Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions I (1998)

It was 1963, I think, in a classroom at Stanford University, that my commitment to the flowering ecumenical movement was focused by Robert McAfee Brown, who had just returned from Rome as an Observer at Vatican II. He was full of stories, enthusiasm, longing. We sat electrified as visions of unity generated by the first session became almost palpable: the revelation of a Catholicism beyond stereotype, a revelation that seemed to shatter Bob's Presbyterian world, as open as that already was, as surely as it shattered the disparate worlds of his listeners.

So eloquent was he that we began to wonder if he were about to take instruction, if perhaps he were recommending that we do the same. But suddenly he broke off, and when he resumed there was an austerity in his voice that dissolved our cloud-castles and pulled us upright in our seats. I don't remember the exact words, but what he said went something like this:

"All of us at this time, when such hope is coming out of the Council, are deeply attracted to the idea of unity. Unity will come about, in my view, only one way, and that is if each of us stays where we are and helps our own church move toward this goal, no matter how much easier our lives might be made by crossing over the lines."

The rest was silence..

For me, headed for an Anglican religious community and then the solitary life, Bob's words had the force of a command. In ensuing years, his charge has come to mind repeatedly, sometimes when I was in despair that I would ever be able to live out my vocation within the Anglican Communion; sometimes with a tinge of irony when an ecumenical encounter would bestow insight and transfiguration that could not have occurred in the context of structural organic unity among the churches.

In recent years, many people have publicly bemoaned the stagnation of the ecumenical movement, due not only to the present administration in Rome, but also to the changing climate in other churches. This decline, I believe, is for the most part confined to institutional leaders, and has occurred for two reasons. The first is an outmoded view of what "organic unity" means; the second lies deeper and is far more troubling.

But the ecumenical movement has never been the sole property of ecclesiastical bureaucracies. From the beginning, the grassroots, which include some professional theologians, have moved faster and accomplished more both in theology and praxis than have those who represent a particular institution. When I listen with one ear to colleagues who are members of ARCIC express fears for its future, in the other ear, I hear my grassroots ecumenist friends saying, "It's gone too far. They can't stop us now."

The institutions need to remember, in this decade of evangelism, that people who are deeply committed are increasingly aware of the difference between conversion to the Gospel and membership in a self-perpetuating organization. They will not stay with religious groups that promote, to use the current buzzword, codependence. Between bureaucracies and committed grassroots ecumenists, the gulf grows ever wider.

People are beginning to realize, especially in the wake of the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell television series, that theology is as deeply rooted in our biology as is mythology. Where the churches have most profoundly failed us is in their reluctance to encourage us, to teach us, each to be a theologian.

This does not mean that everyone need have a degree, or understand the subtleties of academic protocol. Theology, beyond the niceties, is a way of thinking, a way of looking and listening and relating, that can be awakened and taught fairly easily. Grassroots ecumenists learn by the heart as well as the head, by osmosis as well as study, facing through the fear and diffidence that for centuries have been instilled by church leaders bent on control, exacerbated by the mistaken identification of theology with various schools of discourse.

For, at root, beyond the academic definition that theology is what theologians do when they are doing theology, theology addresses human constants, human needs, and human questions in relation to what is perceived as the divine, or the possibility (or not) of the divine. Whenever it loses sight of this, theology finds itself in deep trouble.


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