Sometimes, I am not sure we really want to experience ecumenicalism or diversity. We say we do, but maybe we are afraid of being changed.
Most of the ecumenical events I see today seem to bring together persons who are like-minded from the start. They may belong to different churches, but most seem similar in convictions or political alliances (spoken or silent). I notice that some churches in my Baptist fellowship appear more similar to different denominations than other Baptists.It’s interesting to see who’s missing at the table.
What could these missing voices offer?
I grew up in a church wrestling in the middle of the Southern Baptist controversy. Churches that had once partnered in youth and community events did not associate with one another. It seemed that the question of whether women could preach or how monies were to be designated superseded fulfilling the Great Commission.
I still maintain dear friendships on both sides of the aisle. Both sides have reason for maintaining such affiliations. My heart hurts when I hear “misguided liberals” and “crazy fundamentalists” thrown around as derogatory stereotypes. Could it be possible that both sides have a sincere sense of the Great Commission, of caring for the poor, as representatives of Jesus Christ?
Is there anything we can still learn from one another?
I experienced a truly ecumenical event the beginning of this year.From January 6th through 8th, I, along with 130 young preachers, attended the National Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, Kentucky. Founded by Dr. Dwight Moody, with help from the Lily Endowment, the purpose of this festival was to encourage and empower young persons of all denominations who feel the call to preach, and give them an opportunity to do so. The guidelines were simple: preach about some aspect of the Ten Commandments, remember the ecumenical nature of the festival, and preach no longer than sixteen minutes.
At almost 26 years, I was one of the older preachers in attendance.
My peers included Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, 14 year-olds and 28 year-olds, high school students and seminary graduates. Baptists of all stripes sat together during meals. I found myself hearing sermons from students at Morehouse College, Harvard Divinity School, and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
In some ways, we did not feel that different. After listening to an Orthodox college student preach, I expressed to him that I wanted to see his sermon in particular because his denomination was so unlike mine. He replied that “You know, it’s not really that different.”
So what has made us feel so different? What has made us unable to maintain civility to one another?
My Orthodox friend, like many other preachers at the Festival, had preached the Good News of God in flesh. Many young preachers possessed an inviting presence and thoughtful insight beyond their years. They discussed with one another matters of social justice and care for the overlooked and outcast. In small talk, I did discover some theological differences and even a few disagreements. However, I never heard a hateful comment or personal attack made about someone’s particular denomination or background. It is hard to hate someone whom you have befriended. It is difficult to maintain a sour composure toward one with whom you have shared a meal.
I loved seeing some of the 42 women preach. They preached with power, enthusiasm, and giftedness. I spotted a young seminarian with the shirt “This is what a preacher looks like.” I commented that I also have the same shirt. We talked about women in Baptist life, and her personal struggles with her family not understanding her call to preach. She had been called into ministry at age 15, and had persevered by the power of the Holy Spirit, even though she experienced conflict within her family and her home denomination. My roommate, a Presbyterian seminarian, and I talked about the struggles of women in seminary. Apparently the Baptist tradition is not the only denomination that still grapples with full equality in the pulpit and pastorate. We were able to dialogue about what role our husbands play in our ministry and living into our evolving identities. I realized that the best way to advocate for female ministers is to demonstrate it. After hearing only some of the women preach, one would be denying the Holy Spirit if one did not believe women can be ministers.
Unfortunately, there were still some persons who were missing at the table. Most of the young preachers were either African American or Anglo. There were few, if any, Asian or Hispanic preachers in attendance. What might their voices have to offer? How could we have been better persons for hearing their voices?
The National Festival of Young Preachers demonstrated that ecumenical dialogue can be done. We celebrated one another, affirmed one another, and enjoyed one another’s company. The festival also gave me hope for the church in the United States. Some young persons have not been caught up in denominational debates and competing ecclesial alliances. They do not know why some churches won’t work together.
Celebrating our commonalities and doing what Jesus commanded may be the starting point in ecumenical dialogue. A variety of voices can help us grow in our discipleship, and give us a deeper sense of mission. Perhaps today’s young leaders can lead the way. I hope we continue this hard, but necessary task of ecumenicalism.
Kate Hanch is the Children’s Minister at Holmeswood Baptist Church. She represented Central Baptist Theological Seminary at the National Festival of Young Preachers. This article was posted last week on Baptist Women in Ministry of Missouri’s blog!