Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
his soj
ourn in Northern Ireland'

Ecumenism or cross-community work

Jon Kennedy  

JONAL ENTRY 1292 | May 30 2013

And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

— from Acts 10, from today's
Orthodox lectionary readings

At a recent cross-community meeting, I had a sudden and somewhat striking insight. It was that Belfast is probably the most exciting city in the world for ecumenical church work. In the group of a dozen or so clergy members and laity gathered, there were Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic (at least one bishop, several priests, and a representative or two of a monastic community), and, counting me, at least two Eastern Orthodox. We were all (I venture to propose) there intentionally and without coercion; we all wanted to better understand each other and work together on shared goals. And though I knew of no self-described "evangelicals" in that particular group, I know that 1) in other projects throughout Belfast that kind of evangelicals are involved and are also working for better understanding and harmony and 2) the "establishment" Protestant churches in Belfast are more "evangelical" in the American sense (or I might say "the Billy Graham sense") of that word than their counterparts in the United States and the rest of Europe are. That is, there is (so far as I can ascertain) much less liberal theology, preaching, and teaching in Northern Ireland than in those other quarters.

In my many years in San Jose and Palo Alto, I often met members of the clergy and as the writer of a religion column in some local papers for several years, I heard from others I never met in person. I often asked, "do you know or have you ever met . . . " this or that other member of the clergy from another denomination or communion. Invariably, even if the other person might have been at a church just up the street, the answer was always, "no, there's never enough time" for setting up unnecessary meetings. I think that all the members of our little Belfast group thought this meeting was "necessary," and even if we personally might have to miss occasionally, it will continue and will have our support.

Oikoumene is Greek for 'inhabited world' but has long been used (especially in the World Council of Churches) to refer to a worldwide unified church. This artwork is from St. Anne's Cathedral, Church of Ireland, in Belfast.

Frankly, I have never been a big fan of the ecumenical movement, especially when it is defined, as the World Council of Churches long did, as an effort to bring into union the various denominations and communions of Christendom. That, as C.S. Lewis often suggested (though he usually avoided saying anything directly on the topic), is putting the cart before the pony. It is imposing unity on people who are not united in spirit or in truth, and that is, I believe, always a blueprint for failure. I grew up in a village of under a thousand residents which had two churches. One was Evangelical United Brethren, the other Methodist. The two denominations had almost identical theologies, and the two parent bodies merged into the United Methodist Church in 1968. But the two village churches, neither of which has more than fifty active adult members, have never merged, and though they have shared a minister with other congregations a few miles away for years, they have not shared the same minister in that tiny town. So much for the World Council of Churches and its dreams of a top-down ecumenism.

But I heartily endorse the kind of ecumenism or "cross-community work" that Belfast son Lewis consistently and openly supported and which, ironically, is practiced in Northern Ireland more sincerely than almost anywhere else. That is a recognition that what Protestants of various stripes, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox have in common with each other amounts to much more than what divides us. And what our common enemy is capable of doing to cripple us is a far greater threat than any threat posed by any group organized around Jesus Christ and any group's understanding of the Gospel. The "common enemy" is the dominant religion (worldview) of all western cultures in this generation, that which Lewis called "the spirit of the age," and which he along with many others call secularism (worldliness), naturalism ("there is nothing beyond nature"), and materialism ("the spiritual is a fiction").

Protestants and Catholics have been holding literal cross-community marches through their neighboring districts in some of the most troubled parts of Belfast for some years.

Of course it would be ludicrous to suggest that Belfast is an ideal in cross-community co-operation. Our ecumenism is necessary and vital because large populations calling themselves Protestant and Catholic have chosen to wage war on each other in years past. And though the peace is holding now, many still harbor deep resentments and insist on maximizing rather than minimizing differences between them. It seems obvious to this outsider that those on both sides who take Christ and the Gospel as their first principles in life want peace and reconciliation— even agape love—as Jesus clearly teaches, but many of those only nominally affiliated with a church but calling themselves Protestants or Catholics are scandalizing the name of Christ (Tony Macaulay calls them "Protestant atheists" and "Catholic atheists"). When we speak of "cross-community work," and there are many such groups as the one described above in Belfast, we are referring to efforts to get Protestants and Catholics together for the sake of better understanding and fellowship. It's exciting and it's a blessing to be part of it. But we must not forget that "may you live in interesting [much less "exciting"] times" is generally described as a curse.

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Scripture: It's interesting that in this passage, just before the lines quoted, Peter says, "God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him," while going on to affirm that the Lord will judge all people, living and dead, according to what they make of Him.

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Please support my mission to Northern Ireland in your prayers. You can read my overview of this undertaking here. My residence/postal address is 227 Crumlin Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT14 7DY, UK. Mobile: 44 7455 980890.

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At a good-bye luncheon for an old and dear coworker who was leaving the company due to "downsizing," our manager commented cheerfully, "This is fun. We should do this more often." Not another word was spoken. We all just looked at each other with that deer-in-the-headlights stare.


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