The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity continues to be marked in parishes and congregations throughout Ireland and the world. Richard Clarke, the Anglican Bishop of Meath & Kildare, speaking at events in Belfast and Armagh, has been making a case for risky rather than comfortable ecumenism.
Interestingly enough, you wouldn’t have picked up on the riskiness of Clarke’s messages if you had only read the report about his Armagh address in Thursday’s Irish News. With the headline ‘Show pastoral care for all, bishop urges,’ the article quoted Clarke’s words about ‘pastoral care’:
There is another step that we should be able to take structurally as well as haphazardly – pastoral care of others in the name of Christ. The pastoral care of God’s people – and by that I mean all God’s people, both inside and outside the man-made walls of the institutional Church – should never be restricted in any way.
That all sounds very fine and good. And given the recent re-launch of this blog with the tagline Building a Church Without Walls, I had to smile at his reference to the ‘man-made walls of the institutional church.’
But the report left me wondering what Clarke meant by pastoral care. It could be construed simply as being nice to each other, especially since his reference to embedding pastoral care ‘structurally’ into ecumenical relationships seems to get lost.
The vagueness of the Irish News report prompted me to search on-line for more details about Clarke’s sermon. A Church of Ireland press release had a fuller version, one that placed more emphasis than the Irish News story on Clarke’s call for ‘greater ecumenism in baptism and Bible study.’
Greater ecumenism in baptism is an idea that has been floating around for awhile, for instance it was recommended in a 2008 article in Doctrine and Life by my colleague at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dr Andrew Pierce.
Clarke explains it this way:
‘…Virtually all the Christian traditions that have a sacramental tradition recognise the baptism of other traditions as being baptism into the One Body of Christ, and hence something which transcends the limitations of our own particular tradition of the Church … Would a statement of the deepest of all unity not be made if at the celebration of baptism in one particular tradition (in other words even on occasions where we were not speaking of parents belonging to different traditions), members of other Christian traditions were there by proper and official invitation to celebrate the event, representing the wider Church, so that the reality of the entire Body of Christ was symbolised in the celebration? It clearly could not be a feature of every baptism in every church building, but if we believe (as indeed we claim to believe in our creeds) in One Baptism, here is an opportunity to proclaim a unity that we already have in Christ.
Pierce has been more explicit in saying that baptisms could rotate around the churches in local areas: i.e. people of all traditions could be baptised in the Catholic church one month, the Church of Ireland the next, then the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and so on in all the churches which were willing to share in this sacrament.
This is more than simply inviting people from other Christian traditions along. It is all Christian traditions deciding together that they will celebrate baptisms together. I don’t know of any place in Ireland where this has happened yet. This may be a risk too far, perhaps.
I also found extracts from Clarke’s address in Belfast, where he called on Christians to move beyond a ‘safe’ ecumenism:
‘An ecumenism that is wholly safe is not ecumenism at all – it may be good manners but can be nothing more. We are all, in our own way and through our baptism, called to defend the Church of God. We are not, however, called to be the Church’s jailers.’
In this address Clarke said that Christians must be open to being changed by others. The willingness to be changed (rather than to convert others to our point of view) is what makes it risky, as personal change is almost always challenging – as is learning to respect those who are different from ourselves.
To that end, Clarke recommends a dialogue of respectful listening. This is not a sham dialogue in which we assume our way is the only right way and our sole purpose is to unthinkingly parrot what we believe to be ‘our’ church’s position on every matter. Clarke said:
‘Part of what we must set our hearts and minds to, if we truly believe in the ecumenical adventure, is setting ourselves to listen to one another intently, rather than judgmentally. What we are talking about is an openness to the ideas of others that does not merely wish to correct them. In short, a willingness to be changed, perhaps radically, by what we are hearing … We must listen intelligently and attentively to views that seem alien and even less than acceptable to the preconceptions we cherish so carefully.’
Amen to that.