All in the Family

"Resolutions acknowledging the Catholic Church as part of the body of Christ, and calling for continuing study of those practices which first divided us were approved, as was a resolution of invitation to invite the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to join in studies leading to possible future affirmation of one another's baptisms."
-- 213th General Assembly News (June 13, 2001)

Is the ecumenical movement dead? Are changes in focus and internal concerns in the so-called “mainline” churches like the Presbyterian Church (U.S A.) stifling interest and activity in response to the prayer of Jesus “that they may all be one” (John 17:21)? Is the seemingly more conservative stand of the Roman Catholic church’s leadership these days affecting inter-religious dialogue?

I’m very interested in the continuation of religious conversations which bridge divisions and differences among the churches. I can remember the heady days after the monumental council convened by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960’s (Vatican II) which did indeed change not only the face of the Roman Catholic Church but altered its public stance towards Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches. Who of my generation can forget the constructive outreach to “separated brethren”(as we were called then) by Augustin Cardinal Bea, S. J. and Fr. John Courtney Murray, S. J.?

After World War II the church council movement flourished, and previously divided parts of Protestantism began to seek a unity which had previously evaded them. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others have buried theological and political hatchets and formed larger (some would say, declining) national churches. It’s been encouraging to see previously divided members of the Protestant community formally recognizing each other’s baptisms and moving together to the Lord’s Table.

The PC(USA) has an agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which allows a minister of one to serve the other. A case in point is the Church of the Covenant in Grafton, W.Va., whose ELCA pastor serves a congregation made up of Presbyterians and Lutherans. Sara Lee, a Lutheran pastor, was recently seated as a member of West Virginia Presbytery.

But where are we headed? To be honest, I am not sure.

I would like to focus on some encouraging directions.

First, there is among many churches a wide interest in, and use of, the Common Lectionary. The collection of Scripture texts is used (with some denominational variations) during worship in many churches these days. Some Outlook readers were witnesses to the growth of an earlier Protestant Scripture resource called the “Uniform Lesson Series”, which provided, over a several year period, Sunday School lesson texts covering much of the Bible. A wide range of denominations approved it. It is still going strong after generations of service. The Outlook carries James Price’s commentary on these lessons in each issue. The Lectionary may have weaknesses which scholars are quick to point out, but this coming Sunday, in both Catholic and Protestant churches there’s a high possibility that pastors and lay people will read from similar biblical sources. Often these readings will be from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, now acceptable for reading in a variety of communions, including the Roman Catholic Church.

That, in my view, is a positive step.

Next, I would like to mention sacred music, and in particular, hymns. One bright Sunday morning my wife and I attended church in two places. My wife, Bridget, is a 50-year-plus member of Sacred Heart Catholic Co-Cathedral in Charleston, so we went there. Then, we crossed the street to First Presbyterian Church, the largest congregation of our denomination in West Virginia. Despite the considerable differences in worship style and theological emphasis, we were able to smile at the hymn choices and sing them enthusiastically. The same opening hymn was used both places, namely, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” Same words. Same tune. At the Catholic church other hymns came from distinctly Protestant sources. At the Presbyterian church the choir sang, in Latin (!) a portion of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem.” The concluding hymn was a spiritual from the African-American tradition. Those are a few examples of musical sharing and commonality. Is it true that often our sung faith is our true faith?

I see that mutual sharing of music and hymnody as a second positive step.

Finally, I’d like to mention Scripture study. In June, Bridget and I traveled up to the Bishop Hodges Pastoral Center in Huttonsville to attend the annual Ecumenical Scripture Workshop. There, Bible students of many communions gathered in an open and accepting community to hear presentations by two scholars. One, Addison Wright, S.S., is a Catholic theological professor. The other is Benjamin Johnson, a pastor and Bible college president who is a Lutheran (ELCA). This workshop is no flash-in-the-pan, since it has continued for more than 30 years, and is attended, at very modest cost, by some who have participated over that entire period. I first attended in 1981.

Surely, joint study of our scriptural heritage will draw us closer.

Those are just three examples of progress in the interfaith conversation. There are still great differences between the churches which make up the Christian family. Some are cultural and arise from our various national backgrounds. Others are theological, and have developed during centuries of hostility and mutual condemnation. There are those who would say that their church is the One True Church. Others might gently disagree.

If a family continues to converse, to study and to sing together, something good surely will happen. I am convinced of it. I believe that other dialogues, some already occurring, with much more diverse religious bodies will bear fruit, if we could but learn each other’s songs.

Posted Nov. 14, 2001

This article previously appeared in a different form in the Charleston, W.Va., Sunday Gazette Mail.

Lawton W. Poseyis a retired Presbyterian minister living in Charleston, W.Va.

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