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One Church, indivisible: Aimee's blog from Crete

Once every five years or so, a group of about 120 men and women, pastors, laypersons, academics, and church leaders get together to talk about the issues that still divide the churches. It's called the Faith and Order Plenary Commission, and its next meeting will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, Greece, 7-13 October 2009.oac

This year, I've been invited to go. 

And I'm writing a blog.


The Big Crete Meeting

  •  Friday recap

    Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

    Today we heard five presentation from theologians around the world. Some highlights:

    • a teacher from Finland told of the students in her religion classes, who, steeped in pluralism, wonder why they should be concerned about church unity. "Aren't difference, diversity and independent thought things we should value in Christianity?" they ask
    • a pastor from the Episcopal church in Cuba shared stories of the church's work to connect with and learn from practioners of local traditional religions. A community leader told her that she believes Afro-Cuban traditions were the way God spoke to her ancestors in Africa, and for her that is the same God she now worships in the Episcopal church
    • a Catholic sister from Hong Kong reminded us that Christianity, though born in Asia, "is still today regarded in most Asian countries as a 'foreign import,' and that Christian churches are still looked upon as 'bonsai-churches,' trees planted from abroad and still growing in borrowed pots"
    • a Presbyterian professor from South Africa recounted the painful story of churches divided by apartheid and their struggle for reunion that still continues today - though the split over race is not even ecumenical but within the Presbyterian family in South Africa
    • an Orthodox Metropolitan expressed his belief that unity of the Church will be achieved only through repentance, humility and return to our common roots - though it is hard to say which roots all these bodies would consider "common"

    I don't have time for commentary on all these presentations, but suffice it to say the global church is fascinating in its breadth and desire to be faithful in each time and place. All the presentations were designed to get us thinking about our own contributions to the unity of the church - as well as, perhaps, our own need for repentance and renewal. 

    Tomorrow, we break into our small groups to tackle the issues of authority and moral discernment.

  •  Why unity matters

    Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

    Growing up, I didn’t really think about divisions in the church. I was raised Presbyterian. I knew one of my sets of grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles were Methodist, but their church and ours seemed pretty much the same to me: music, sermon, prayers, offering, benediction, punch and cookies afterwards.

    In junior high, I remember arguing naively with a Lutheran friend over politics, and I had a vague understanding that her church had something to do with the side she took. In high school, there were Christians with whom I disagreed about the Gulf War and Oregon ballot measures about homosexuality. I had a Greek Orthodox friend down the street who celebrated Easter on a different day than I did, but I didn’t really know why.

    Then, my freshman year of college, someone told me that anyone who hadn’t spoken in tongues wasn’t really Christian. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, since I didn’t know people could speak in tongues. But the point was that I’d never before heard that my way of being Christian – the tradition of my family, my home, my whole existence up to that point – wasn’t valid to someone else who claimed to be Christian, too.

    Two years later while traveling in Europe with other students and attending Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, I remember a stark moment of indecision – as Protestants should we receive Eucharist or not? Some of us went forward, others didn’t. I have never forgotten that moment of uncertainty – am I welcome here? – though, oddly, I have forgotten how I responded to it.

    Church division is historical, doctrinal, theological, social, cultural, racial. It’s about tradition and power and preference and conviction and interpretation and change and revelation. But what's undeniable is that division is always personal. It slices you from me, and it it separates us and them.

    The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.” In the body of Christ, I am impoverished without you, and you without me.

    That’s why unity matters.

  •  If you have lots of time...

    Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

    ...and nothing else to do, there's plenty of reading material available from this meeting - including presentations and news stories about proceedings thus far:

  •  Christian skin

    Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

    This morning in our small groups, we had prayer and Bible study on Galatians 3:25-29, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave nor free…”

    A bishop from the Armenian Orthodox Church shared a saying from his community: “Christian is the color of our skin.” In Christ we are new creations where race and gender and culture are no longer what defines us. Being Christian is beyond religion, beyond belief, he said. It seeps into our being, and becomes the very color of our skin.

  •  And now the fun begins

    Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

    It's Friday morning, and the sun has risen in Crete (trust me, I saw it happen, which if you know me means I was up earlier than I typically like to be. I actually heard a rooster crow after my shower. That's too early).

    The past two days have been largely orientation and introduction to the work ahead of us. Today we get started in the nitty-gritty discussion of issues, and hearing from different traditions. It might sound boring to have had two days of introduction, but in truth it’s all groundwork – by now, the 150 of us who are gathered actually know each other a bit, and have already shared worship and meals and fellowship.

    It's all part of the journey together. Somehow Christian unity seems more possible when you’re working with the person who was eating scrambled eggs and toast across the table from you just a few hours ago.

  •  Ecumenical English

    Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009

    Being a native English speaker at meetings like this is definitely an advantage, given most of the procedures take place in English. There is simultaneous translation (with little headsets like the UN) to French and Spanish, and periodically at this meeting to Greek and German, but mostly we work in English.

    Over time, we develop what we tenderly refer to as “ecumenical English” – a mishmash of different accents and idioms, and the gradual learning that when we use words like “evangelical,” “liturgy,” or even “church,” we don’t always mean the same things.

    And we also learn new words, occasionally through simultaneous translation offered by people for whom English may or may not be a first language. Yesterday, while listening to translation of a presentation given in Greek, I smiled when the translator, struggling to keep up and trying to express the intent of the speaker, offered the word “fructiforous.” I’m guessing he meant “fruitful.”

    But here’s hoping that our work here might not just be fruitful, but “fructiforous.” 

  •  Snapshots

    Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009
    • chatting with a Samoan delegate whose own community was not affected by the recent tsunami, but who sent relief supplies and a work team from his congregation to assist with devastated areas before he boarded a plane for this meeting in Crete
    • hearing from a pastor from Malawi, who said that in his country they say “AIDS has the face of women,” because so often women not only contract the disease, but are the ones most affected by the consequences of illness and death in families – and are frequently blamed for them, too
    • eating dinner last night with Dr. Sharon Watkins, the president and head of the U.S. Disciples of Christ denomination, who preached at the worship service in the National Cathedral the day after the inauguration of President Obama, the first woman ever to preach for a presidential inaugural service
    • catching up with Lucy, a Presbyterian woman from Kenya I met five years ago at a meeting in Ghana, who though she has finished all her training is still awaiting ordination in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, along with other Kenyan women who expected ordination before now
    • praying with a pastor who expressed concern for his church and for Christians living under an oppressive government, who asked me not to share any specific information about him because of his fear of retribution, but covets prayers from around the globe
  •  We are the church

    Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

    In the past 24 hours, I’ve met dozens of new and old friends: Janet from Belfast, Christian from Hamburg, Lucy from Nairobi, Alfred from Paraguay, Bruce from Quebec, Odair from Brazil, Nevell from Florida. It’s always such a privilege to be in an international setting and to connect with people from all over the world. It makes the earth seem somehow a lot bigger and a lot smaller at the same time.

    We just heard an address by His All Holiness Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch. I posted about him earlier. It turns out this is a Big Deal for Crete – like having a papal audience. Bartholomew came with a host of police and secret service types (they even had those little ear buds with the curly cord running down their backs), news cameras, and a lot of Orthodox priests dressed to the nines. I’ll try to post some photos of the various liturgical garb later.

    Bartholomew has been a long supporter of ecumenism and the unity of the church, and his address was great. As I mentioned, he's known as the Green Patriarch for his environmentalism. “We must never forget that the world is inherited,” he said. “It is a gift from above, offered as a means of communion with God.”

    We were also asked to pray for the next round of Roman Catholic/Orthodox dialogue in Cyprus, which will deal with the thorny issue of papal and patriarchate authority (otherwise known as “who’s in charge?”). These questions - which have kept the churches separated for 1,000 years - won’t be solved quickly or easily.

    But it’s nice to know even if it takes a thousand years, we can and do look back at our past (the word repent, by the way, means “to turn around”) and do what we can to make amends. Praise God that in Christ, there is always, always the chance to start life anew.

  •  Sacrament of words

    Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

    My favorite thing about international ecumenical meetings is the Lord's Prayer. In worship, when the congregation is invited to pray together the prayer of Jesus, each speaks in his or her own language. The result is something like the flames of Pentecost - a fabulous babbling of native tongues whooshing like the a fierce wind around the room. It's as close to the sound of the Holy Spirit as I can imagine. I almost can't speak my own prayer for the incredible impact this sacrament of words has on my soul.

  •  Coming to consensus

    Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

    All the meetings of the World Council of Churches, including this meeting of the Faith and Order Plenary Commission, are run by “consensus model” decision-making. Meetings used to follow parliamentary debate and decision by majority (“I move that we adjourn to the beach.” “Is there a second?” “Second.” “It has been moved and seconded that we adjourn to the beach. All in favor say ‘aye.’” “Aye.” “The motion carries.”)

    But in recent years, the World Council of Churches figured out something: the process we use to talk to each other and the outcome we get are related to each other.  

    In other words, the way you do things affects to how things turn out.

    Debate-style decision-making forces participants to be either “for” or “against,” and doesn’t allow for more than those two options (like “I’m not sure,” “I’m confused,” or “What about another direction?”). “Majority rules” means the minority always loses. It puts participants into opposing camps rather than trying to find a common way forward. It tends to build polarity rather than mutual understanding. (Want proof? Watch 5 minutes of C-SPAN.)

    So, if you’re in a situation where the goal is to try to build unity among an already divided group (like, say, Christians from around the world), you might want to try a method of conversation that fosters “I understand” rather than “I disagree.” 

    Enter the “consensus” process. In consensus, the goal is to get as many people in the room as possible to discern together what’s best for the whole, and to come to general consensus about it. Dialogue – rather than debate – is the name of the game. The buzzwords of consensus are respect, mutual support, empowerment, prayerful listening, common understanding, discernment. In the end, everyone is heard, and together we try to seek the mind of Christ. The goal is simple, and biblical, from Acts 15:28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...”

    Now if only the U.S. Congress would adopt this model.

    (For more on consensus-model decision-making, see or

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