Thursday, February 6, 2014

On the “Body of Christ”

This was written as a comment on another blog in response to a discussion about ecumenism and the apparent weakness of efforts toward that goal.  I share it here as well:

I was raised in a Southern Baptist church (of the high sort, to the extent that there is such among Southern Baptists, according to my first wife who was raised in an Assembly of God church) so that would be my native ecclesiological language. I was received into an Episcopalian church a few years ago, and understand the need to translate my new language into a framework I can more readily comprehend. My journey started with a liking for more liturgical worship styles (perhaps my exposure to Roman Catholicism when I attended kindergarten at the parochial school as a child planted a seed that took root), but as time went on and I studied the articles of faith in the Book of Common Prayer (by then I was dating a cradle Episcopalian) I realized that there were very few things there that bothered me in my theology, the issue of pedo-baptism perhaps chief among them. When I discovered that even the Episcopalians I discussed this with were actually somewhat ambivalent about it I knew I could at least fit in, and I have been relatively happy in this new community so far.

I like to think that I am pretty ecumenical in my viewpoint, advocating what I call a “trans-denominational” understanding of the nature of the church. By this I mean that the entirety of the Church, the Body of Christ, is embodied in the variety of denominations and styles which are found throughout it. If, as Aquinas observed, God is beyond our ability to comprehend it seems certain that the narrow focus on Him that any one or group of us are able to bring through our various Confessions and approaches to worship can begin to address Him in the fullness of His nature and attributes. Surely the reverence of the high church liturgies and the ecstatic fervor of the Pentecostals are both appropriate means of honoring the Author and Creator of all that is. That I don’t personally resonate with some forms of worship does not invalidate them or the theological understandings which form the foundations for those differing ways of doing “church.” So long as the language in use is consistent with and proclaiming the core of the “one Faith” (summed up well in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) should we not look on other groups as fellow members of the Body of Christ in the fullest sense of that concept?

Paul spoke of the members of the Body of Christ, comparing hands with feet and eyes with ears, saying that each has its own function and purpose in carrying out the work of the Body (1Cor12:12-30). Was he only speaking of the individual people who make up the Body? Are these not functional units made up of individual cells who are organized together to accomplish some specific purpose within the Body?
Perhaps if we viewed the Evangelicals as the feet who eagerly carry the Gospel to those who need to hear it, and the Pentecostals as the open and uplifted hands of praise who glorify Him who gives us life, even as the Liturgicals (of whatever stripe) give reverence and honor to His Holiness, and spoke openly of this understanding of the One Body, then maybe the world would be a little less scandalized by the divisions among us. How can it not be when we continue to maintain in our own practices divisions based on such insignificant differences.

A few years ago I attended the ordination of our new rector, and I wore a robe and stole (of an Evangelical style) but sat among the clergy present. Afterwards one of the ladies of our congregation asked me why I had been vested during the service. I told her that I was an ordained minister “in another tradition.” Completely satisfied with this explanation, she moved on and like many others in our fellowship has been more than happy to call on my experience and background when it has been appropriate. But I know there is a limit to what that status permits me to do. I have led Morning Prayer in the absence of the rector. I have served as Crucifer and Lay Eucharistic Minister in assisting both the rector and our Bishop when he has been present. Now, unfortunately, our little congregation is in crisis. Our beloved rector passed away suddenly a couple of weeks ago. We will have Morning Prayer some Sundays and full services when a visiting priest is available. My “other tradition” status prevents me from carrying out the Eucharistic service and so we must rely on the charity of strangers for a while. I’m not complaining. I accept the situation. But I also recognize it as a statement that, because I was not ordained by bishops in the Anglican tradition (a.k.a. the Apostolic Succession) I am not fully acceptable within my new church home, at least as far as serving as a minister to the community. To be blunt, I am told that though I might have no theological problem with making the Eucharist, still my words and my hands are not acceptable. At the very least, this makes the words of the ecumenical prayers sound a little hollow when I hear them prayed in the Episcopal service.

May we arrive sooner rather than later at a point when we can all affirm the words of St. Paul: “There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6)