Have you ever had that awkward moment when it becomes difficult to talk to a person you've come to know and think of as a friend because an organization of which you're a part and another organization of which the other person is a part officially declare that they don't like each other? Being part of the ELCA has given me another such moment. Check out this press release.
How is any of this theological? Where is God at in all this? Or, WIGIAT? (For all my Southern friends.) What is God up to here?
I need to present the TheoThru early here, otherwise I'll spend too much time dwelling on the history between and within these church bodies, or the sociological difficulties of intercultural relationships, or the different philosophical approaches to authority and power being expressed among these church bodies, and I'm sure other people will take up these tasks. My task is to think about this theologically.
For better or worse, I keep coming back to a line from Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is failure to communicate."
One Falls, All Fail
One of the arguments from Werner Elert, in his book The Christian Ethos (and best of luck in finding it if you don't already have access to it), views breaks in relationships from a deeply theological center. A simple and simplified summary of his argument would be that, all things being equal, the one thing all humans have as a necessity from God is relationship with each other. We are not normally conceived without a relationship between others, we are born into relationships with others, we live in relationships with others. When an individual becomes insular and begins pulling out of relationships, the Christian response is to reengage them in relationship. When that doesn't happen, the people who know this individual sin in that they do not respond to a break in relationship faithfully. More than that, the friends of the people who know this individual can also sin by not holding the people accountable for tending to this break in relationship. Elert applies this same argument to relationships between communities, relationships between cities, and relationships between countries. (Had he been in the United States, he probably would have added the relationship between states.) Thus, in short order, one broken relationship condemns the entire human race.
The Structures Do Matter
I know that some of you will tell me that I'm making too much of this broken partnership, that I should keep relating to my friends as my friends--and I will, have no fear--that the structures and the decisions they make don't matter. The problem is that the structures do matter.
In 1962, as the Orthodox Church in United States worked to become another body of congregations within the world of the Orthodox Church, Alexander Schmemann wrote an article entitled "Towards a Theology of Councils." It can be found in his book Church, World, Mission. In the third section of this article, he notes the importance of ecclesiology, or the institutional structure of the church. The ecclesiology of the church matters because the church, as a human institution, relates to the world through its ecclesiology.
When different church bodies break relationship, we show again how human the institutional structure of the church is. The Christian ethos challenges those of us who are parts of the institutions to pay more attention to these relationships, to strive for reconciliation through the mutual forgiveness of sins, to notice that "What we've got here is failure to communicate," and respond faithfully.
Yes and No
I must rather carefully disagree with the quote from my own Presiding Bishop Hanson at the end of the press release. He may have made a more nuanced statement, but what was quoted gives me reason to pause. The quote: "Reconciliation is not an option. It is given in Christ, and we stand ready to engage with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus on what this gift of reconciliation might mean for us now."
The yes: in Christ, we have been reconciled to God by God's own action. So reconciliation is not an option in the relationship God has with humans. The no: in Christ, we have been given the message of reconciliation and made ambassadors for Christ because reconciliation between people is only possible through faith. The Christian ethos drives us to seek reconciliation between people and peoples, but one of Elert's insights is that such reconciliation begins with the ambassadors confessing their sins.
As one who's family was divided when the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod divided in the 1970's, I have learned that an attitude of waiting for the other person or people to start the conversation of reconciliation does not result in reconciliation. It really is a failure to communicate. At some point, the Christian ethos drives ambassadors for Christ to seek reconciliation by asking the other for forgiveness--even if we have to start that conversation while looking at a closed door.