The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concludes this weekend. Initiated in 1968, this ecumenical movement gathers Christians for eight days of prayer for mutual respect and cooperation among churches, if not for their actual organic union. In fact, given two thousand years of often fractious division, “Christian unity” is a bit of an oxymoron: a state very much alive as a Christian ideal, but rarely found in practice.
This movement has lost momentum in recent years. This might be due in part to the increase in Christian divisiveness, even to the point of acrimonious schism. The Anglican Communion has been rocked by public rifts between conservative dioceses, primarily on the African Continent, and liberal Western dioceses over the issue of same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, within the Anglican Church of Canada congregations across the country have been turning either to Rome or to one of several evangelical church movements in reaction to recent changes here.
But there is another reason that ecumenism in general has waned. Seekers and believers alike have let go of denominational loyalty. When people choose a church it is likely to be one that meets the specific needs they are looking for, rather than one that wears a particular label. Christian unity is hard to achieve when we approach it from behind rigid lines of belief and practice. But regular folks, voting with their feet, are going wherever they are fed by the Gospel. And this just might be the unifying force we have been praying for!
The church is a funny place. Not just humorous, but also tragic. It seems the more we try to emulate holiness and goodness, the more our baser instincts rise to the surface.
Comedy often draws upon this tension between what we want to be and what we are, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Monty Python and the Vicar of Dibbley. But so too does tragedy. In recent years this theme has come powerfully to both stage and screen, often targeting troubled clergy as a telling symptom for all that’s wrong with the church. In the 1990’s the films Mass Appeal and Priest explored the tragic consequences of religion that hides rather than celebrates our true humanity.
Now, this Friday at St. Stephen’s, Radio Nights presents a dramatic reading of the most recent offering in this genre, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play Doubt: A Parable. This soul-searching drama raises hard questions about religious authority and moral certainty. The 2008 film adaptation won Academy Award nominations for four of its actors, including Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
We are fortunate to have in our midst both the vision and the means to bring such evocative drama to the stage here at St. Stephen’s. Now in its fifth season, Radio Nights is the brainchild of Maureen Jones, voice actor and well-known member of our parish. Her cast of Calgary actors will remind us that religion that masks our humanity with ecclesiastical power and certainty casts a shadow of its own.
In the weeks following Christmas we are all about light. Since the winter solstice the earth has turned southward on its rotational axis and the days have started lengthening. But our worship on the Sundays after Epiphany also basks in the theme of light, divine light.
This theme was first announced at Christmas, where God’s light came into the world through the birth of the Christ Child. Then, on the Feast of the Epiphany, three astrologers from the East, representing seekers from the Gentile world, followed a star which lead them to Bethlehem and to God’s revelation through Christ.
For the early church this was a way of describing their experience of the Good News. A Jewish Messiah, fulfilling Jewish hopes, had been enthusiastically embraced by the Gentile world. The Magi represent this world, following its own light (associated with astrology) to a greater light, the light of God’s Chosen One, which would illuminate people of all tribes and races.
In our own time, we recall that the light we receive through Christ is a light intended not for hiding and keeping for ourselves, but for illuminating the world. It is a light not merely for our own private use, to guide our feet along life’s dark pathway, but a light to share with others. This is not to say our job is to make the whole world Christian, but more to say that our faith has a purpose beyond our own salvation: and that is to benefit the world.
Christmas Eve was a delight for the congregation of parents, grandparents and children in particular. Jean L. did a superlative job as narrator while Lynda Greuel, master pageant creator, and her assistants, guided angels, animals, kings and shepherds to their appointed places.
The C. family (Rob, Jen and Luke) took the roles of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. From the littlest angel who enjoyed making her wings move back and forth to the forbidding-looking King Herod befriending the kings from the Orient, the only unrehearsed pageant in Calgary went off as if it had been practised.
The church was full and the singing of the old carols, accompanied by Jeff Jones at the organ and Marg M. at the piano, was enthusiastic. Once again, the pageant was a hit, especially pleasing as it was Lynda’s last in her position of coordinator of The Excellent Adventure.