Wies Schuiringa, NSW Regional Meeting
For almost 15 years, I have been part of the NSW Ecumenical Council and the Social Justice Network at the NCCA (National Council of Churches in Australia) as a Quaker representative. In between meetings, I have put in endless hours reading, writing and editing documents, organising committee meetings and recently, I have even written liturgical resources for use by mainstream churches. I was the least qualified or experienced person on the committee to do so, however the committee accepted what I had put together.
The Christian churches have a dreadful history in not getting on with one another. Examples of schisms, banning and burning one another, finding exquisite ways of torture, denying each other full citizenship, shunning, and families torn apart are aplenty, and the list goes on. Much blood has flown and many souls thrown into hell. What would the western history lessons consist of if it were not for all these feuds and wars? Power and control over people, property and land by the churches were often dressed up as defending the true Christian faith by one group against another. From before the Crusades till the “Irish troubles” of our times, we’ve been at it. The Christian message is so different. The New Testament has many verses instructing the followers to be one in Christ. I know that the bible can be used to justify all sorts of outdated or abhorrent behaviours by individuals or authorities. However, when one considers how the new Church was to constitute itself, nowhere does it imply that the Church was to split itself into innumerable branches and that warfare and cruelty was the best way to settle differences.
The World Council of Churches was established in 1948. In 1952, at a gathering in Lund, in the south of Sweden the “Lund principle” was formed: “The implication of our confessed unity in Christ, beneath and above our divisions, is that we should do together everything except what irreconcilable difference of sincere conviction compels us to do separately.” Around the world, ecumenical councils were formed. After the second Vatican Council in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church also opened itself to the ecumenical movement.
In our own recent history, the social distancing and shunning between the Christian churches was the accepted norm. Last year, the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Sydney launched together an ecumenical study booklet The gift of one another, and one joked that in his childhood he had only been close the other’s church when they were throwing stones on the other’s buildings. It is unlikely that their families would have reprimanded them for doing this. My own childhood in the north of the Netherlands was not much different. In western countries, the open feuding and warfare between the Christian churches has stopped, but how far are we on the ecumenical journey? How deeply do the churches consider and recognise that they are on one Christian journey? This does not mean that all churches need to become the same in all their beliefs and rituals, but that is there a fundamental one-ness. Ray Williamson in his book Pilgrims of Hope – an ecumenical journey 1980 – 2010 is ambivalent about how far we have really come. The title indicates that the ecumenical journey is motivated by hope for the journey. He describes many instances when a deeper theological understanding seemed to have been reached that dissipates in the following years. Often the different personalities of church leaders make a difference for the better or not. (Ray’s book is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.) During ecumenical meetings it is clear what can be discussed and what are “irreconcilable difference of sincere conviction” such as the role of women in the church, same sex relationships, matters of the beginning and end of human life. Nevertheless, many other matters can be discussed such as the desire to be together and work closely together, organise events such as services with a brother from Taizé in France, advocacy and care for refugees, reconciliation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, overseas aid projects, and social justice forums.
The Australian Advices and Queries number 19 says: “Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
My experience in the ecumenical circles has been enriching. I know that my spiritual and Christian understanding is not where the other representatives are at. I am a definite outlier and fully accepted. The other representatives are much closer to each other in content and expression of their faith such as their prayers, their understanding of the Bible, how they express themselves in Christian language. I have gained an understanding of their common faith and have used this in the compiling of the liturgical resource. However, the distinct history of each church, the long and slippery road to the top of the hierarchy, the acquisition of property, power and influence might all determine that at an organisational level, the churches can only come together up to a certain point. It might not be the “the irreconcilable difference of sincere conviction” of the Lund Principle that determines the ecumenical journey. It may also be the secular status of each church in society and having one’s own flock. At my level of involvement we are doing “together everything” and getting on with creating peace in the Christian community.