Monday, August 31, 2009

World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission

A little over a month from now (October 7-13) I will be participating in the plenary meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at the Orthodox Academy of Crete near Chania, Greece, representing the Baptist World Alliance. Several posts between now and then will provide information about the work of the WCC Faith and Order Commission and the specific projects on which we will be working during the Crete meeting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Moltmann on ecumenism revisted

In a comment on a previous post on Jürgen Moltmann's reflections on the modern ecumenical movement, Stefanie Riley--a student at Campbell University Divinity School serving on the ministerial staff of the First Baptist Church of Wilmington, NC--posed a question I thought worth pulling into a main post. Stefanie's question concerned

"...one of the church's greatest fears in engaging in ecumenical dialogue: 'How do we maintain our own identity through our distinct heritage if we are compelled to accept the approaches utilized in other traditions as valid?' I would be interested to think further on the differences between the concepts of 'tradition or heritage' and that of 'origin'."

To which I replied:

It's possible to associate "tradition or heritage" with a commitment to remain in continuity with it and "origin" with a point of departure with which one doesn't necessarily maintain ongoing connections. But rather than thinking about ecumenical dialogue as something that makes us "compelled to accept the approaches utilized in other traditions as valid," I prefer to think of it as an opportunity for two things: first, for an earnest contestation of the faith in which all parties care enough about the truth disclosed in Jesus Christ that they are willing to contest their different understandings of it en route to a clarification that enables greater unity in the truth; and second, for an exchange of ecclesial gifts in which our tradition/heritage/orgin is seen as something that has preserved some aspect of the catholicity of the church that the rest of the church needs in order to be fully catholic, and at the same time is seen as our standpoint within the whole church from which we are able to receive the aspects of the church's catholicity that have been preserved in other traditions.

Stefanie is attending a Theological Conversation with Jürgen Moltmann conference next month, after which maybe she'll be able to share with us Moltmann's response to her question.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A non-Baptist (though a McClendon lower-case "b" "baptist") perspective on Baptists and ecumenism

In response to my previous post on the ecumenical theology of John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), Andy Black, a Baptist Ph.D. student in theology at the University of Dayton, sent me the following quotation from Yoder's article "A Non-Baptist View of Southern Baptists," published in 1970 in the journal Review and Expositor (for which, for what it's worth, I served for a time as associate editor, though not in 1970!):

"My hope for the Southern Baptists is that there should be no diminution of the commitment to the genuinely theological distinctive positions of their tradition, but that these distinctives might become no longer simply the accreditation for an independent existence. Rather that they should be the substance of a witness to Christians of other convictions and the instruments of internal self-criticism and renewal. If the mood in which distinctives are dealt with is one of ecumenical sharing rather than the shoring up of one’s separateness, then ways will be found to express them not in naïve oversimplification but in the kind of reformulation whose relevance to the contemporary scene would be evident" (p. 225).

While Yoder had Southern Baptists in particular in mind in this piece, his hope is applicable to all sorts of Baptists--upper and lower case alike--and anticipates by decades the recent calls for a re-confessionalizing of ecumenical dialogue. (Thanks, Andy!)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reports and agreed statements from ecumenical dialogues



A comment on my last post inquired about ideas for concrete forms of grassroots ecumenical engagement. In one of the chapters of my forthcoming book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity, I suggest that the ministers and members of neighboring local churches of different denominations that have been in official ecumenical dialogue with one another at the national or international levels could gather to study and discuss the reports of those dialogues together. One contributor to the current ecumenical impasse has been the fact that the members, and frequently also the ministers, of local churches know nothing of the convergences and agreements that have been reached at the international level between their own denomination and other churches. The concrete action of gathering to consider the implications of these reports for how local congregations relate to one another would go a long way toward rectifying that.

The most extensive collection of such international reports is the Growth in Agreement series published in association with the World Council of Churches: Growth in Agreement, Growth in Agreement II, and Growth in Agreement III. Some of these texts are also available online; one source for these is a list of links to interconfessional dialogue reports maintained by the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. In a previous post I provided links to reports from the international dialogues in which my own world Christian communion, the Baptist World Alliance, has been involved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

John Howard Yoder on the ecumenical potential of "gathered church" ecclesiologies

I've been working with the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's book The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical in connection with preparation for an upcoming paper presentation. Among several gems I've encountered therein are a couple of passages in which Yoder points to the unrealized potential of the "gathered church" ecclesiologies of the believers' church tradition for contributing to the quest for visible Christian unity:

"This view gives more, not less, weight to ecumenical gatherings. The 'high' views of ordered churchdom can legitimate the worship of a General Assembly or a study conference only by stretching the rules, for its rules do not foresee ad hoc 'churches'; only thoroughgoing congregationalism fulfills its hopes and definities whenever and wherever it sees 'church' happen" (p. 236).

"The locus of visibility of most Christians is where they live and go to church. Therefore, the most important locus of concern for unity to be visible should be on the home level, in the relationship between Christians across the back fence, or in the same school district, or between neighboring congregations of different confessions" (pp. 297-98).

Inasmuch as a major contributor to the current ecumenical impasse has been the focus on dialogue between official representatives of world Christian communions (which tends to privilege churches of non-congregational ecclesiologies) to the neglect of local grassroots ecumenical engagement, Yoder may have been on to a way in which the churches of the free church tradition can make substantial contributions to the modern ecumenical movement through their unapologetic involvement in it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jürgen Moltmann on Faith & Order Ecumenism

This summer I enjoyed reading Jürgen Moltmann's autobiography A Broad Place. Moltmann too is a theologian who in his own way has sought to do theology "in, with, and for the church":

"Because I did not grow up in a church, the church was not for me a matter of course. As pastor, too, I tried to answer the question, What is the church, and what is it there for?" (p. 202).

I was especially interested in a section in which Moltmann recounts and reflects on his involvement in the ecumenical movement as a member of the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order from 1963 to 1983. Moltmann's musings lend support to the recent calls of some ecumenists for a "re-confessionalizing" of ecumenical encounter as a somewhat counterintuitive way forward:

"[T]he ecumenical unity of the many churches is not effected by way of bi-lateral or multi-lateral negotiations but rather when every church traces its own tradition back to its foundations, and in those foundations finds the traditio dei, which is common to all....Yet this advice to return ad fontes, though theologically correct, naturally often means that in one's own church one swims against the tide" (p. 86).

"The programme of 'reconciled difference'...became the sleeping pill of the ecumenical movement. We all stay as we are and are nice to each other" (p. 86).

"The outcome of my ecumenical participation, as I willingly confess, is this: my origin is Reformed--my future is ecumenical!" (p. 87).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Christian Reflection Prayer issue

In a previous post I mentioned the current issue of Christian Reflection in which my article "Learning to Pray" appeared. Now I've had a chance to read the whole issue, which I think is one of the best issues the Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics has produced thus far (my article notwithstanding). Here's editor Robert Kruschwitz's overview of the main articles in this issue on "Prayer":

"The practice of prayer can be 'the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling...that burning preoccupation with myself,' notes Merold Westphal. Our contributors explore how faithful prayer opens us to God's gracious activity and forms us in Christ-like ways of perceiving, caring for, and acting in the world.

Paul Griffiths reflects on the scriptural injunction to 'pray without ceasing,' to make every aspect of our lives a prayer. Steven Harmon shows we can learn much about prayer, and the God to whom we pray, from ancient Church practices of the 'collect' form of prayer and singing the Psalter. Ruth Haley Barton heartily commends fixed-hour prayer, for it 'anchors our daily lives in rhythms of prayer, Scripture reading, and silence, ensuring that we do not get too far into any day without reorienting ourselves to the presence of God.'

Do prayers affect God and change the world? 'To embrace prayer as a force for change,' Todd Edmondson writes, 'we must stop thinking of it as just a human action' and 're-envision prayer as a relationship involving God, the world God has created, and the Church.'"

In addition, the issue includes meditations on Christian art depicting prayer by Baylor University art historian Heidi Hornik; a moving pastoral meditation on "Prayer in Eclipse" by Ken Massey, pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC; and an article reviewing recent books on the Lord's Prayer by John Inscore Essick, my former student at Campbell University Divinity School who is now Assistant Professor of Church History at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

The issue in its entirety as well as the individual articles are available for download as PDF files from the Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics web site. It's rewarding reading.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"The Church Still Needs Baptists"--article in Baptists Today

The August 2009 issue of Baptists Today includes my guest commentary "The Church Still Needs Baptists" (p. 28). Here's a snippet from the lead:

"During the past several years, my work as a Baptist theologian has focused on ecumenical theology--theology that serves the quest for the visible unity of the church.

In connection with that I have given much attention to helping Baptists be critical enough of the shortcomings of our own tradition that we can appreciate and receive the gifts other churches have to offer. But during this year's quadricentennial celebration of Baptist life, I'm finding myself thinking more and more about why it's important to the rest of the church that there continue to be Baptists within it."

If you don't subscribe to Baptists Today or otherwise have access to it through church or library, this issue will be available as a PDF file on the Public Back Issues page of the Baptists Today web site--in about five months. I'll post a link here when it's posted there.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Baptist commemoration of the saints

In a chapter on worship in my book Towards Baptist Catholicity, I commended a Baptist practice of commemorating the lives of exemplary Christians as a means of ensuring that worship is a truly participatory rehearsal of the biblical story of the Triune God, one in which the divine narrative is intertwined with the stories of the members of the communion of saints, including those within and those beyond the local worshipping church:

"Though lacking the formal canonization process that is prerequisite for inclusion in the modern Roman Catholic sanctoral, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran Book of Worship, and some other Protestant books of worship have included calendars with commemoration days for saints ancient and modern, including more recent figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. If Baptist historians were to propose additional exemplary Christians from the Baptist tradition to add to such calendars in producing a sanctoral that is both distinctively Baptist and broadly ecumenical, Baptist congregations might be able to include in their own weekly worship a few moments for telling the stories of men and women who have provided worthy examples of lives lived in the service of God and humanity....The late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. offered seminal suggestions for incorporating the lives of the saints into Baptist worship in an appendix to his groundbreaking study in narrative theology Biography as Theology. In this treatment of “Christian Worship and the Saints,” McClendon developed a theology of the relation of the departed among the communio sanctorum to the worship of the earthly church that is both consistent with the “baptist” vision and yet broadly catholic. On the basis of these guiding theological principles, McClendon advocated a “baptist” retrieval of the veneration (in the sense of honoring, not worshipping) of the saints in the worship and educational programs of congregations. McClendon’s suggestions are the starting point for future Baptist attempts to recover the patristic practice of the commemoration of the saints for contemporary Baptist worship." (Towards Baptist Catholicity, pp. 170-71).

On July 30, the Baptist World Alliance held a worship service commemorating the formation of the first Baptist church in 1609 in Amsterdam. The service, held at the United Mennonite Church of Amsterdam with which the earliest Baptist community there had close associations and which stands near the site of the Baptists' first meeting place, included an extended litany that did precisely the sort of thing that I (and Jim McClendon, too, I think) envisioned. The order of service is downloadable here; the photo from the service at the beginning of this post is courtesy of Tony Cartledge, whose blog offers a first-hand account of the service.

The litany, which is printed on pp. 4-5 of the order of service, commemorates these representative saints for their contributions to four centuries of Baptist life: Menno Simons, John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Clarke, John Myles, Frank Spence, George Liele, William Hamilton, Hannah Marshman, William Carey, Samuel Pearce, Joseph Merrick, John Aseltine, Manuel and Justina Pedras, Mark Hayford, Thomas Bowen, Antonio Teieira de Albuquerque, Diego Thompson, Guillermo Bagby, Guillermo McDonald, Samuel Sharpe, Thomas Burchell, William Knibb, John and Sally Leland, Elizabeth Gaunt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Saunders, Pablo Besson, and Eurico Nelson. In addition, the litanity includes those saints sine nomine whose contributions to the living tradition of Baptist faith and practice are indispensable: "the women and men who have served as lay preachers and pastors, elders, deacons and deaconesses, Sunday School teachers and caretakers, and youth and community group leaders"; "teachers and students in our colleges and seminaries who seek to serve the church of the future"; and "members of our churches and congregations who live out the story in hope and in fear, in safety and in danger."

The Baptist World Alliance has encouraged local Baptist churches to use this litany in their own commemorations of this quadricentennial of Baptist life. I hope Baptist readers of this blog who have a role in planning worship in their own congregations will not only utilize this resource, but take it as a starting place for envisioning other ways in which the stories of exemplary Christians might enrich our participatory rehearsal of the biblical story of the Triune God.

Related posts:

More on Baptist commemoration of the saints

Towards a Baptist commemoration of the saints

The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

A Baptist commemoration of the saints