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Being 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.

Christian Unity
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.

2. Experiencing tension
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.

3. Seeking identity
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.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




God of all mercy,
your Son proclaimed good news to the poor,
release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed:
anoint us with your Holy Spirit
and set all your people free
to praise you in Christ our Lord.