Christian Unity Week 2011

Last week, we celebrated Christian Unity Week with the theme:

One in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42)

This is a global celebration and in this small corner of the globe, we had an ecumenical worship at a big University chapel. Participants came from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, a number from the Methodist Church, 2 or 3 from the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, a pair from the Iglesia Filipiniana Independiente, and a large number from the ecumenical Catholic movement Focolare. None from the minority Orthodox Church, or the Philippine Episcopal Church.

The whole liturgy was youth-led, with the visible presence of Bishop Tobias of the Bishops’ Conference Commission on Ecumenical Affairs. The rest of the leaders in attendance were rather self-effacing pastors.

The liturgy went fine  – the prayers and songs. What moved me in particular was the interpretative dance of the youth, and the melodious voices of the youth choir. One pastor gave a 5-minute message about the event. I understand the mix of evangelicals in the group so that clapping after the dance, or the pastor’s message, for example was tolerable even if it reduced the gathering into a graduation program of sort. But to me, the most questionable segment was the 35-minute lecture on the Eucharist by a Catholic, Rome-trained priest in black Roman collar. The theological exposition was very dominating, and so was his presence at the podium that the participants were reduced to catechumens waiting, others dozing off, not really knowing the end of the lecture. In the context of a liturgy, a long lecture could easily deface the concept of koinonia or communion of believers which is what the liturgy is all about. Koinonia could simply be reduced into clerical control; space for the Spirit into authority of a priest (or anybody). It became more ironic or confusing because it was supposed to be an ecumenical service. I’m glad Bishop Tobias gave a very brief impression only at the end of the event.

And this priest was trained in Rome! It made me wonder his liturgical theology, or sense of ecumenism. And it brought me back to  George Tavard’s arguments on how Western Christianity lost this sense of koinonia because of its taken-for-granted theology of the Spirit, that the Spirit proceeds both from the Father and the Son. Tavard wrote:

Where the Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father and the Son as from one principle, the Church tends to underline the presence of the Second Person, the incarnate Word, in the community of disciples. And since this presence is signified through certain traditional symbols (sacraments and sacramentals), it tends to stress the centrality of these symbols in the Church’s daily life. Some of these symbols being identified with actual persons, the ordained ministers, the representativeness of ministry has been strongly underlined. Ordained ministers not only “stand in the presence and serve” God (as is said in the contemporary third canon of the Roman Mass). They also “act in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi) when they preside over the Eucharist.

Tavard contrasted this Western theology with the theology of the Eastern Church in which the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone:

Where the Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father alone, the Spirit’s presence and action confirm the memory of the Lord’s saving deeds and words. They also build up the contemplative knowledge of what the Word has done, said, and given. Whence the Church’s tradition is not only memory but also contemplation and reflection (gnosis). As the Father sent the divine Logos into the world through the incarnation, so does he now send the Spirit into the Church. The Spirit enables the faithful to live their multisided relationships in the world as indeed the koinonia of the disciples. Spirit is not more in hierarchy than in the communion of the faithful.

From here, Tavard argued that,

the distinction between priest and people  that is functional chiefly  in the Holy Liturgy never becomes a distinction between clergy and laity as two classes or castes in the people of God.

Pentecostalism is underway in global Christianity, perhaps less in Rome and more in Asian and African churches. One could trace this to the sense of equality that ordinary believers experience in every worship (freedom to dance or scream or sing) and claim to be the Spirit’s gift regardless if charismatic leaders easily morph into wealth-amassing individuals.

Come, Spirit, come!

Source: George H. Tavard, The Church, Community of Salvation, pp. 51-52


Cartoon credit: Catholic Convert


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