Friday, May 26, 2017

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

"That would be an ecumenical matter."

During the three year run of the venerable Irish comedy Father Ted, viewers around the world watched the exploits of three priests serving a small Roman Catholic parish on bedraggled Craggy Island.  Quite readily, viewers learn why these three priests are serving together.  Essentially, the Bishop exiled them to a place where they could not get into any more trouble than they had caused previously.

In one of my favorite episodes, the Vatican sends envoys to review the possible miracle of a certain holy relic on the island.  Father Ted and Father Dougal (the middle-aged and young priest of the household) quickly realize they have an issue.  How will the cantankerous, slovenly and erratic old Father Jack possibly be ready to meet the special visitors?   After all, he sits in his chair (mostly), sleeps, grunts and drinks (or sleeps and grunts in his sleep after passing out from too much drink). 

The barely verbal Father Jack is coached little by little to remember how to say socially acceptable phrases.  Eventually, Father Ted tries to help Father Jack learn a phrase that would please the bishops but not require Father Jack to remember much more than that.  They land on the phrase "That would be an ecumenical matter", which Ted observes is just enough to imply you are interested or are able to follow some arcane theological discussion some priests like to indulge in.  Just respond with that phrase, he has learned, and others will consider you profound and wise. 

(And hopefully leave you alone!)

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist tradition has eschewed hierarchy and high structure.  Nonetheless, many Baptists around the world recognize their love of local church autonomy can lead to isolation and missed opportunities for mutual collaboration and encouragement.  While Baptists vary (cf. the "Heinz 57" ingredient list like nature of Baptists just in the United States!), we have local churches who are often relating to churches elsewhere of similar faith and order or common ground ministry and mission goals.

Saying "that would be an ecumenical matter" holds some amusing resonance when attending Baptist organizational meetings.  While low in structure and lines of authority, Baptist inter-church fellowships (Associations, denominations, networks, etc.) can be a great gathering of different and divergent voices, people gathering around common affinities for mission and ministry more than events listed on "the official program" for plenary sessions, etc.  Nonetheless, when such gatherings have discussions traveling down less engaging pathways of discussion, I think of old Father Jack grunting, "That would be an ecumenical matter."

(And for the record, Father Ted's advice translates well in my own context!)

I am quite pleased with a recent article from Dr. Neville Callum, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.  A pastor and scholar, Dr. Callum's writings on the Baptist movement and particularly the large network of Baptists embodied in the BWA are always a welcome discovery when he publishes in a journal or online posting.  Recently, Dr Callum shared a word about Baptists and connecting together:

"From as early as 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in England stated in the celebrated Article 47 of what has come to be called the "First London Confession of Faith" that "Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, everyone as a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needful affaires; of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head."

Eight years later, the Abingdon Association in England affirmed the urgent need of Baptist churches "to hold firm communion with each other."

Over the years, churches existing in close geographical proximity have affirmed their inter-relationship and have developed patterns of cooperation deriving from their fellowship.
This has happened trans-locally in regions and nations and, with the passage of time, internationally, both at the continental and the worldwide levels.

More reflection needs to be given to the precise nature and meaning, not simply the purpose, of Baptists associating at the global level.

Baptist interdependency is capable of bearing the burden of the associational obligation that celebrated Baptist historian William Brackney had in mind when, writing about associations, he emphasized the need for Baptists "to learn again how to wrestle in love with difficult issues and to celebrate one another's successes and bear one another's burdens."


In his essay linked above, Dr. Callum notes the shortcomings of Baptist connections and the need for revisiting the nature of what we take for granted as the current form for those relationships and any implications they may have among Baptist bodies around the world.  He reminds that even in our efforts to be radical Reformers, we are still part of "Church".  

We have a "church" minded ecclesiology, yet that lowercase "c" is as much part of our theological heritage as it can be an impediment to following Christ's High Priestly prayer often cited in ecumenical circles, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  (John 17:21).

With such a prayer, it is indeed always "an ecumenical matter."

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