Article – An Experience with Ecumenism
By Dr. Matthew Lundberg
November 6th, 2012
For the past five years I have served as the Christian Reformed Church’s representative on the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA. This commission brings together theologians from across the spectrum of Christian traditions and denominations in America, meeting twice per year to work on theological issues that have historically divided Christians from one another, or to collaborate on theological challenges that confront churches across denominational lines.
When I was asked to participate on the commission, I was both eager and cautious. Some caution seemed in order, after all, since the CRC has never been a member of the NCC, largely because the Council has historically been viewed as a haven for theological liberalism, representing a watered-down Christianity where orthodox doctrine is cast aside in favor of left-leaning political advocacy. I wondered what I would find when I entered into these discussions with scholars from all over the American theological map. Would it reduce, as is often suggested, to a “lowest common denominator” form of Christianity in which confessional convictions were unwanted and the Nicene faith of the historic church was treated casually?
At the same time as I harbored these kinds of questions, on the other hand, I also had high hopes for the experience, in part because this was my first significant opportunity to participate in formal ecumenism, and in part because I had long appreciated some of the documents and unifying achievements that have been produced by various Faith & Order bodies over the past century, both at the national and international levels.
Happily, my experience of five years of Faith & Order has, on the whole, fueled my excitement and tempered my suspicions. To be sure, there are moments when the theology can get tepid or the discussion seems to lack sufficient grounding or vision. But such instances are much more the exception than the rule—which has generally been robust, meaningful theological conversation in which historic Christian orthodoxy is highly valued and contributions from particular confessional traditions are taken seriously because of, rather than in spite of, their distinctiveness. I have also been struck and challenged by the profound appreciation and sensitivity that most of the other commissioners, despite being academics, demonstrate regarding how the laity in their traditions tend to think about the things of faith—their concerns, questions, and deeply-held convictions.
The study group I was part of during the commission’s 2008-2011 quadrennium focused on ecumenical unity in Christian mission. Throughout the course of our four years together, I was impressed by the group’s shared conviction that mission is the heartbeat of the Christian church, as well as how the contributions from Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Wesleyans, and Presbyterians (just to name a few) so richly complemented one another. And I was gratified that the “Reformed” voice that I brought to the table was welcomed and encouraged. Similarly, it has been helpful to have some of my own work critiqued probingly by folks whose theological vision is tuned to a slightly different frequency than mine, yet who have also invariably treated my own theological perspective with respect, appreciation, and grace.
While the theological discussions I have experienced at Faith & Order have generally been serious and enlivening, it is perhaps a different side of the experience that has made the deepest impact on me. Most of the sessions include some kind of worship service rooted in the liturgical life of the community that hosts the meeting. These moments of worship have not only helped to connect me in a different way to the other commissioners, but have also illuminated in a new way the spiritual life of some of the other Christian traditions with which I am less familiar. Whether the worship was with Cuban Western-rite Orthodox Christians in Miami, journeying through the stations of the cross during Lent; or with Lutheran seminarians at a chapel service at Gettysburg Seminary in Pennsylvania, after walking the battlefields of America’s greatest national tragedy; or with Native American Methodists in Oklahoma City, hearing of the pain of their historic experience of Christian mission mingled with the genuine joy and hopefulness of their faith—all of these experiences have attuned me to the vitality of Christian faith in corners of the church that I have seldom visited.
With the other commissioners, this experience of ecumenical theology and worship has been enriched most of all by the development of friendship fostered by the bond of common work and a shared commitment to Christ’s church. Whether through the sharing of meals together throughout the days of our work or sipping a glass of wine together while unwinding at the end of a tiring day, the cultivation of friendships with theologically-serious brothers and sisters from all sorts of traditions has been a tremendous blessing and challenge. Sometimes those conversations have been light-hearted, as we joke together about the quirks of our respective traditions. Other times the conversations over meals have been intense, as we have explored serious differences of conviction that make for genuine division in the churches, differences that occasionally even push the question of whether certain communities at the table merit the adjective “Christian.” But rarely if ever have those conversations been hostile or disrespectful, exacerbating old wounds rather than bandaging them up. Rather, a sense of welcome, hospitality, and common faith has usually pervaded even the hardest discussions. These friendships have been the core of an experience that has heightened my appreciation for the unity and shared Nicene faith of the church of Christ.
Matthew Lundberg, Associate Professor of Religion at Calvin College has engaged for several years in formal ecumenical dialogue. This dialogue has focused on theological issues that often divide Christians and has much in common with the conversations about faith, science, and culture that interest The Colossian Forum.