Ecumenical and interfaith ideas
"The truth is the centre of all religion," Mary Baker Eddy wrote. Here, you'll find ideas that honor that center, the "circle of faith" of which we're all a part. We hope they are helpful as you listen and contribute to the healing dialogue going on between faiths worldwide.
Christian Science in the Christian Community
I’m appreciating the new things I brought home to think about from my recent participation in the National Council of Churches (NCC)’s Christian Unity Gathering (CUG). We met November 8-10 near the NCC headquarters in Washington DC, and six of us from The Mother Church were able to attend.
This year, the event was organized a bit differently, allowing for various sub-groups to meet separately and with the whole. And with each different event, I witnessed again how ecumenism is happening by doing Christianity together more than talking about it. It’s just as much about how you do it as what you say.
I engaged with a different set of people on each of the three days I attended. On Wednesday, five of us from the Mother Church Ecumenical Team (Maryl Walters, Sue Humble, Susie Jostyn, Madelon Maupin and I) met with our respective Convening Tables. On Thursday, everyone at CUG – which included our Christian Science Ecumenical Team plus Kevin Ness (Manager of Committees on Publication) – received a special invitation to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture followed by engaging and interactive break-out sessions. And on Friday, Kevin and I attended the Board of Governors’ Meeting, filling the official role of “Observer” for The Mother Church.
Despite the wide range of activities, the uniting factor was the call on our various Christian beliefs and practices to come together to bring healing to some of the most serious issues for our country. Rather than discussing our differences (often called ‘church-dividing’ issues), we learned the significance of our similarities and differences by doing things together.
During the work sessions for my Convening Table, for instance, we prepared stories designed to inspire Christians of all types to take action on behalf of those who suffer the effects of climate change. All of our stories reflected the ways in which each of our theological positions shapes our unique views and actions related to the global environment.
The next day, following our visit to the museum on African American history and culture, my CUG breakout group gave us a chance to reflect on our different theological views of racism and how we might approach the healing of both subtle and blatant beliefs and acts of racism in our country.
And on Friday, the Governing Board met to discuss the direction and action for NCC in response to the work of the Convening Tables and open meetings. The Governing Board consists of ‘heads of communion’ (or, national church leaders), so they represent each of the members of NCC and search for ways to work together. The contribution of each church’s distinctive and unique theological position, along with their mutual Christian purpose, define ecumenism in this age.
When ecumenism calls on all churches to bring forward their best gifts for the healing of humanity, it is easy to find how each one belongs in these conversations.
The annual North American Academy of Ecumenists (NAAE) meeting was held in Boston this year, and Susie Jostyn and I attended. The title of the conference was “Worship in Ecumenical Contexts.” Honestly, I had not given deep thought to the meaning and value of worship. The speakers’ papers, and conversations at meals and gathering times, prompted me to pray in new ways about worship in my branch church. There were two points of deeper learning for me in this conference: worship can lead to unity, and the spiritual role of the sacraments in worship.
The first insight came when one speaker commented that worship can lead to unity. Though he did not elaborate the point, I suddenly realized one way to think about it is as a recognition and feeling of our unity with God, with Christ, and with those in the congregation. All the elements of worship lead us to this inspiring outcome of worship--unity.
The second insightful moment resulted from the discussions about the role of the sacraments in worship, particularly the sacraments of the eucharist and baptism. The word “sacrament” has several meanings, though the one I relate to is that it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. For most Protestant denominations the outward and visible signs primarily include baptism, confirmation into a church, and especially the Eucharist. Other churches, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox, add penance, anointing the sick, ordination, and marriage to the list of sacraments.
As a Christian Scientist I certainly participate in both baptism and the eucharist, but in ways other than by the literal use of water and the literal reenactment of the bread and wine of Jesus’ last supper. The way I participate in these sacraments is guided by my understanding of “the meaning behind the Christian symbol more than the outward practice of symbolic act.” (“A Message about Baptism” by Nate Talbot, Christian Science Sentinel, 2/21/2011).
I have been asked before, “have you been baptized, and do you believe in baptism?” In the Old Testament, baptism was generally viewed as a ceremony of purity and the purification from sins. In the early apostolic teachings, baptism signified union with Christ. Yes, I believe in baptism and believe I am baptized. My daily study of the Bible, Mrs. Eddy’s writings, and prayer support my striving “for the meaning behind the symbol” of baptism, which for me is purification, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and union with Christ.
When asked “do you believe in the Eucharist, and do you celebrate the Eucharist in your service?” I answer yes to both questions. The meaning of eucharist in the Greek is “thanksgiving,” and was part of a larger meal called the agape meal. In early Christianity the sharing of bread and wine as part of the eucharist meal was considered an outward act of communion with Jesus. One “meaning behind the symbol” of the Eucharist is recognizing and giving thanks for the truth of our spiritual relationship and our spiritual communion with God. I realize this is an essential outcome of every service. I am reminded of the words to the hymn 151 in the Christian Science Hymnal:
In speechless prayer and reverence,
Dear Lord, I come to Thee;
My heart with love Thou fillest,
Yea, with humility.
My bread and wine Thou art,
With Thee I hold communion;
Thy presence healeth me.
One of the Christian Science contributions to the conference was introducing the group to two hymns from the Christian Science hymnal. Both included poems by Mary Baker Eddy: “Love,” and “Satisfied.” Though these hymns were new to the participants, they sang with joy and appreciation for their message. I was reminded how music holds a prominent place from beginning to end in our worship services.
I enjoyed the meeting, and I am very grateful for a prodding to think about Christian Science worship services. I left the meeting joyous from sharing Christian Science, recognizing the demand to go deeper in my understanding of how I celebrate my daily baptism, how I partake of the inspiration (bread and wine) in our services, and the joy of worshipping with others.
This post is another in the series, ‘Who are our Christian neighbors?’ As explained in our blog of 8/31/17, we want to seek and appreciate the treasures of our fellow Christians. Some of them we know very little about, and others may be more familiar to us. But the more we listen to their own voices, the more we understand and benefit from the gifts that all of our Christian ‘relatives’ bring to the Christian family. Whether we strongly agree or strongly disagree with some aspects of their Christian teachings, we can seek the voice of Christ in each communion and make a welcome space for the traditions and beliefs most foreign to us.
James Lawrence is the Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Although I have not met Jim in person, the Swedenborgian ecumenical representative for the National Council of Churches introduced me to Jim. He tells us that he has interacted with Christian Scientists on numerous occasions, including his restoration work with the Christian Science Church in Berkeley (designed by Bernard Maybeck). He appreciates the number of compatible aspects, that our two traditions (Christian Science and Swedenborgian) share. Please welcome Jim Lawrence, who will introduce our Christian neighbors, the Swedenborgians!
There are six Swedenborgian denominations internationally that stem from the call to Christian renewal by the eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish Lutheran. The oldest of three American Swedenborgian denominations is the one that is a member communion of the National Council of Churches. ‘The Swedenborgian Church of North America’ is the common name for the ‘General Convention of the New Jerusalem.’ All Swedenborgian denominations use in their incorporated name the closing biblical image of the Holy City New Jerusalem descending from heaven to become a reality on earth. Swedenborg, who penned extensive commentaries on scripture that usually focused on an inner sense to them, believed the scriptures are always speaking to a vision of a renewed church and revitalized spirituality symbolized by the New Jerusalem.
Though coming from a family steeped in Swedish Lutheran clergy, including his father, a prominent bishop, Swedenborg pursued a science and government career until a mid-life passion for understanding the deeper matters in religion led to a final twenty-seven years immersed in prayer, study, and writing. Despite no outward organizational activity on his part, the boldness and spiritual shape of his writings announcing a new dispensation of Christian revelation gained numerous admirers and advocates before he died and soon led to an organized church in England, where dissenting traditions were allowed (he suffered the only heresy trial in Sweden’s history). A 1787 a meeting in London attended by the poet and engraver William Blake and his wife Catherine produced the first organizational step in Swedenborgianism.
Both congregational and episcopal forms of church polity exist in worldwide Swedenborgianism, but the Swedenborgian Church of North America (U.S. and Canada) is congregational with a representational formula for connection to and participation in denominational activities. We have been holding an annual denominational convention every summer since 1817, and thus we just celebrated our bicentennial as an organized central denomination, though the earliest churches in the U.S. date to 1805.
There has long been a commitment in this branch to ecumenical and pluralist relations. A Swedenborgian, Charles Carroll Bonney, conceived of the first Parliament of the World’s Religions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and he presided over this now legendary event, which first formally introduced Buddhism and Hinduism, among many other traditions to the general American public. The World Parliament of Religions continues still today, often drawing as many as ten thousand participants from over 500 traditions and sub-traditions. In addition to a commitment to join the NCC fifty years ago, in 2001 the Swedenborgian Church of North America re-established its seminary to be a part of the largest ecumenical and pluralist academic consortium in North America—the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Hallmarks of Swedenborgianism are social justice, science and spirituality, and cultivation of the inner life. The most often quoted line from Swedenborg is, “All religion is of the life, and the life of religion is to do good.”
By Susan Jostyn, CS
Without the historical Christians who have gone before us—some who wrote Scripture, some who were persecuted, some who went into hiding, some who became laity, some who went to seminaries, some to positions of religious and political authority, and some to the remotest corners of the world—we would not have the gift of Christianity today. Deep sources of instruction and inspiration are found in historical Christian experiences, trials, searching, faith, inspiration, understanding, teachings, practices, and communities, whether they are recorded in the Bible or not. And, our Christian forefathers and foremothers would not have been able to create and articulate their own variety of Christian traditions without the Jewish traditions that came before them.
What is the role of community traditions with respect to the Bible? Does the Bible shape tradition, does tradition shape how communities read the Bible, or does influence flow in both directions? Which is more, equally, or less important? At the time of the reformation 500 years ago, Catholics upheld the tradition of a hierarchically dictated interpretation of the Bible by priests and popes. Protestants argued for a tradition of a “priesthood of all believers” inspired by the Bible. Both of those positions have softened over the years. Protestant denominations have each developed their own traditions for Scriptural study, authority, worship, ritual, and other community practices. Catholics have turned more toward the Bible.
Originally, before Scripture was ever written down, the Jewish oral tradition verbally passed stories and teachings from one generation to the next. Eventually, the oral tradition was written down and the Torah became primary, followed by multiple voices recording the history of the Children of Israel, the declarations of the prophets, psalms of prayer and worship, wisdom literature, and so on. A tradition of Rabbinical debate of Scripture followed, and some Jews even considered Jesus to be a Torah-adherent Jew who participated in the ongoing discussion. After the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the new Christian tradition never would have gotten off the ground if Jesus’ followers hadn’t decided that he was the Messiah or the Son of God independently of material evidence and despite condemnation by political and religious leaders.
Christian communities formed as they turned to the apostles of Jesus who shared their accounts of what Jesus had done and taught. Those who were literate wrote those accounts down, and wrote letters among churches. In those early days, there was no complete Bible. Instead, communities chose their own teachers and/or collections of manuscripts, just as much as the texts drew people into community. Men, women, rich, poor, slaves, free, Jew, and Gentile all participated in the earliest Christian communities, and these communities spread across many cultures. This led to a rich diversity of voices within Christendom, not unlike the Jewish tradition.
As the Christian community spread, so did persecution as well as a desire for organization and continuity. On top of that, Christian councils consisting of representatives from widespread communities began to collect and assess all the available Christian manuscripts. Though this represented a consolidation of theology, the New Testament canon they created maintained the tradition of a variety of voices. And, at first, like the Torah, the Bible held a primary position within the Christian community. Then arrived the Nicene Creed in 325 and the Constantinople version of it in 381, both of which attempted to further consolidate community tradition and interpretation of the Bible. Some Christians today will say that if you want to sufficiently honor tradition, you must acknowledge the Nicene Creed, and if you don’t, you aren’t Christian.
Christian Science lies firmly within the Christian tradition of a priesthood of believers who are encouraged to derive their Christianity from the Bible and individual inspiration. As the first tenet of Christian Science reads, “As adherents of Truth, we take the inspired Word of the Bible as our sufficient guide to eternal Life.” Christian Science also honors a multiplicity of voices through publishing articles by lay church members in the Christian Science periodicals, though it considers this tradition of interpretation and sharing of experiences to be subservient to Scripture. It also strongly upholds the significance of healing within Christian tradition.
Are you aware of the role(s) that tradition plays with respect to the Bible in Christian denominations other than your own? Does the Bible shape tradition and/or does tradition shape how communities read the Bible? Which is more, equally, or less important? What elements of Christian tradition are especially important in other denominations and why? We’d love to hear—we have so much to learn from each other!
How does The First Church of Christ, Scientist participate in ecumenical affairs?
The Committee for Ecumenical Affairs works under the auspices of the Committee on Publication, and is engaged in ‘correcting in a Christian manner’ the misconceptions of Christian Science, particularly within the Christian community. Ecumenical team activities include writing pieces that appear on christianscience.com and articles for The Christian Science Journal and Christian Science Sentinel, and participating in ecumenical conferences, meetings, and organizations such as the National Council of Churches.
What is ecumenism?
Ecumenism is a worldwide movement among Christians to promote unity between Christian churches or denominations (or ‘communions’) in response to Jesus’ prayer that we be one (John 17:21). It recognizes the body of Christ in its entirety, learning to understand the ways, values, and communications styles of our fellow Christians. Ecumenical dialogue is vibrant and respectful, welcoming the gifts of others, while maintaining the integrity and purpose of each Christian faith tradition.
Why should Christian Scientists participate?
The ongoing dialogue with Christian leaders, clergy, and religion educators allows everyone to grasp better the idea exactly why Christian Science is Christian.
All churches and denominations are concerned with maintaining the purity of their ideas and practice of religion, and the ecumenical dialogue respects that integrity in others. It is with a spirit of humility that Christians value one another's faith and service to the common cause of Christianity. As we learn from others, we often find ourselves learning to appreciate and articulate better our own denominational roots. We have the opportunity to cultivate bonds of love and dispel misunderstandings. Ecumenism is one of many ways to practice active Christianity.
One of the most compelling reasons Christian Scientists have become ecumenically involved is that other Christians have been asking for us to participate in the greater dialogue and especially to explain and share our unique gifts more widely.
Talking to other Christians about Christian Science
One of the greatest stumbling blocks to successful ecumenical engagement can be the language we use. Every church or denomination has its own jargon, which can be baffling or unwittingly offensive to others. Without understanding the language, culture, and history of others, we often find ourselves trying to share our most precious ideas only to discover they mean something entirely different to our listeners. With love for others, we make the effort to learn their Christian ‘language’ in order to communicate the greatest depth of thought. Just as we maintain our own culture and identity when we learn a foreign language, we also maintain the identity of Christian Science while we learn the Christian practices and theology of others.
Prayer and insights about ecumenical engagement
- Getting our assumptions right in interfaith work by Brian Talcott
- Opening closed doors by Maryl Walters
- Invitation to worship by Kristin Jamerson
- What Christian Scientists Believe (Video) by Madelon Maupin, Brian Talcott, Eric Nelson
Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon (who first invited the Christian Science Church to engage in the ecumenical movement, 2008)
Video: Mary Baker Eddy — A Heart in Protest
Responding to common questions
Michael Kinnamon talks about the meaning of ecumenical dialogue (YouTube video)
Discussion with Michael Kinnamon about Christian Science in ecumenical dialogue (in The Christian Science Journal)