Allentown, Friday evening

I’m here at the 2011 conference of the North American Academy of Ecumenists in Allentown, PA. The opening session was held at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, a thoroughly lovely church built in the 1930s. The church is built of mostly native stone, and filled with beautifully carved wooden screens and pews that warm and soften the space.

I was particularly taken by the beautiful painting of the Presentation at the Temple, showing Anna and Simeon with the infant Jesus, as Mary and Joseph stand nearby. It is placed over the altar in a side chapel; the altar is from the earlier church built in 1889. Another striking piece is a sculpture in the baptistry depicting two little children being taught by a monk: all three of them look filled with joy. This piece was commissioned by Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and eventually made its way to someone who donated it to St. John’s. I was touched by how much of the art in the church featured children: how welcoming that must be for the children of this community.

Worship for the weekend is based on the resources for the 2011 week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which was produced jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. We prayed together in a thoroughly multilingual service, in English, French, and Spanish, representing the three dominant languages of North America. The service included the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (in its original form, without the filioque!) prayed in English, and the Lord’s Prayer prayed simultaneously in all three (and perhaps other) languages, creating a lovely aural image of Pentecost (and a red banner showing a white dove in flight swayed gently over the pulpit).

I also discovered that the hymn Lord, You Give the Great Commission is apparently not universally sung to the tune of Ode to Joy, as in our Gather Comp hymnal, but has its own hymn tune. Fortunately there were hymnals in the pews that contained the melody. 🙂

The opening talk was given by Msgr. John Radano, who reflected on the really significant progress that has been made over the past 100 years of the ecumenical movement, and of the past 40 years of bilateral dialogues involving the Roman Catholic Church; and looked ahead to some significant anniversaries coming up: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the 1600th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon that resulted in church divisions over Christology in 2051, and the 1000th anniversary of the Great Schism dividing East and West in 2054.

There has been real, significant, substantive progress in healing all three of those deep divisions over the past few decades: so much so, that the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Christian Unity are presently involved in dialogue over how the Reformation anniversary can be commemorated in an “ecumenically accountable” way, that will acknowledge both the damaging aspects and the renewing elements of the Reformation.

(I didn’t know that; I had not heard anything about it at all. I find it highly disturbing that only specialists in ecumenism know about such things. I think one of the aspects of taking our ecumenical work seriously has to be getting this kind of thing incorporated into the daily lives of our parishes and congregations: at the very least, we should be talking about it, we should know about it. There should be a little “ecumenical news” box in the bulletin every week, and prayers for the success of various ecumenical dialogues or activities should be included in our worship more often than just during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.)

I’m still not sure I’ve grasped the meaning of “accountability” as it’s being used this weekend. From Msgr Radano’s remarks, I thought it might mean something like, “with the serious intention to move beyond coexistence and make progress towards visible unity”. On further reflection, I wonder if it doesn’t mean something a little more general: the mutual responsibility that arises from the real though imperfect communion that all Christian communities already share, the same kind of mutual responsibility that is pictured in the Book of Acts, from which our reading tonight was taken:

Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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