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Models for Christian Unity

A presentation given in 1997 at the

Summer Ecumenical Institute

I grew up in a solidly Catholic farm family in southern Manitoba. My parents didn’t talk much about their faith, but lived it deeply, with a deep love for the people of our area, whatever their faith traditions. I grew up on the "Baltimore" catechism.

I lived and went to school with people of other Christian traditions, and in our town we had a history of working together between the churches, at least for weddings, funerals, etc. But, I never really had much beyond that by way of ecumenical experience.

That changed when I lived first in Neepawa, where an Anglican priest became a great good friend, then in Ontario, where I came to a very different relationship with God through the prayer ministry of a Pentecostal minister in Hanover. From there I moved to Vancouver, where I became actively involved in a Catholic charismatic prayer group, with close friendships with members of various Protestant communities in the area, as well as personal friendships with people from the Uniate churches.

Later, in seminary days in Sydney, Australia, I became active in the Theological Students’ Association, where I got to know Anglicans (low and high church), Baptists, Uniting Church members, and more. Those were very rich and rewarding days and times.

I also became involved in ecumenical social justice organizations, such as Action for World Development in Australia, and Ten Days for World Development in Canada.

You can imagine, then, that I would want a wife who could identify with and accept my desire for ecumenism. Who could ever have imagined God’s rich sense of gift and humour, when he introduced me to Fenella, a deeply faithful Anglican who had been drawn back to her faith through the Baptist community she met while travelling with a friend (and carrying bibles along with them) in Ceaucescu’s Romania? Only God knows how close the members of Amnesty International came to writing letters on behalf of "Fenella Bemrose, a prisoner of conscience"!

Many things could be said about the impact our relationship has had on my ecumenical journey. I wish only to focus on one: my choosing to receive the eucharist in the Anglican church whenever we worship there.

As a faithful ‘son of Rome’, I was and am familiar with my church’s directives and restrictions on receiving the eucharist in other churches. And, I respect that stand by my church. It must, after all, act in integrity to itself and its understanding of the sacrament of unity. It rightly takes very seriously the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, and will not stand for anything which could ‘water down’ that reality.

Being aware of all that, I would, when visiting Fenella, attend both her church and mine. I would receive the eucharist in my own church, and simply celebrate with her in hers. But, I would never receive there.

As time went on, however, I began to take note of the faith life of her community. There was clearly a deep and lively faith present there, in the liturgy and in the whole life of the community. I began to take note, too, of the words of the liturgy, and the sense of faith conveyed through those words. I began to discover that in many cases the words spoke even more strongly of a belief in the Real Presence than did the words in my church. The words were in fact quite blunt: "The Body of Christ, broken for you. The Blood of Christ, poured out for you." There could be no mistaking the belief and intent present there, a belief which was supported by the life of the church which that eucharist had created, and which in turn celebrated that eucharist.

I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand my church, with what I believed was very sound reason, forbade my receiving the eucharist in the Anglican church, using among its statements the position that Anglican orders were null and void, and therefore there was in fact no eucharist.

On the other hand, I knew I could no longer deny the reality I witnessed. I could not continue to deny the presence of Christ there in the eucharist, and in the people who celebrated. After much thought, prayer, and reflection, I decided before God that while my church as a whole could not recognize the validity of the eucharist in the Anglican communion, I believed Christ was truly present, and began to receive.

My faith in Christ’s presence in the eucharist across these denominational lines has been strengthened over time, and I find myself rejoicing that he is truly present in many places where we as churches, speaking from within the integrity of our respective communities, are as yet unable to recognize him.

At the same time, I am aware that my decision to act as I did may someday be found wanting; that I may in fact be wrong in my decision and action.

I began by speaking of my own personal experience. I would like to take time now to relate the experience to the reality of ecumenism; to look at how the reality of interchurch families may serve as a model for Christian unity. In that, I am going to do something rather dangerous within the context of an ecumenical conference: I am going to invite you to forget about working for ecumenism. I invite you to give it up as a lost cause.

What I have just asked you to do is, in many ways, something unthinkable. The language that I have used goes totally against what you are about and why you are here. Surely Christ prayed, even ardently, that all may be one. How, then, can we give up this work? And yet, I wish to take you to a different perspective, a different view of reality.

I would like to begin by giving you a graphical representation of a different understanding, and hence a somewhat different reality, that exists between different expressions of the one Church, the one Body of Christ.

I must stress that this is a limited representation of understandings that go far deeper. Still, I ask you to bear with me, and to make allowances for the limitations.

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From the evangelical perspective, we have a tendency to focus on Christ, and to see the church only tangentially. The church as institution does not necessarily play a large role in our lives. In fact, churches that are institutionally strong and prominent tend to be feared, even seen as taking away from Christ.

And so, evangelicals tend to be able to move fairly easily from one church to another, without a great sense of loss. The question is primarily: am I comfortable with the way Christ is proclaimed in this church?

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Catholics, on the other hand, tend to see the institutional expression of the church as something of profound importance. The liturgical and sacramental dimension of our church life looms large, as does the institutional expression. I might even say that Christ is seen somewhat tangentially, on the edge. Should there be any seeming conflict between what we believe we hear Christ saying and what the church is saying, there is a huge tendency to listen to the church as the authoritative voice of God, and to deny or discredit what we believe we are hearing personally.

For Catholics, then, changing churches is at best difficult, even unthinkable. How are we to know Christ is present if the church does not lead and guide us, is not there speaking His authoritative word?

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I suggest to you that this is one area where we as interchurch families are gift to the church. Day by day, in our lives, we share with each other the different perspectives we have of Christ and the Church. More, we help each other to grow in seeing the wholeness and richness of the unfathomable mystery of Christ and His Body, the Church.

Sometimes we struggle to see the other’s ‘way of seeing’. Often we find ourselves responding negatively, even pushing each other to polar extremes. What keeps us coming back, again and again, until we begin to see through each other’s eyes, is our commitment to each other, to stand by and love each other for better or for worse.

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I don’t suggest this is easy. It is, however, a joyous vocation. Day by day we learn new words to express the richness of Christ, or discover that the same words can speak of different, hitherto unseen riches.

Day by day, in love, we enter into a deeper relationship with God and with each other, discovering in each other great riches of faith, of hope, of love. In the process, we come, together, to a far more ‘complete’ discovery of the riches of God and the Church, and the inherent and mysterious unity therein, than we would likely ever have discovered had we been alone.

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Another area of difficulty is that of the reality we experience versus the theology we hold.

Each of us knows that within our respective churches we hold a theology that is far greater than any of us can fully live. That does not in any way denigrate our reality, but simply recognizes that God is greater, deeper, richer, than any of us can fully live or comprehend.

The difficulty is that so often, even as we see our own reality being a subset of our theology, we look at the other’s reality, and equate it with that person’s theology. We seldom manage to look beyond the other’s reality to that person’s theology. And, it doesn’t seem to matter who the ‘we’ or the ‘other’ is!

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Interchurch couples are faced every day with living face-to-face, in the nakedness of their lived realities. For us, the question becomes (and here I exaggerate for effect): "Will you love me in the depths of what you see as my Scriptural weakness? In what can sometimes be my overpowering sacramental and institutional strength? I will love you in your at-times-overpowering sense and knowledge of Scripture, and your lack of sense of church as something far more than the local congregation." You may choose whatever your respective differences are. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that interchurch couples are called to live in the nakedness of their realities, sharing them together and discovering the richness of each other’s theologies. There is no running and hiding, no standing back in smug self-satisfaction at the weaknesses of the other. There is far too great a sense that unless we come together and not only accept but even love the other, ‘warts and all’, we will not survive.

It is this fundamental acceptance in love that makes for depth and richness in the Body of Christ.

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Let us move, then, to the work of uniting the divided expressions of the church. I say expressions, because I do not believe there is more than one Church. I believe rather that there is only one - and it is sorely divided.

Ecumenism can all too easily be a melding of theologies, a negotiating in dialogue, a moving of juridical boundaries. We can check to see if the ‘I’s are properly dotted and the ‘t’s crossed. There is goodness and richness in this, for surely these things are all necessary. Still, there is nothing in this process which demands that the churches come together. Rather, their agreements can become nothing more than pre-nuptial agreements, which do not in any way have to be lived and adhered to.

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When a couple marry across denominational lines, we see a pattern begin to emerge. The family dance begins: Will we baptize in this church or that one? What about religious education? Church attendance? Confirmation? Will we do one to satisfy this family and another to satisfy that one? What about Christmas and Easter? Will Christmas be celebrated in my church with my folks and Easter in and with yours?

As good parents, the churches desire what they see as the best for their children, even for their son or daughter-in-law. At times the children benefit greatly from this; at other times the children simply wish the in-laws would get their acts together, and leave them in peace. Sometimes, in fact, it becomes clear that one or both parents don’t even like their daughter or son-in-law!

While there is good value to this model, I suggest to you that this is not the right model to follow. For one thing, nothing in this model calls the parents themselves together. Both can continue to love their children, and even the spouses. But, there is nothing more called for between the parents than a neighbourly ‘hello’ across the garden fence! No, something more is needed as a model of Christian unity.

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I propose that we must begin not with the churches as a model for the couple, but with the couple as models for the churches. Two people, each living faithfully their relationship with God, are called by God to become one. Together they enter into a passionate relationship of love.

Each brings to the relationship not a dotting of 'i’s and crossing of t’s, but a profound premise that my spouse seeks only the best for me. She brings with her all the values that have made her the beautiful person she is. There may well be times when I do not fully understand those values, yet we continue on the basic belief that those values are good and worth celebrating, and that my capacity to understand them will grow over time. Sometimes, too, that means continuing on, not understanding, for what may be a long time, until either I come to understand, or she discovers that the value which she held really wasn’t as important as she originally thought, and she can let go of it.

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I suggest to you that this is where the churches must begin. I believe the churches are called to commit themselves to loving each other, to become as 'hopelessly hooked' on each other as God is on you. I believe we as churches must begin to express for each other the love God has given us. We must begin to trust that God, who is all loving, will bring far more from our relationship with each other than either of us could ever enjoy living and acting alone.

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We invite the churches to put aside being the good and nurturing parents of their children (valuable as that is), and become first and foremost passionate lovers. Bring to this relationship of love your traditions, your values, and remain faithful to them. Learn from them, be nurtured by them.

Share them with each other, not by way of insisting that the other become true to your values, but by way of sharing something good and wonderful with the one you love. Receive from the other the goodness and richness that the other brings, believing that the other seeks only the very best for you.

In time, one or other of you may discover that values that you held dear are perhaps not as important as you had once thought. Or, you may find them enhanced by the perspective that the other brings to you. In either case, the richness that you share in God will be deeper and greater, as together you allow Him to make you one.

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In short, we invite you to put aside working for ecumenism, and 'simply' fall in love with each other.

Seek and discover ways in which you may express that love, as a bride and groom for each other. Don’t worry if every 'i' has been dotted or every 't' crossed before you begin to love each other. We are, after all, talking about covenant, not pre-nuptial contract. (In fact, I suggest that if couples approached their marriage in the same way churches approach ecumenism, we would have no more marriages!)

Commit yourselves, as individuals, as parishes, and as churches, to loving each other, and as you live out that love, as you share with and learn from each other, you will discover that Christ will in fact effect in you that which you have committed yourself to.

Let me share with you a small story from my seminary days. We were discussing the place of tradition, when a classmate told us that he could understand it from his years of piloting a barge around the south Pacific. He explained that they would leave for their next destination at night, keeping themselves lined up with the lights of the place they were leaving. They knew that as long as they kept those light properly lined up, they would arrive at their destination.

That’s given me a lot of food for thought over the years. It seems to me we must remain true to our history, our traditions. But, we don’t stay with them. Rather, we use them as a touchstone, a guiding light, as we must move out from our security, trusting that in doing so we will make our way safely through the unknown waters.

In closing, let us take, as a point of mediation, a portion of the Gospel according to Mark (Ch 4:35-39).

And on that day, when evening had come, he said to them "Let us go over to the other side." And leaving the multitude, they took him along with them, just as he was, in the boat; and other boats were with him.

And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. And he himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they awoke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"

And being aroused, he rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Hush, be still", and the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.

Let’s imagine for a moment some rather convoluted imagery. The disciples are us, the body of Christ, the church, actively living in the world. However, Jesus is also the body of Christ, the institutional expression of the church. We take that institutional expression just as it is, and head off into the dark, to ‘the other side’.

When we look around, we say that we are in a very real way in stormy waters. The church and the world are struggling, internally and with each other, and frankly many of us feel that we are going down. And where is the institutional church? It is asleep in the back of the boat, secure on a comfortable cushion. We aren’t particularly pleased by that, but that is our reality.

Now, we can look at our situation and think that surely we will go down, we will drown. That is, after all, what all appearance would lead us to believe.

But we interchurch families are a prophetic people.

We believe that the institutional expression of the Body of Christ will awaken, is awakening. We believe that as it awakens, it will take decisive action, thereby leading us to a reality far deeper, far richer, and far more true to the Gospel than anything we can today hope or imagine.

Ecumenism? It’s such an awkward, cumbersome word. In our families, we call it love.

Ray Temmerman