Saturday, January 19, 2008

Division, Diversity, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

I'll admit it, I almost forgot about the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." In fact, despite our strong commitment to Christian Unity, I can't say that this observance is strongly pushed. Here in Santa Barbara, it was one of my Catholic colleagues who would talk about it each year.

In this centennial observance of the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity," the question is why it is that ecumenism no longer seems to have the cache it once had?

Peter Steinfels notes that one reason might simply be that ecumenism is the victim of its own success. A century after the event was launched there is less urgency about inter-Christian efforts at unity. But besides being the victim of its own success, Steinfels offers 3 other reasons for the change of focus in a New York Times essay.
1. What was once seen as the scandal of division is now seen as the virtue of diversity. In other words, all that dialogue made the divisions look less like tribal warfare than different brand names. The various groups have the purpose of keeping alive various emphases. Besides:

Sociologists of religion have argued that Christianity has flourished, in fact, where a diversity of church forms and practices have met the needs of different social groups.

2. Relations with other religions, especially Islam, have supplanted Christian unity as a primary concern. It's not that everyone is into interfaith dialogue, but this seems to be a more pressing concern. With religiously inspired violence on the minds of everyone, the fine points of Eucharistic Doctrine seem less pressing.

Today, the greatest need for dialogue, building relationships and learning what really animates another believer seems to lie in yawning and dangerous differences between Christianity and other religions, rather than among the different Christian churches, denominations and sects.

3. With the question before us no longer being whether doctrinal boundaries are too absolute and exclusive, but rather whether the various Christian groups have any clear cut identity at all to define changes the dynamics. And the truth is, most church members have no real clue as to the differences. They choose a church on the basis of the music, the preacher, and the youth program, not on its views of the Trinity, Predestination, etc.

This anxiety about identity is most evident in a stream of conservative positions taken by Pope
Benedict XVI
, his predecessor John Paul II, and their Vatican offices. It has been easier to question the wisdom of these measures than to argue that the anxiety behind them is unwarranted.

As Steinfels points out most of the issues -- like homosexuality -- are being fought out within denominations, not between them.

Despite this seeming lack of urgency, I will pray this week that we might experience the oneness that is promised us in Christ (John 17).

1 comment:

liturgy said...

Thanks for these thought-provoking comments. Complementary to my