Something Whole Emerges

by Donald Schell

St. Gregory's, like many other intentionally open congregations, is religiously diverse.

For us that diversity includes Episcopalians, people from other Christian traditions, people who have significant experience in exploring Buddhism, Sufism, and other non-Christian religious practice, and people with no previous religious training or experience. Such diversity brings interesting questions. Where there is no creedal consensus, how do we build community patterned on Jesus' community of disciples? How do we help people open themselves to larger commitments? How do we nurture one another's growth in courageous action, compassion, and faith? And how is a congregation with such a wide breadth of religious experience actually Christian?

Many visitors and newcomers to any church are also asking similar questions. Perhaps they wonder whether they really belong with religious people and in a Christian congregation. They fear that their personal experience, sufferings, and joys set them outside the bounds of a Christian community and may exclude them from Christian faith and practice. Or they watch carefully to see if participating in church will require some dishonesty of them. Others, with a relatively clear and confident faith, struggle to become even more open-hearted and to appreciate friends who experience faith in very different ways than they do.

Legitimate skepticism and unprecedented religious diversity are the marks of our age, and both quietly pervade the contacts of ordinary life. Daily experience leads us to ask whether there is a way to be truly christian that does not exclude, condemn, or marginalize experiences that are not christian. I use the small "c" for "christian" here in exactly the way some use a small "c" for "catholic." St. Gregory's invites people into catholic christianity, where the small "c" suggests that we don't mean to claim exclusive right to either identity. At St. Gregory's, we intend to embrace and follow Jesus while acknowledging that any effort to draw a circle of belonging will be narrower than God's daring embrace of all humanity.

So, in this issue of God's Friends (as well as in the previous baptism and preaching issues) the same questions keep surfacing:

What makes us one? How do we meet and embrace Jesus (or know his embrace)? How can we embody Gregory of Nyssa's discovery that, by the grace of God, all humanity is already one?

In the previous issues we had a look at just how those questions shaped and refined St. Gregory's preaching and sacramental practice, and here we should recall that we pattern our preaching practice quite intentionally on Jesus' teaching work and our sacramental practice on his ministry. One way we follow him and hold close to him is by imitating what he did. Listening to all the voices in this issue, we may hear how those same questions bring us back to a clearer, richer appreciation of common faith in God through Christ. The keyword here is "common" or "shared." Protestant fundamentalism and the Catholic Inquisition in the Renaissance both attempted to purge Christian communities of individuals who held imperfect opinions about God, Jesus, or the work of God. The scrutiny was on individual faith. St. Gregory's does not believe that everyone believing the same things about Jesus would make us more christian. We don't teach or indoctrinate individuals that they must take Jesus "as their personal savior." We don't ask people to assent to a particular set of beliefs. Our community life and practice do not focus on each person's private faith.

Among our many voices, some skeptical, some deeply committed to Jesus the teacher, some mystical (or at least manifesting intuitive knowing and recognition of Jesus), one faith emerges. That faith lives in the chorus of our many questions, intuitions, experiences, and simple certainties, our sorrows and joys, our compassion and love and desire to serve others. Something whole emerges from the many different ways we hold Jesus. And as we listen to one another's diverse expressions of faith, many people with many experiences find that our holding itself is held in a compassion and love as large and fearless as Jesus' love.

Donald Schell is Rector of St. Gregory's and a Fellow of the College of Preachers.



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