During the pandemic, when we have been unable to go to our usual places of worship, many churches of all kinds have resorted to live streaming or televised worship services. It’s easy to go to these. You can do so anonymously. You don’t have to sign up or register. And most places welcome visitors.
It’s quite a chance for us to visit churches we may not have visited before.
At one time, the Catholic Church strictly forbade Catholics from attending non-Catholic services of any kind. Those were the days when “mixed marriages” between a Catholic and a Protestant had to be celebrated in the rectory. I am not old enough to remember that time, but plenty of people have told me about it, and remarked on how much better it is today to have an attitude of ecumenical openness and friendship.
Since the Decree on Ecumenism was issued at Vatican II, numerous ecumenical affirmations by multiple church bodies have been issued over the past half-century, not to mention statements by popes and bishops. As the ecumenical movement has continued, an attitude of openness and friendship has deepened. Even though not all of the issues are resolved, and Christian unity still remains a work in progress, we are no longer afraid of being corrupted by being in the presence of one another at worship.
Attitudes of friendship and commonality are components of what is sometimes called “grassroots ecumenism.” This is different from the hard work practiced in high-level dialogue groups. It’s accomplished through simple actions on the ground, as believers work together for a better world, and pray together for God’s Kingdom to come. Although high-level dialogue is important, I daresay the grassroots impulse to ecumenism is the engine that drives the whole project. If it were not for the people who chafed at the counter-witness of divided Christianity on the ground, particularly in the missions, the ecumenical movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would probably not have been born. If nobody on the ground today really felt the need to draw closer to our neighbors across lines of historical division, the movement would falter.
But back to the present moment. During the pandemic, we have found ourselves in an objectively new situation regarding church-going. We can cross the threshold of pretty much any church we want to, without leaving our living room. What a wonderful opportunity! Perhaps you have heard about “turning crisis into opportunity”? I’m interested in developing a correlative concept: turning worship isolation into adventures in ecumenism.
On a normal Sunday, I spend a considerable amount of time going to my own church. Getting dressed and ready to go, traveling there, participating in the liturgy itself, and socializing with people afterwards… well, it takes the whole morning. I would not be surprised if this is the case for many people. I am not complaining, mind you, only noting this prosaic fact in order to observe that going to a second service someplace else in addition to this would be, let’s say, a project. Now that so many churches are holding their services on line, however, it’s easy.
Have any of you taken advantage of this situation to invest a little time in grassroots ecumenism? True confessions: I have. Now, I don’t want you to think I’ve been hopping from flower to flower, visiting every church on the virtual block (though that might have some advantages). My own adventure in ecumenism has been more limited. But it’s still worth sharing, I think.
As it happens, a good friend of mine is a Methodist minister with a background in producing television programs. She sent me the link to a service at her tiny Methodist church in England (she’s not the minister there, but has been helping to film the service) and I got hooked. I started tuning in every week, in addition to participating in a virtual Catholic Mass.
As it turns out, this simple, eighteen-minute service has become a spiritual retreat for me. It is well-paced, beautifully filmed, prayerful, and pastoral. The people themselves provide a lovely witness to faith and charity. We are invited to light a candle, listen to the Gospel, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing a hymn. All very simple stuff, but it’s put together artfully. The medium of television lends itself to intimacy, which is why the retreat metaphor occurs to me. Truth to tell, I expected to watch it once, but I’ve come back time and again. Pandemic time is a time apart, but rather than feeling isolated, I am finding new connections.
The reason I bring this up is that this has been for me a modest but real affirmation of the importance of grassroots ecumenism. Here we are, separated by an ocean, belonging to different Christian traditions, but reflecting on the same gospel readings (the common lectionary is one of the triumphs of liturgical ecumenism), responding to the same stresses of the pandemic, and facing the same challenges of being under lockdown. We share so much in common, including the most important thing: an unquenchable hope and confidence in our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The reality of a divided Church remains a real shame, yet “a real though imperfect communion” does exist among us. The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, gives encouragement to Catholics to recognize unreservedly that the reality of Christian faith extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Others can help us on our pilgrim way as long as we remain open to a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.
Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. . .
Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. (UR 4)
Finally, I would observe that grassroots ecumenism doesn’t have to be a hard road; it can present itself as a gift. Even during a pandemic.
As so many of us have been worried about the problems and challenges of our own particular communities, I wonder if there has also been some longing to reach out and be touched by those communities we know less well, yet whose Christ-light shines brightly on other shores.