Crossing Boundaries for the Common Good

A few years back, after the Berlin Wall had fallen, George Bush was talking about a new world order. The National Council of Churches of Christ decided that maybe the church should be in on this discussion and held a conference called "A World Made New." The meetings were being held in the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis.

One morning I happened to walk over to the meeting with William Sloane Coffin, a well-known liberal leader in the mainline Protestant church. As we walked up to the church doors, there was a small crowd gathered outside holding signs that said things like "NCC is the anti-Christ" and "NCC = 666." I turned to him and said, "Well, Bill, one Lord, one faith, one baptism?"

This is the witness of the mainline Protestant churches in their ecumenical efforts over the last 50 years: The belief that unity is a gift of Christ and that we ought to manifest that gift. Whether it was the international Lund conference in 1952, which called on denominations to do all things together except those they in conscience could not, or the thousands who for decades have crossed over old boundaries to celebrate worldwide Communion Sunday each year, that Protestant witness has molded the ecumenical movement.

Sometimes we’ve done this work with Catholics; for example, the New Mexico Conference of Churches has had the Catholic dioceses in New Mexico as members for 20 years. In that setting the Conference has, among other things, developed a common ground statement on abortion. Sometimes Christian Orthodox have been part of conciliar life, as at the National Council of Churches. Often historic black churches have been present in leadership roles, such as the most recent past president of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches. Mainline Protestants can also regularly be found setting the table for even greater diversity such as with the NCCC’s Faith and Order Commission, which includes Southern Baptists and pentecostals as well as all of the above.

Together we have sponsored soup kitchens and public policy networks. In Minnesota, the interfaith FoodShare campaign raises 3.4 million pounds of food each year, and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition has more than 10,000 public policy advocates who fight for the common good and have been doing so for 25 years. Together we have launched anti-racism efforts, provided AIDS ministries, educated young people, provided chaplains, and convened discussions resulting in new acceptance of diversity. Together we have created or contributed to thousands of local ecumenical or interfaith community ministries now well-rooted in the landscape, providing direct services and community support.

THE MAINLINE PROTESTANT heritage of ecumenism is a strong one, one that has nurtured a new generation of ecumenists ready for the challenges of this day. Among those challenges is the challenge to be a moral community that honors diversity and can act publicly. Our communities are shattered into special interest shards that can’t carry a commitment to a common good. One of the greatest barriers is our inability to discern and deliberate for shared actionùour inability to find the common ground on which to build the common good.

The relatedness claimed in the ecumenical movement is a model that looks for common ground, assumes it’s there, and is committed to finding it. The new generation of Protestant ecumenists has been raised on just such a hope and is prepared to do that with the fullness of the body of Christ.

We believe firmly that as we weave the repairs to the social fabric, we will be successful to the degree that we engage this work together. One part of the body alone cannot discern the fullness of God’s intention for the church in this place and time. One part of the body alone cannot facilitate the health of the whole body. One part of the body alone cannot bear witness to the enormity of the hope God has in us.

But together, bringing the gifts that differ; together, claiming our relatedness; together, in mutual upbuilding and reciprocal admonition; together, we can see God’s will more fully. Together, we can witness in a way that is beyond what any can do alone. Together, we can be repairers of the breach, bringing the oil of gladness to replace the children’s tears, the garland of justice to replace the ashes of abandoned community, and the mantle of praise to lift up the whole people of God, the whole family, the Oikoumene, the whole inhabited Earth.

PEG CHEMBERLIN is executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches in Minneapolis.

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