Faith and Order . . . Life and Work



This past Monday I was in St. Louis for the board meeting of the Council on Christian Unity (or CCU: Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada), the ecumenical/interreligious arm of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We held our meeting in conjunction with the National Workshop on Christian Unity. As for me, I only took in the morning session of the NWCU before going into the board meeting. From there I headed home. The morning session was something of an introduction to ecumenism, and since I've been engaged in both ecumenical and interfaith work at a local level and have read widely in the literature, this was not all that revelatory. That said, the session along with other conversations during my time in St. Louis hasn't been without value.  One thing that I've learned over the past few years, and even more since joining the board, is that interest in ecumenical work is waning. The question is why?

I titled the post "Faith and Order . . . Life and Work" to pick up on the two components of ecumenical (Christian unity) work. The work of the World Council of Churches and similar national bodies is often divided into two areas. There is "Faith and Order," which is focused on theological and liturgical issues, along with polity (governance). Back in the 1980s the Faith and Order Commission issued the "Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry" document, which was intended to help guide denominations in reconciling their sacramental and ministerial concerns. I was tasked with teaching about this document during my seminary internship. Reconciling theological -- creedal concerns also fits here. "Life and Work," on the other hand involves the hands on kinds of ministry, including advocacy, relief efforts, etc.

Once upon a time there was great interest in the "Faith and Order" side of things, but that has faded. As one of the presenters Monday morning suggested, this is the focus mostly of "ecumenical Geeks." Their numbers are decreasing. One reason for this is that we find it difficult to find common ground on such issues. Matters of church governance has often been a roadblock that isn't easily surmounted, and so there is a tendency to move on to matters that seem to have more impact. 

Thus, we move to "Life and Work." It is easier, in some ways, to work on immigration issues in the United States or dig wells in Africa than to engage in theological debate. That is not to say that "Life and Work" is easy, it just seems more rewarding. Besides for the "person in the pew" matters of theology and liturgy and governance aren't high on the list of things deemed important. There are too many other things that require our attention. 

So, do we give up on "Faith and Order"?  As a historian and a theologian, I hope we don't. I maybe one of those "ecumenical geeks," but I do think theology is related to our work as the people of God. If we can find ways of bridging the gaps that keep us from sharing the Table, that will only enhance our ability to join together in the work of God in the world. If we can better understand each other's theologies and sacraments, maybe we can show greater respect for others, whose beliefs and practices are different from our own. Then we might even be better equipped to engage with greater respect those who live outside the Christian community (wouldn't that be nice?).

Life and Work . . . Faith and Order . . . One Body in Christ! 

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