Vatican II, Ecumenism and Talking Heads

Whenever we fly to Europe for Wittenberg meetings or Antioch gatherings, I find myself singing this old Talking Heads tune, with modified lyrics.

You may find yourself in another part of the world,
You may find yourself in a beautiful Church, with beautiful saints,
And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

For the past three years we Cogdells have met with a remarkable group of spiritual mothers and fathers for the purpose of prayer, reflection and repentance. We grieve over historical sins which have divided Christ’s Church as well as those sins which continue to cause pain and division. We ask God for healing.  It is a pretty lofty vision for a couple of lay people from Texas.  Some might even think it presumptuous.  Certainly, we do not wish to overstep our boundaries.  Wittenberg 2017 is not an official movement of any denomination.  We do not participate in formal ecumenical dialogues.  Rather, Wittenberg 2017 is prayer movement comprised of clergy and lay people, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals and Jewish disciples of Yeshua.

Paying with friends from the Antioch Network in  a chapel of Luther's church in Wittenberg

Paying with friends from the Antioch Network in  a chapel of Luther's church in Wittenberg

Recently I read this passage from Fr. Peter Hocken’s  latest book, Pentecost and Parousia, which gives me great hope for the work of Wittenberg 2017.

At the Second Vatican Council, in its decree on ecumenism the Catholic Church officially embraced the ecumenical movement in its goal of restoring the full visible unity of the one body of Jesus Christ: “Today, in many parts of the world, under the influence of the grace of the Holy Spirit, many efforts are being made in prayer, word and action to attain that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires. This sacred council, therefore, exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4.)

Perhaps my favorite quote from Vatican II’s statement on ecumenism is this: “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion.”   

I love this recognition that disunity cannot be addressed solely through theological dialogue.  Christian division carries a long history of sin and pain. It is one thing to disagree about matters of Church hierarchy or nuances of doctrine; it is quite another to run your brother out of town or burn him at the stake.  We may think those dark days of persecution have been buried in the past, but I have come to believe that historical sins will continue to haunt us until they are brought to the light for repentance.  It is true we have come a long way, but we are still subject to ignorance, to arrogance, to the hurt of exclusion or misunderstanding. This is true for every Christian tradition.  And if we dig deep, I suspect many of us discover resentment or distrust springing from the injustices suffered by our ancestors.

Doctrinal argument cannot heal the wounds of the heart. Only God can work this miracle. Unless we draw close to our Father, we fail to recognize our brotherhood with others.  If we do not walk in the light of Christ, we cannot see with His eyes. Until we live in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, we tend to act defensively toward others. Without recognizing the depth of forgiveness we have received, it is difficult to extend mercy, or to grieve our own offenses.

In my mind, this call to interior conversion goes hand in hand with the council’s exhortation to the laity “to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.” If conversion is necessary for unity, conversion must permeate the entire Body of Christ; it cannot be a top-down mandate.  Certainly, good leadership is helpful. But ultimately, we will see full unity only when every member of the Body is performing its unique function, serving the other members with grace and honor and order.

Some say we will never see unity before Christ returns.  They may be right. We are all immature when we come to Jesus.  Conversion takes time. Our wounds are deep, our differences not easily resolved. Yet, just before His passion, our Lord prayed this prayer, knowing we would struggle with division, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:20-21) I believe we honor Jesus when make His prayer our prayer, our hope, and our work.

So we set of to Europe once again, praying our small efforts will bring glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

(and now I hear the chorus to that old song - same as it ever was,  same as it ever was)