “I am not Anglican anymore, I’m
ecumenical!” Actually, we are not in the business of creating a
new denomination, but of celebrating our different traditions together.
We are at our best when we are reconciled in our diversity. That is why
we worship in distinct traditions: properly Anglican on one occasion;
properly Methodist on another, and so on. I don’t believe an ecumenical
“soup” works for it is neither one thing nor the other. We
can keep hold of our “home” tradition whilst sharing in the
life of an ecumenical congregation.
As I reflected on the things we were saying I realized that in some way
we were also talking about what it means to live in the modern world.
The whole world has come to our doorstep and for many of us the variety
of culture is welcome because it enriches our lives. But it can lead to
an identity crisis. We can end up wondering who we are. One extreme reaction
to this is the xenophobia behind such movements as the far right political
parties. But I think also that being ecumenical helps us to identify with
society around us – if we feel at sea in a purely ecumenical setting,
just think how much more it must be for those with no particular religious
sense of belonging! We need something to bring us all together; we need
something to give us a sense of cohesion, a shared focus whilst we also
enjoy variety. St Paul appealed to the Corinthians to have the same mind
and purpose. Jesus called the different disciples all to follow him in
one mission. The focus for us is the foolish cross. Yet the cross sheds
light into the places where people have experienced darkness – the
kind of obscurity and confusion that comes from feeling at sea in a world
of shifting variety. This is the good news of the kingdom.
© Rev Paul Smith