When I was in the seminary 25 years ago, my 20th Century Christianity class studied the ecumenical movement that experienced it’s glory days in the early 20th century. We read books about how big international conferences brought together theologians and other church leaders from around the world to talk about the unity of the church and to devise strategies for how that unity might be lived out in the church. They made grand pronouncements and issued statements that seminary students will read and study for time immemorial. I was so intrigued with these dialogues that I did independent study on the dialogues between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches in the US, beginning in the 1960’s. While still a seminary student, the 1985 pivotal dialogue on justification was completed and the statement and accompanying study papers published. As a parish pastor in a denomination that had a very narrow position on union and cooperation with other church bodies, I watched from afar with admiration as dialogues led to actual formal agreement and cooperation. Ten years ago, when I entered the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I had long admired their aggressive vision for fellowship, ambitious dialogue agenda, and subsequent agreements and statements of agreement.
While grateful for the work and agreement on the denominational level, I have at the same time held some restlessness about church body agreements that never find their way to the local parish level. Until they get lived out in the grit of St. John’s by the Gas Station, they are little more than academic exercises. I am a company man and support denominational initiatives; yet I also believe that the primary expression of the church is at the local level where God’s called people gather weekly around the gifts of God at pulpit, font, and table. And I often lament how relatively rarely the unity of the church finds expression at the congregational level. Rather than working together in any meaningful way, local congregations more often see themselves in competition with neighboring churches for a dwindling number of folks who have any interest in participating in the life of a congregation, regardless of teaching, theology, or denomination. I am shocked at the number of times I find pastors who have never even met their colleagues at congregations that stand mere blocks from their own.
That’s why I took particular joy yesterday in being part of a budding partnership between 2 Episcopalian parishes and 3 ELCA Lutheran parishes in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the western suburb of Chicago where I live and serve as pastor. Almost a year ago, the five congregations entered into conversation about how we might work together to do the work of the Kingdom more effectively and more efficiently, and more importantly, how we might live out God’s vision and Jesus’ prayer that the church be one.
Here’s what happened yesterday: pastors from the five churches left their own pulpits and tables and went to one of the partner congregations to preach and preside. I was guest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and took joy in sharing the Word and the Table with the good people of that neighboring parish.
In the broad scheme of things this is small potatoes. One might ask, “What did it accomplish, really?”
This afternoon I sat in my office when one of our members, an active member who has such a strong and generous vision of church, came into my office and said, “I think that what you did yesterday is such a good idea. It’s about time.” Yes, it’s about time. To the skeptics, yes, exchanging pulpits for a Sunday will not change the world or the church. But it sent a clear message to the members of all five congregations that we are not in competition with one another. Not one of us holds the whole truth or has a corner on the best way to do congregational ministry. We proclaimed that we will stand together before we stand alone and that we believe that we are stronger in partnership than we are as lone rangers. And we have let our members and the community know that in the future we intend to join hand in hand and live out the vision that the church be one.
Like a young man and woman trying to figure out a new relationship, there will be awkward times, messy times, and a lot of times when we don’t know what to do next or whether we’re doing the right thing at this exact moment. And there will be joy exhilaration in discovering that we are more together than we are apart.
When I told the woman in my office this afternoon that the next step is for the church councils/vestries of the five congregations to meet together for a joint meeting in March, she could hardly believe it. She asked, “Does the new church council know this?” as if it was something that could never really happen. We have a ways to go. There will be obstacles, both practical and attitudinal. And I am grateful to have colleagues and leaders who see a larger vision for the church than to sit on proximate corners in the same community as self-contained silos.