The week of praying for Christian unity is once again upon us. This year we are focusing on—and praying for—the main streams of Christianity in the world today. Here I would like to ask the question: How can we better appreciate the riches of grace found in other Christian traditions? And how can we (and do we) draw upon those riches in our Sword of the Spirit communities?
Sometimes, “ecumenism” is criticized for promoting a “lowest common denominator” Christianity. A kind of decaffeinated faith that has little body or flavor. In fact, almost no one promotes a lowest-common denominator ecumenism. In our own ecumenical approach in the Sword of the Spirit, we say:
We do not practice a “lowest common denominator” ecumenism. At times we introduce into our common life elements drawn from one tradition that are not found in another, such as the celebration of Christian seasons. We want to draw on the rich resources of our traditions, and we assume that there is much that each of us can learn from our brothers and sisters in other churches.
In the ecumenical language of our churches, this is usually called “an exchange of gifts.” Ecumenism is not just talking to one another or learning about one another: at its core, it is an exchange of gifts, inspired by the Spirit, as we together walk the long, hard road to unity. Pope Benedict XVI gives testimony to this exchange of gifts when he says, “the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all.”
What does this mean in practice? It means that we are ready and eager to receive things that will build up our common life together, even when these elements are not present in all our traditions. One example of this is the celebration of the Christian seasons, including Advent and the 40 Days of Lent. We together embrace these seasons that are observed in only some of our traditions.
Another prime example is the Pentecostal gift of being baptized in the Holy Spirit and the exercise of the spiritual gifts. Of course, these are witnessed to in the New Testament which we all hold in common, but this gift of grace came to us in part through direct contact with those from the Pentecostal stream of Christianity. Through this gift many have been enriched.
A third example is the prominent place of the Scriptures in our common life and a focus on reading the Bible in personal prayer. Of course, all our traditions revere the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but it is especially in the Protestant world where the daily practice of reading and studying the Bible is strong, and we are heirs of this blessing in our communities.
Strikingly, we are also beneficiaries of the riches of Messianic Jews in our midst. How so? By adapting the Jewish sabbath prayers for celebrating the Christian Lord’s Day—the day of the resurrection. This practice of celebrating the Lord’s Day has greatly enriched our life together across the globe.
The Lord has blessed our communities as places where the “exchange of gifts” from our various traditions has been richly expressed. Let’s give thanks for this richness, let’s pray for the various streams of Christianity, and let’s beseech the Lord to bring us, step-by-step, into ever greater unity in Christ.
Dr. Dan Keating is an elder in the Servants of the Word and teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA.