Ecumenical News, September 2, 2015
By The Rev. Robina M. Winbush,
Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Ecumenical Relations
The unity of the church is not an end in itself, but an element in the reconciliation of the whole created order. The pursuit of God’s justice is a response to the gospel that embraces the whole world, and that seeks God’s abundant life for all people. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is committed to working with other churches, listening to the voices of brothers and sisters who call for human freedom, social justice, and the healing of the planet entrusted to human care. As Presbyterians hear and engage in the work of freedom and justice, we are transformed. (Excerpt from The Ecumenical Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), approved by the 218th General Assembly (2008))
Race in the United States has long been a church-dividing issue, ever since Richard Allen and a group of African descended Christians walked out of the St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia because of continuously being subject to segregated worship practices. In 1816, Bishop Allen and his followers founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in response to the existing racism. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has its own long history of racism inclusive of its participation in the genocide against indigenous persons in the U.S., participation in slavery and Jim Crow atrocities, and too often exercising a theological practice of privilege that seeks to maintain white supremacy. There have been moments and seasons in which we have struggled to challenge these systems, but too often the impetus for compromise has weakened these efforts.
For the last several years due to social media and more willing news outlets, issues between the dominant culture and African American communities have been before us. We wrestle with issues surrounding the “New Jim Crow” and mass incarceration, unarmed men and women being killed by law enforcement with very few indictments, continued disparities in employment, education, and health care. We also know that Christians are divided on these issues—the causes and solutions.
However, when a young white Christian man walked into Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17th and massacred nine Christian sisters and brothers following Bible study, a shock wave went through the nation and world. While much energy was put into the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds (as it should have been), there was much less focus on how this young man had been radicalized by white supremacist ideology that claimed to be Christian. While he is being held accountable, the systems that radicalized him must also be held accountable.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking more than 1,600 hate groups in the United States, many of whom hold to a “Christian Identity.” The question has to be asked, how many people share membership in these hate groups and also our congregations? For decades Christian churches have been debating whom you can love and still be in right relationship with God and the church. These same denominations have been virtually silent on whom you can hate and still be in right relationship with God and the Church. There have been church fights and schisms over the issue of whom you can love. While we may desire a big tent that holds a broad spectrum of perspective and theological understanding, are we willing to say that hate is incompatible with the Gospel? We must actively work to eradicate the roots of bitterness that breed hate, hate-filled legislation, policies, attitudes, and actions. Can we invite members and officers of our churches in their confirmation, commissioning, and ordination preparation and ordination to renounce hate and to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the way of justice and reconciliation? Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can we actively teach, counsel, and form leaders and members who are willing to reject doctrines of hate and oppression and embrace the theological and spiritual disciplines of love and justice? Can we hold accountable our members who ascribe to hate-filled ideologies and act in ways that betray the gospel of Jesus?
At the 222nd General Assembly (2016), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Confession of 1967 (starting on p. 285 of The Book of Confessions), which addresses the sin of racism and exclusion in society. Prayerfully, this General Assembly will also ratify including the Confession of Belhar, which was approved by the 221st General Assembly (2014) and ratified by the presbyteries. These two confessions are powerful theological resources for us to study and employ again in this moment in history.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, in response to the massacre of their members in South Carolina, is calling on Christian churches to set aside Sunday, September 6, as a Day of Repentance, Confession, and Commitment to Eradicate Racism. They are inviting us to use this litany on this day or any time we set aside to commit ourselves to participating in the hard work of dismantling racism and building a just and safe world. The AME Church is a close ecumenical partner through the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and Churches Uniting in Christ. The tragedy that impacted them personally and directly, also touches us. Only together, by the grace of God, can we engage the work of healing a divided church and divided world.
By Katie Archibald-Woodward
Candidate under care of San Gabriel Valley Presbytery
I retell the story of my six months in Bossey time and again. Each time my eyes light up with the same delight and my heart swells with the same love, as the memories rush to the forefront of my attention, just as they do now.
Imagine 30 Christians of various traditions, from all over the world, coming together to live in one community. It is a microcosm of the body of Christ.
Through class lectures, discussions, and worship we developed great relationships. Yet, most of all, it was the day-to-day communal meals and late-night conversations—or spontaneous dance party—that really bonded us together. We transformed from being strangers, to neighbors, to friends, to genuine family. We became a more vivid reflection of that living, breathing, united body. We tasted the wonder and dazzling beauty of unity.
When we all arrived at our new home that summer we were met by a stunning, white chateau nestled atop a hill overlooking vineyards and apple orchards. In the distance we could see the serene sapphire water of Lake Geneva and the grand mountainscape of the Alps rising above. A short walk up a lush, tree-lined road was a lovely house called Petit Bossey where we slept, talked into the early hours of the morning, and shared loads of laughter. It was here one of my most treasured memories was made, one which I think captures the essence of Bossey. About two weeks after we arrived I celebrated my 25th birthday. That morning, as I was about to leave and go to breakfast in the Orangerie, I heard a knock at my door. I opened it and found, to my surprise, one of my peers, a young Pentecostal man from India, standing there with what appeared to be the entire household behind him. How they were able to navigate the ancient wooden floor and avoid all the creaks in order to gather soundlessly on the other side of my door will forever remain a mystery. “Happy Birthday!” they exclaimed as I was handed a beautiful blue card with sweet words and signatures from every student! My heart swelled with overwhelming gratitude. I felt so loved. Upon my return to the house that evening another student, a Lutheran woman from Canada, led me into the living room where I found the beaming faces of everyone in my program. They were all there to celebrate my life—a woman they barely knew. Together we joyously ate cake, danced, and sang songs from each other’s cultural traditions. I realized the immediate, deep relationships that can take root between a group of very diverse people simply because of our connection in Christ. It was a magnificent vision of the kin-dom and remains one of my most treasured life memories.
Such authentic relationships in the global church is exactly what we need today—moreover, what we need with all our neighbors worldwide. Focusing on Christians for now, I want to emphasize it is vital for us to build relationships with our family of faith from different traditions, doctrinal interpretations, ethical opinions, political beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles, in order to become who God has intended for us to be: One (Jn. 17:21). Once we take the opportunity to listen to each-others’ quite varied experiences of God, formations of faith, sets of beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, and rituals, it is amazing how quickly issues we previously held as black and white, clear-cut matters become muddled into a messy sea of gray. Such experiences can be uncomfortable, challenging, even life-altering. However, above all, I believe these experiences are some of the greatest gifts life has for us, if we take the path to receive them.
It is in such experiences God grows our hearts wider. Our capacity to love is stretched beyond anything we could ask or imagine. The box we were unaware we held God in is revealed and broken. The mystery of God is expanded, wonder becomes our more regular state of being, and our rest in God becomes all we need and all we desire.
Opportunities for such growth and transformation are the marvel of Bossey. Due to its significant impact on my life, a prominent part of my ministry has become advocacy for developing genuine ecumenical and interfaith relationships. As a spiritual director and photographer the heart of my work is being a connector—connecting people with themselves, God, and community through listening, prayer, and sharing the world I witness through my lens. When connections are made we become more open and available for relationships.
So, I encourage you, sometime during the rest of your day pause and just observe your surroundings. What do you hear? What do you see? Taste? Smell? How do you feel, inside and out? Growing in this self-awareness, grows us into global awareness. Perhaps pray for an opportunity to ask one of your Christian friends from another tradition what their faith experience is like. What is God like to them? Listen to their story. How does it sit with you? If you realize you do not have any friends practicing another Christian tradition, maybe this is the prime opportunity to seek one out!
My prayer is the essence of Bossey will permeate the lives of all of us who follow Christ. That we might grow in greater love and be freed from every fear. That we might build relationships with our magnificently eclectic Christian family. That we might grow into our identity of “One.”
By Rev. Dr. Steven H. Shussett,
Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania
As a Presbyterian now three weeks into serving an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) church, I’ve come to see my ministry under the Formula of Agreement as a series of concentric circles. Each overlaps in my circumstance, and yet is independent, informing one another and yet unique.
In my case, this is my first pastorate in fourteen years, after two stints in specialized ministries. I long for the rhythm I once knew, the way the contents of a sermon are sifted together, and the confidence that simmering on the fire of the Holy Spirit over time will provide an outcome, the different ingredients making for a different flavor each week. After fourteen years without weekly sermon preparation, three weeks isn’t enough to reestablish that rhythm, or fortify the hope, mid-week, that somehow things will come together. But, of course, that would be true in a Presbyterian or Lutheran context.
Then there is the nature of place. My family and I have lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for ten years, but rarely had any reason to come into the center of the city. Beyond our dentist on 13th Street, “there be dragons,” with only the museum, a once-favored, now-defunct restaurant, and city hall to give us cause to enter.
Now I’m on 8th Street, in the center of unbelievable change as a new city emerges from the old, as new shops, eateries, and housing pop up like mushrooms around a new arena. This chaos would be true for any pastor in a new place, but what makes this even more dramatic is that the congregation doesn’t know its space either. It is as if we all dropped from the sky. True, parishioners know where North 4th and West Allen intersect, which is more than I can say. But even lifelong residents are at a loss to know what is located there! To respond to your context and your neighbor means to get to know them. Except many who will live here do not yet live here, their future homes now a hole in the ground. The one constant is in itself ever-changing, the homeless served by the church soup kitchens four times a week, and ministry far beyond that.
The third circle speaks to the ways of the ELCA. I am teased by Presbyterians and Lutherans alike about my connection to the other. I reply that I’m following in the footsteps of Philip Melancthon, (1497–1560) who tried to bring the two together. As is so often the case, relationship and vision have made this call possible.
I have known Bishop Sam Zeiser since his installation, and while our paths did not cross frequently, they were always friendly. Some years ago, common vision led our mid councils to join to United Church of Christ conferences in providing boundary training for all of our pastors. This past fall, shortly after intuiting that I was open to seeking a new call, I went for my own boundary training, hosted that year by the Lutherans. There to greet us was my friend, the bishop.
The Formula of Agreement has been on the books since 1997. But it isn’t something commonly known by church members or pastors. But I knew that just as I, the teaching (executive) presbyter, was aware of the possibility and how it was practiced, the bishop would know about this as well. Vision is not only seeking what is in the near-distant future; it is also seeing what is possible right at your feet. I sensed an immediate, if unstated, interest on his part to my shared confidence that I was exploring possibilities for my future. The seed planted that day is taking root as I write.
Finally, there is the particularity of this specific congregation. Not only am I learning general Lutheran theology and practice, but I am living out St. Paul’s expression of these on a daily basis. I am constantly asking, “Is this a Lutheran thing or a St. Paul’s thing?” to know whose line I am in danger of crossing—and it is often both!
But this, I am glad to say, is an overstatement. Not every bishop or EP would be open to considering a Formula of Agreement relationship, laying the necessary foundation in a congregation. Nor is every congregation open to receiving someone quite so different, who requires on-the-job training. That it was even considered says a lot about all of them.
The word I have used, repeatedly and daily, is “gracious.” Would that every congregation were so gracious as this one, and thanks be to God that so many of them are. Ecumenical, and interfaith, relationships will be multiplied and extended as we recognize that not everyone is as we are, and all have something to contribute to us and our growth. Without years of witnessing and participating in Lutheran practice, lacking time to study and embody its ideals, and lacking experience presiding at the altar (and remembering to bow!), each Sunday is a new adventure, and every day a lesson in Lutheran theology and practice.
But for one who, baptized as an adult, who accepted Eugene Carson Blake dictum that “To be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical” even before he knew what they meant, I am so grateful. For the opportunity to live out what to this point had been a theory, seen but until now never personally experienced. And grateful for the witness of this Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA and more particularly, St. Paul’s, which has put flesh and bones on the word “gracious,” to me and those whom we serve.