Monday, January 22, 2007

The Cost of Long Division

I'm not talking about arithmetic, although learning long division (do they still have to do that anymore?) is costly in its own way.

We are in the middle of the Octave (or it may be just a "week" now) of Prayer for Christian Unity (the eight days between the feasts of the Confession of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul, inclusive). Christian unity is on my heart, and I'm involved with it on a grassroots level where I live, in both "Catholic" and "Protestant" directions, Anglican that I am. It is on my heart because the fact that Christians are divided is tragic on two levels: It abrogates the will of our Lord, who prayed that all his disciples be one, and it is the single greatest stumblingblock to the prosecution of the Church's mission of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ.

I count myself more blessed than some of my clerical colleagues in the Episcopal Church. My parish has not (yet, at any rate) suffered crippling division over the controversial issues that beset us. But the flow of visitors to our services--newcomers who are "checking us out," looking for a church home--is down. Way down. I can't help but think it's because the Episcopal Church has been so much in the news of late, and for all the wrong reasons--because of conflict. Without knowing anything about St John's, ignorant of the quality of our worship and preaching and teaching and life together, people are deciding to not even give us a try. Based on what they've heard, I can't say that I blame them.

And that's just a small local contemporary example of the cost of our divided state--ironically, the cost of division between those who, technically, are able to gather at the same altar and share the Eucharist. But that division is dwarfed by the fragmentation experienced by the wounded Body of Christ over its entire history, but particularly for the last thousand years or so. It really is a scandal, a huge scandal. Yet, most of the divisions between Christian bodies are so deep and so wide that the possibility of overcoming them seems unimaginably remote. And in the meantime, those divisions are serving nobly as a pretext for keeping the gospel and the church at arm's length. I have had members of my own extended family cite the multiplicity of Christian denominations as a principal reason for their refusal to embrace (or return to) Christian faith.

So, in the venerable tradition of manufacturing virtue out of necessity, what we have done is normalize the anomaly. Instead of sinful division, we have healthy diversity. We have Catholics and Lutherans and Assemblies of God and Freewill Baptists and each of the other 25,000 (or is it 52,000--I can't remember) denominations because each one has a particular charism, a particular ingredient in the grand recipe that makes up the Church of Jesus Christ.

That's a nice idea, but I'm not buying it. Yes, there is an element of truth in there somewhere, but if we try to use that truth to disguise the tragic reality of our divisions we will have perpetuated a fraud. No, I do not want an anesthetic to take away the pain. I want it to hurt. I want it to hurt when I worship with my Orthodox brother in his church and can't receive Holy Communion. I want it to hurt when I can't invite my Presbyterian pastor friend from up the street to stand at the altar with me as a colleague on a special occasion. I want it to hurt when I have to advise against the celebration of a nuptial Eucharist when my parishioner marries a Roman Catholic. Because only it if hurts will the realization be kept fresh that something is wrong. Something is desperately wrong.

It's been said (from a decidedly occidental perspective, I acknowledge) that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can set in motion a chain of events that causes a storm to hit the west coast of the U.S.--long after that butterfly has seen the end of its days, of course. Better minds than my own have spent themselves trying to find the path to visible unity among all who profess and call themselves Christian. So I will not presume to know where that path lies. In this week of prayer for that unity, all I can do is continue to flap my butterfly wings, and hope others are doing the same. In God's good time, that storm will yet arise.

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