In 1996, when my family moved into our newly built house in Abbotsford, we threw a thank you party for the people who had graciously helped construct our house. Many of the builders were in the congregation where I had just begun pastoring, and shared my Dutch-German-Russian (DGR) ethnicity.
(In North America, many people wrongly name DGR ethnicity “Mennonite.” I say ‘wrongly’ because the vast majority of the world’s Mennonites have never lived in or had any ancestors from Europe.)
One of our guests was my next-door neighbour; he had volunteered as site-watchman and occasional Bobcat operator while the house went up—and he was not of DGR background. I wondered whether he would feel like an excluded outsider, surrounded by German- and Low German-speaking people. While everyone was milling around and enjoying M’s bakings and coffee, I began introducing my neighbour to some of the guests. I heard myself introducing that guest as being from Russia, this one from Paraguay, another from Brazil, one as Canadian, another from Bolivia or Argentina, that one from Germany, and so on. As my neighbour discovered from how many countries these workers came, his eyes lit up. Rather than being put-off by meeting people of all one ethnicity, he seemed impressed by the diversity represented by this group of church-friends.
I was struck by the realization that people from the larger community are impressed when the church is characterized by diversity. And not only by diversity, but by diversity united.
During the past seven years, I have had the privilege of being on week-long spiritual retreats in contexts that at first felt foreign to me: Loyola House (Jesuits) near Guelph, Ontario; St. Benedict’s on the Red (Benedictine sisters near Winnipeg, Manitoba; and the Taizé Community (Protestant origins) near Cluny, France. In each place, I met people who love Jesus, are seeking to follow him, take the scriptures seriously as a guide for life and faith, and want others to know Jesus too. During a 24-hour retreat at Westminster Abbey (Benedictine brothers) in Mission, BC, the preacher during the Mass emphasized first the importance of loving Jesus from the heart (where mind and passions meet; Romans 10:9-18), and then that God calls every Christian to leave their usual places of security in order to follow only Jesus into God’s mission for the world (Matthew 4:18-22).
Through experiences such as these, I’m discovering how much I have in common with Christians in many different places and denominations.
As a Christian with deep Mennonite Brethren roots, I recognize that Mennonite Brethren have at times acted as a sect (“we’re God’s chosen few, the set-apart ones, called out to be separate”), and at other times as a church (“everyone who is born into our community belongs; ethnicity is trump”). To be a denomination, on the other hand, Mennonite Brethren recognize that they are only one family among many in the much larger clan of God’s people. It’s with that perspective in mind, that Brother Roger (the founder of the Taizé Community) advocated and modeled an exchange of gifts between the major Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox)—without compelling people to ‘convert’ from one tradition to another.
These various experiences—moving into a new house, being on retreat in new settings, reviewing my denomination’s history—prompt me to ask the Christians in the circles where I live, “Are we serious about Christian unity? When we sing songs such as ‘Bind Us Together,’ ‘We Are One in the Spirit’ or ‘We are One in the Bonds of Love,’ do we only picture our unity as being with people like ourselves, or do we desire and celebrate our unity with the whole colourful spectrum of God’s people?”
Last week, I attended a lecture series at St. Paul’s College, Winnipeg featuring Dr. Catherine Clifford from Ottawa. Clifford said that the Catholic Church—since Vatican II and especially under Pope Francis—no longer expects all Christians to return to the Catholic Church, but instead recognizes God’s work and presence in other churches.
One participant asked Clifford how to sustain dialogue between various Christian groups. She emphasized that God’s people need to be reconciled, so that they can be better witnesses of Christ in the world. She went on to observe that too many churches are focused inwardly; whereas the goal of a truly pastoral minister is not to fill pews each Sunday, but to empower people to get out of the pews and be a witness to Christ in the world all week long. Unity between Christians is essential for strengthening their witness.
Clifford’s closing sentence was, “It’s a contradiction in terms to say I’m a Christian and don’t care about Christian unity.”
I’ve not heard that claim made so boldly before!
In Jesus’ longest recorded prayer, he prayed,
The glory that you [Father] have given me I have given [those who will believe in me], so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:22-23).
Among those of us who identify with Christ—who consider ourselves Christian—I’m questioning whether we take seriously enough the connection between Christian unity and our witness to the Good News of Jesus.
Do we care about Jesus’ desire?
For additional reading:
- http://imeslebanon.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/unity-a-sore-spot/ (a helpful perspective on unity and mission—from Lebanon)
- historian Richard Kyle’s book From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History. Elaborates on Mennonite Brethren having variously been sect, church and denomination.