Ecumenism at the grassroots is largely biographical. Much of what happens in our communities ecumenically depends not on the mood or progress of denominational dialogues but on who the pastors are of the local congregations. In every community there are pastors and lay leaders who are committed to ecumenical mission and those who are absent from such conversation since it all seems vague and irrelevant to their ministry.
In my former parish in Saluda County, South Carolina, I definitely fell into the latter category. Ministering in a rural, relatively homogenous community, I was simply grateful to get together with my Lutheran colleagues, who were living within a 30 mile radius, once a month. I did not know or even meet a pastor from any of the other Protestant churches [there were no Catholic churches] during the five years I was there. Frankly, our lives and ministries just did not intersect in any meaningful way. Ecumenism at the grassroots is biographical because if I or some other local clergyperson had an interest in such things, we could have rallied folks together for conversation and dialog. But nobody did at that time, in that place.
The biographical bias is not simply about the who–the personalities or personal interest–it’s also about the where of it all. Now I am in ministry in Evanston, Illinois which boasts of 90 plus Christian congregations which meet in our eight square miles alone. We are surrounded by a variety of Christian denominations, Jewish synagogues, and a host of home-grown spiritualities. I, who would have listed “ecumenism” at the bottom of my priority list 15 years ago, now serve as the co-president of the Evanston Ecumenical Action Council. EEAC is a council of nearly 50 congregations and institutions which have been doing ministry together for 25 years. I am co-president along with one of the Catholic priests down the road who is becoming one of my most supportive colleagues and friends. This council does many things together. It provides various shelter programs for the homeless, runs several soup kitchens around town, coordinates racism healing workshops, provides ecumenical worship services at Thanksgiving and Pentecost, and provides a voice for the churches in our city government.
EEAC, its current co-presidents notwithstanding, is largely run by the laity. Biographically speaking, the clergy come and go. Some who come to town are interested in things ecumenical, and others are not. But our dedicated lay people are the ones who stick by the organization and make it work.
From my observations, it is often the clergy who are more educated on the status of doctrinal discussions and ecumenical progress. Clergy may be interested in reading about a meeting between Bishop Anderson and the Pope, while the laity, perhaps unaware of such a meeting, are busy coordinating a hike for the homeless to bring Lutherans and Catholics together. It’s not that our laity aren’t interested in the doctrinal or eccesial issues. Many do keep abreast of these things. The perception I have though is that as much as lay folks love their clergy people, they sometimes feel that clergy and the institutional church they represent make the differences among us more divisive than they need to be. Many people do take that theologically naive stance: “We all believe in the same God anyway.”
Those who know their church history and their theology are aware that this statement in many ways is false. But the perception from the grassroots seems to be that if we keep saying this creed out loud for long enough, it just might become true.
Is it working? Now we might not mind it when Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans are chanting this together, but we need to also be aware that many are confessing this credo with Jews, Christians, Unitarians, and Muslims in mind.
Ecumenical groups like our EEAC don’t often spend a lot of their time in theological conversation. We often band together to do some social ministry projects that many of us could not do alone, such as operate warming centers and soup kitchens for the hungry and homeless. There is very little biblical interpretation, theology, or church practice that stands between our particularity and serving the poor.
However, here in Evanston, we also engage in joint ventures that often make our particularities flare to the point of embarrassment. While the creed, “We all believe in the same God, anyway,” works around the soup kitchen table, it does not work about the table where bread and wine are on the menu. In my experience, (it’s still biographical), ecumenical worship is the most difficult thing I have ever tried to do in ministry. Frankly, we don’t even mention celebrating the Eucharist together. We all seem to be ecumenically savvy enough not to even suggest it.
Even with that “wonderful symbol of unity/terrible stumbling block” removed, worship is still difficult. We still find ourselves liturgically divided, and this division, in our community at least, also slices us along racial lines. We clearly have two styles of worship in town: the African-American way and the white way. Though we’ve tried to fight it and re-organize it, the bottom line in our city is that we have two separate ecumenical clergy groups: The African-American Ministerial Alliance and The Evanston Clergy Association. There is a need in Evanston for the African-American clergy to have their own organization and there is an equal need for ecumenical worship to follow the African-American style of worship.
Somehow our attempts to honor these needs, such as making sure that ecumenical worship is largely in this style, have proved to be sorely problematic. Despite our efforts the white folks are now saying, “I’m tired of this kind of worship every time,” and the African-American clergy are simultaneously saying, “If we don’t make these services more in our style, we’ll just have our separate services.” Obviously there’s more going on than bickering over hymn selection. There’s racism going on that hasn’t been addressed, named, or healed. At points like this, the true believers in the “same God” credo have their faith seriously shaken. They can’t understand why this same God can’t be worshipped by everyone equally. After a few bad Community Thanksgiving services, the faithful begin to wake up from their dream of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” and sadly acknowledge that sin is alive and well. How painful it is when one discovers this ugly truth in worship, around the cross, when the day before we had been happily hiking for the homeless.
We at the grassroots have plumbed some of these depths of ecumenical ministry that have not been explored on the denominational level. Locally we have worked at worship where the best gifts of many denominations may come together. But how do we appreciate what Quakers have discovered about the place of silence and prayer while simultaneously honoring the AME’s need for robust celebration of God’s mighty acts?
We are living, worshipping, and serving where the rubber hits the road. It’s so difficult and painful sometimes that we are tempted to abandon our efforts and go our separate ways. We at the grassroots who have been in dialog with a broader spectrum of the Christian Church than those who carry out these ministries on behalf of denominations, can share our personal experiences of some of the difficulties that are lurking in the closets of Christ’s mansion in which we live. People involved in ecumenical efforts must be sensitive to issues of worship and they must be prepared for the surprising roadblocks to unity they will encounter, especially racism and sexism.
At the local level we continue to press on with our ecumenical efforts even when we think we don’t have time for it. We press on not simply because it’s practical for doing social ministry. We press on because we believe Jesus wants us to keep working on it. If there are challenges to mission, we believe our Lord will give us the ability and the will to meet them. The faithfulness of our people here has been a wonderful witness!
Ecumenism at the grassroots is also biographical because of the many pastoral concerns that often drive us to the boundaries of our particularity. Given the demographics of an area like ChicagoLand, I’m sure every Lutheran pastor around has a story to tell about a couple in love who came to the doorstep looking for someone to preside at their wedding. My latest story [we’re still biographical here!] goes something like this: Jim and Gloria are devout Roman Catholics. They are engaged. Gloria has been married twice before. One marriage has already been annulled by the Catholic church, but the second one seems to be hung up. It’s been a year of red tape. They have finally set a date in October, but are becoming frantic that the annulment won’t come through in time. Their parish priest says he’d like to help but has his hands tied. Without the annulment Jim and Gloria would be committing adultery and would be excommunicated. They’re desperate. Gloria hears that a Lutheran pastor would probably help. She calls the local one in the phone book. She makes it clear that she’s simply looking for someone to perform the ceremony. The Lutheran pastor makes it clear to her that unless she and her new hubby plan to join his congregation, he doesn’t have the time. Eventually they end up in my office desperately seeking church and clergy for the wedding.
Because I think more ecumenically these days, I agree to work with them. First of all, I don’t understand all this annulment and excommunication stuff. I also don’t like the rumors I hear about the politics and complications of the annulment process. But I also know from my Catholic colleagues in ministry that they too are concerned and are working for change. But church policies are slow to change, so in the meantime our Catholic colleagues have their hands tied. Currently, my hands are relatively free on these issues. I’ll perform the ceremony in our church. I’ll help this couple not only with their wedding but with the spiritual crisis they are experiencing because they have approached both Catholic and Protestant clergy and felt they were not understood or loved as they had hoped. I’ll cooperate with their priest who is sympathetic but feels unable to help them. And in the end, I’ll encourage Jim and Gloria to return to their parish as husband and wife and to be the best members of that parish they can be. That’s all they want to do anyway.
Because we are Christians under one roof, because we are ecumenical, our common goal is to make disciples for Christ, not members for our congregation. Ecumenism helps us move beyond membership to discipleship.
These are the kind of stories that drive much of local ecumenism. In my estimation, because we live and breath these experiences so frequently, ecumenism at the grassroots is more advanced and inclusive than it is at churchwide levels. This is hardly a radical statement, but if local work filters up the eccesial ladder one has to wonder what’s next. From the viewpoint of local ecumenism, our up-coming ecumenical agreements seem to be positive steps but woefully behind the times. We have built so many bridges with other Protestant churches and with Catholic parishes, that to speak of now being officially in partnership is hardly news.
At the grassroots there are new cutting edges that our denominations, which move more slowly, have scarcely begun to tackle. The grassroots are now dealing seriously with inter-faith issues. Of special interest in our area is the cooperation of Jews and Christians. This is a hot topic among us. And why are we climbing this new mountain? Just to have other congregations to serve in the soup kitchens? No, the answer again is biographical. Among us Christians in Evanston, there is scarcely a one of us that does not know and love someone from another faith. The number of Jewish-Christian couples in our congregations is growing. We have concerns about wedding services, finding a fitting place for the Jewish father of a baby brought to the baptismal font. Once again our stories and our experiences are driving us to our sacred scriptures, to an examination of our traditions, and to serious conversations in small groups about our faith and our future. We are preaching in each other’s pulpits, supporting each other’s causes, caring for each other’s members, discussing rituals, sharing educational events, and of course, serving in the same soup kitchen line. We are the pulse of the people of God.