Just a little over a month ago I was sitting in the courtyard of a micro-brewery in the centre of Leipzig, a beautiful city in eastern Germany. The World Communion of Reformed Churches General Council was near its end after 10 days. It had convened for the first time since 2010; on this occasion in the same year as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
I was there as one of three voting delegates representing the Uniting Church in Australia and, at this moment, I was thinking about home. That is, what I would say to the church that sent me about all I had seen and heard.
An event which only occurs every seven years is bound to be a significant moment in time. It is also significant for the WCRC because of what it represents – 80 million Christians globally. UCA members are among them.
The size of this number reminds us of our own smallness. Not in the sense that our significance as a part of the whole is reduced by comparison, but rather it appropriately places our own life in a perspective which is perhaps becoming increasingly necessary.
‘We are but one part of the whole church’ is not a new or particularly incisive comment. Especially in the UCA, which came into being (15 years before I did) with a deep sense that it was true. Union was a form of dissent from denominationalism, thus ‘uniting’ in a present and ongoing tense, and thus a commitment to ecumenism.
Forty years on, as movements become institutions and take on a life that is unique to them, the status and shape of this commitment bears some reflecting on. Is our location in relation to other churches still fundamental to our self-understanding and to our worldview, as it once seems to have been?
If not, why not? Even though I have recently developed a snap, inward reaction to the rhetoric of denominational ‘decline’ (which manifests outwardly in inadvertent but enthusiastic eye rolling), I am quite sure this context is at least one factor.
It is compounded by a changing social and religious landscape. Can a commitment to openness, or the outward-facing orientation which urges us beyond ourselves, survive under the weight of uncertainty and anxiety about our own location? The introspection which can result from both has more than enough capacity to narrow the horizon.
This is exactly why communions such as the WCRC remain valuable and important places to be, and why it was important the UCA participated in global church reflection on liberation, gender justice, empire, community, the forces of death, and the God of life. These forums offer us, as does ecumenism on any scale, an encounter with what we are not, which lifts our vision beyond what we are.
The common identity we share with others in the love that holds all things together is found again and again. We all belong to God.
Our own self-reflection is at its best when it takes account of the whole Christian church, to which we make our unique contribution and by which we are also shaped. We cannot live in isolation.
We are always properly located in relationship, which means the scope of our vision is never and can never be limited to the boundaries of our denomination. If the nature of our participation in the world and in the life of God is truly the in-process ‘pilgrim’ journey of which the Basis of Union speaks, that journey will always lack some integrity if we think we can take it alone.
One of the questions posed to the WCRC General Council was about the ‘unfinished business’ of the Reformation.
What ideas began in that movement that need to be pursued again? What needs to be reaffirmed, revisited, reworked or rejected? The UCA may ask similar questions in relation to some of the commitments which seemed to lie at the heart of union, including a desire for unity which will never be fulfilled until it is. We will live into the answer of what its new face might be, not with time but with intention.
Meanwhile, it remains true that neither concept – ‘uniting’ or ‘reforming’ – is unique to a movement or time. They are ways of speaking of the divine plan to make all things new. The Council theme pointed to this clearly with its prayer that the Living God would renew and transform us again.
I add my prayer for our own decentring in order to be open and ready, and for a dissatisfaction with being alone.