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Friday, February 1, 2013

To be Open Rather than Dismissive: An Ecumenical Challenge

I am Roman Catholic.  The love of my life is Episcopalian.  I attend mass at 8:30 on Sunday mornings at my parish (which I love) where I am an acolyte and lector, and then go with her to her wonderful Episcopalian parish later in the morning.  I was not raised Roman Catholic, but was received into the church six or so years ago for reasons that I are best expressed in this post, wherein I describe why I'm a Catholic.  I'm generally reluctant to declare my status as a 'convert', not because I am ashamed that I am not a 'cradle Catholic,' but because I've come across many 'converts' to Catholicism who display a lack of charity and love to their previous traditions and who thus demonstrate a troubling dismissive attitude toward any other non-Roman tradition.

Openness & Love
I converted to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican church (the Episcopal church in the USA), but did so with a heavy heart.  I recognized that I had become theologically, ecclesiologically, and spiritually a Roman Catholic, and so, after much deliberation, prayer, and dialogue with my spouse, I made the decision to be received into the Roman church.  But I had and have a great love for the Anglican tradition.  I had and have tremendous respect for the weight of theological discourse in the Anglican tradition, and have a particular fondness for the Anglican liturgy.

So I enjoy attending an Episcopalian church each Sunday.  The liturgy is wonderful, the (now-former) rector is a top-notch homilist, the choir is terrific, and there's an intellectual curiosity and hunger amongst the parishioners that is refreshing.

That said, I've also encountered an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment from (some) parishioners.  This has ranged from virulent expressions of anger to a subtle, though equally troubling, dismissive attitude toward the Roman church, as if the Catholic church wasn't even worth engaging.

Don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of Catholics who are equally as virulent and dismissive in their attitudes toward other Christian traditions, which is just as unacceptable.  But I have found it disconcerting that some at a parish, like my wife's Episcopal parish, that prides itself on openness, on tolerance, and on love can demonstrate a lack of ecumenism and charity when it comes to the Roman Catholic church.  Moreover, when I experience this dismissive attitude, I cannot but look at the many ways I myself have been, and continue to be, dismissive and disparaging of other traditions.  And, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I can be remarkably uncharitable in my understanding, and depiction of, some Christian traditions.

There are two reasons why this comes to my mind today.  First, and to the great credit of this Episcopal parish, I have been asked to lead a class in two weeks focused specifically on clarifying and/or explaining what parishioners find most troubling about the Roman Catholic church.  I'm nervous about this, for I don't want anyone at the parish to get the idea that I'm trying to 'evangelize' or that I'm going to defend my church at all costs.  To do the former would be reprehensible and opposed to every ecumenical bone in my body.  To do the latter would be to deny reality.  I am fully aware of the many issues and problems facing the Roman Catholic church, and am not shy about discussing them.  My goal, rather, is simply to engage in ecumenical dialogue, which requires an openness on all parties toward one another, and a recognition that the other always has something valuable to contribute.

The second reason why this has come to mind has to do with an excellent post about ecumenism published yesterday by a student and friend on his blog (the full post can be found here).  He's finishing his last semester at seminary, and is engaged in some reflection about his time of study.  He writes:
"Before I entered seminary I was warned about many things.  Folks told me about the difficult writing assignments and research papers.  Former students told me that the languages would be difficult but I would manage.  Some warned me about my 'faith being shattered.'  At times my faith began to waver, or appeared to be absent.  But not because I was learning about Jesus's divinity and humanity, an issue the church has been debating since Jesus's ascension.
No, my faith wavered most when I would begin, engage in fully, and overhear conversations that mocked, belittled, and distastefully discussed other denominations of the Christian tradition.  What is ironic is that these same folks would say tasteful and uplifting things about our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu brothers and sisters and to talk about them in ways we talked about fellow Christians is/was simply not an option.  Perhaps this is an opportune time to recognize how many denominations engage in many forms of discrimination and hurtful practices.  Thus I'm not saying as Christians we are to sit idle and allow certain forms of ill-treatment happen.  Rather, this is a reflection on contemplating "speak truth in love."  I think King (another favorite progressives like to quote) mentioned and demonstrated a little something about this."
Adam, who wrote the post, was one of my traveling companions on a recent study-abroad trip I led to Kerala, India, and he mentions that his experience of ecumenical and inter-faith relations in India (as well as his frequent study of Merton) have led him to reflect on the state of such relations in the U.S.A., and particularly, in his own life:
"Merton has taught me that the greatest force to lead towards reconciliation and dialogue (another word progressives like to throw around) is not the force of denominationalism; but it is love.  It is this love we must look through before we offer up a fake prayer, criticize those who worship with hands in the air or bolted to their pews. My awareness of how my own 'snarkiness' towards other denominations grew and has grown tremendously since going to India.  There I was thrown into an environment where dialogue was a necessity; a place where people simply didn't talk about dialogue but they actually engaged in it.  It was a place where Roman Catholics and Marthomans, Evangelicals and Anglicans lived along side Hindu's and Muslims. Places, ashrams to be more precise, were as much a part of the place I visited as Elk and Moose Lodges are a part of the place I live now.  [Another 'awareness' moment:  I was in Kerala for 2 weeks; met only with churches/ashrams/centers that were practicing dialogue; but I met enough folks along the way to not recognize the arrogance I do here when it comes to denominationalism.]"
Adam's post is a refreshingly honest and self-critical reflection on what it means to be ecumenical at a time when so many of us, myself included, find it easier to dismiss and disparage than to engage with openness and love.  And it has me thinking...

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