Nearly two hundred Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church members packed the church in east-end Ottawa. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And these people gathered on a frigid Sunday afternoon in January to celebrate Christian unity.
My heart was warmed, since normally what the world sees and focuses upon is the doctrinal infighting and squabbling among Christians from different denominations. But today those differences were placed in the perspective of the underlying basis of our unity of purpose and mission in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!
Since I was leading part of the prayers and my name and position printed in the order of service I was regarded the token Lutheran in the crowd. Following the service most of the assembly gathered in the parish hall for a festive reception. The energy level was high. People were happy to be together. Small talk and jovial conversation prevailed.
And then, wham!
Who I presumed was a member of the French-Roman-Catholic church approached me with a smile yet determined gate. With coffee in his steady hand, he said in French he wanted to ask me an important question that would demand my full attention. He instructed me to give him three honest and concise reasons why I was NOT Roman Catholic.
My eyes momentarily darted to the heavens for inspiration. Uhhhhh. Okay. Here it goes. From the heart. Concise. I spoke, in English:
1. I was raised in a Lutheran family — born, baptized, confirmed. My upbringing and much of my socialization during my formative years was within the Lutheran church context. That has to be the first, honest answer to his question;
Then I went on the offensive …. 🙂
2. I like the core Lutheran theological orientation originally posited by Martin Luther in the 16th century that we are saved by grace through faith. We are justified by grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. And not by anything we must do to gain favor with God and with one another. This general approach towards all things church is my theological home, my lens through which I interpret, and my joy in believing and behaving. There isn’t, quite honestly and respectfully, another denomination whose theological emphasis rings quite as true to me as this core Lutheran position. Although I recognize places in other denominations where grace is believed and practiced as such, I choose the Lutheran theological message.
… And then I pushed further ….
3. Lutherans, I said, have taken the middle road in liturgical expression, worship style, even theological nuancing — usually somewhere in between the evangelical conservative, charismatic forms on the one side, and the more contemplative, formal Roman Catholics on the other. The rigidity around those divisions, born in the Reformation era, are dissipating over time, thankfully. And yet, I continue encountering faithful Lutherans — even young ones — who identify neither with extreme, cut-and-dry positions denouncing all ritual and mystery, but who will also not forfeit a reliance on scripture and reason altogether — for example, in celebrating the Sacraments. In other words, Lutherans have normally sought a balanced approach. This, I find, is healthy and good. Very Canadian, I might add.
When I finished, silence ensued in the space between us. Then, came the broad smile. He offered his hand and with a firm shake (which felt a lot like a German hand-shake!) he said: “Very well answered. Thank you. Can we talk more about this later?”
I bit my tongue to ask him why he was not Lutheran. Although I realize that in the give-and-take of inter-denominational dialogue the timing of these questions are critical to keeping the door open to continue the conversation. I look forward to that.
Often I hear from church folk that what they fear from Christian unity is a watering down of our own identity. What some people fear in engaging other Christians and spending more time with them is dissolution of what is important to us. What some fear is a loss of integrity.
I believe it’s the opposite. We don’t lose our integrity. We find it.
In encountering other Christians who are different from us we have the opportunity to distinguish — for ourselves, maybe more importantly — what defines us.
Have we forgotten? Have we become so used to, familiar and comfortable with what we do that we’ve beocme stuck in a rut and take it for granted? Have we forgotten what to say when someone asks us, precisely, about our faith?
The church finds itself at a crossroads today. And one of the ways the church will find its way is not to shy away from opportunities to be with other Christians who are different from us. Unfortunately one reaction to the uncertainty in the world today is to barracade ourselves within a fortress mentality — not seeing beyond the comfort of our church walls and practices. This is a tragic trajectory. Let us not follow the path to cocoon in comfort.
But in celebrating our unity, yes it is a challenge. We are drawn out of ourselves for a moment. And this may make us squirm for a while. But should we stay with it, we will find ourselves within that larger Christian family. And find opporunity to share with others from where we’ve come and what’s important to us. In the end we discover and experience our unity — inner and outer — in our diversity.