Why can’t we all just get along?!
By Katye Dunn
That’s the question Christians and non-Christians alike often ask when we look at all the denominations that exist within Christianity today. And as United Methodists, we know about these struggles all too well as our denomination currently wrestles over issues concerning the marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons.
Questions of Christian unity—how we can work together to overcome differences and continue to be in conversation and relationship even when differences can’t be overcome—are at the heart of the ecumenical movement. From September 2016 to January 2017 I had the privilege of representing the United Methodist Church as a student at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland. The Institute, which is a part of the World Council of Churches, brings together pastors and church leaders from different Christian denominations—Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox—from all over the world to spend five months living, studying, worshipping and praying together as we seek a way toward unity.
My time at the Ecumenical Institute opened my heart and mind, shaping and challenging me as I make a path for myself within the Arkansas Annual Conference and the United Methodist Church. My experiences there brought home one point over and over again:
When “unity” means everyone should believe and worship like me, we are doomed to fail.
As we studied the history of the ecumenical movement, we learned that for the first few decades, its approach to unity was unity in uniformity. The goal was to return to a time when all Christians believed and worshipped the same way—but the truth is that such a time never existed.
Followers of Jesus have always had a variety of differing beliefs and styles of worship. We see this in the Gospels and even more clearly in the letters of Paul, as he wrote about how to handle disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians. And in every city where Christianity developed as it spread across the world, worship took on different styles of liturgy and music depending on the culture.
This notion of unity as uniformity was doomed to fail. It also doesn’t make sense theologically. We worship God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We profess that the three persons of the Trinity, although each unique, are one God. God’s very Self is unity in diversity, not uniformity. The ecumenical movement has taken this approach for the past several decades, with great success. We celebrate one another in all our diversity, because it reveals to us the nature of the God we worship and serve. We teach and learn from one another, because through our conversation our vision of God becomes richer and fuller, not watered down or muted.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote in a sermon on having an ecumenical spirit: “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
Students at Bossey spoke different languages. We came from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. We represented different denominations. And those differences didn’t disappear when came together to pray and work for unity. On the contrary, we brought all those differences to the table and allowed the light of Christ to shine on them, allowed the love of Christ to transcend them.
Our five months together held challenges, but they also were filled with great joys. We got a glimpse of the unity of all believers for which Jesus prayed to God in John 17. We were able to find unity in our love for one another and our common mission, and there we found hope. We became fellow pilgrims on the journey toward justice and peace.
We affectionately called Bossey our “ecumenical laboratory,” a safe place to experiment in ecumenical living. But now the true work begins. Now that I am home from my time at the Ecumenical Institute, my fellow students and I have the responsibility of figuring out how to invite others to join us on that pilgrimage—united even in the midst of our diversity—in the various places to which God has called us.
It’s not easy. But my time at the Ecumenical Institute proved that Christian unity really is possible. I hope you’ll join me, in prayer and in practice, for this holy experiment.
The Rev. Dunn is a provisional deacon working as associate pastor with youth and families at Pulaski Heights UMC Little Rock. Email: email@example.com.