In college I bought a pair of sandals that I thought looked cool. I was wearing them one day and someone else thought the same. She said, “Cool sandals. Are they Birkenstock’s?” I had never heard that word before, but I knew nothing on my feet had that word on it. “No,” I answered. The young lady crinkled her nose, said, “Ew!” and walked off.
That didn’t feel so good. Rejection never does.
Recently a man asked me, “Are you an Episcopalian or a Catholic?” He’d been eyeing me as we waited for an elevator. It took me a moment to answer him.
Maybe something in my heart flinched when I heard the question, “Are you an Episcopalian or a Catholic?” I assumed I had a 50% chance of this stranger saying, “Ew!” and walking off.
I think I said something like, “I’m part of a diocese that’s no longer in The Episcopal Church, so in a sense I’m neither Episcopalian nor Catholic. I’m just working for Jesus and trying to do some of the boss’s work.”
He didn’t say “Ew!” He and his wife are members of another parish in our diocese.
But once I discovered that we were in the same group, I had a different problem. I had to avoid assenting to any “Ew!” comments about Episcopalians and Catholics.
How do you stand in a church fight, distinguishable from those with whom you deeply and perhaps irrevocably disagree, while rejecting rejection along with the contempt and malice that go with it?
And we’re all fighting, on some level or another. Even if we think we’re not fighting. Non-fighters tell the fighters, “Stop fighting!” And them’s fightin’ words.
There’s even a low-level rejection that goes with the denominational experiment. In the non-denominational expressions within the experiment, denominationalism is rejected. Many denominational churches downplay their affiliation so that would-be visitors won’t reject them simply on the basis of their name or branding. That’s how I see the general scene, at least from my niche in the trenches.
My niche in the trenches is the Anglican niche. Here there is a very bitter clash between reapprisers (liberals) and reasserters (conservatives). And even among reasserters (my tribe) there are challenging divisions between those staying within the Episcopal Church to pursue renewal of the institution and those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America. Within all of this you have the divide between high-church and low-church Anglicans.
Wormwood seems to have learned his lesson from Uncle Screwtape, who counseled in Screwtape XVI:
Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.
In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.
I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better.
What is “the kind of unity the Enemy desires?” Presumably, a unity of agape.
“If someone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar,” John unapologetically said, for “the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). We only live as we should when we are in a right relationship to god and to other human beings—thus the two greatest commandments . . . . Rejection, no matter how old one is, is a sword thrust to the soul that has literally killed many. Western culture is, largely unbeknown to itself, a culture of rejection. This is one of the irresistible effects of what is called “modernity,” and it deeply affects the concrete forms Christian institutions take in our time. It seeps into our souls and is a deadly enemy to spiritual formation in Christ. (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 36)
Learning a unity of agape we would learn to disagree without dehumanizing. Learning a unity of agape we would comprehensively manifest the sweep of Ephesians 4, simultaneously “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” while “speaking the truth in love.”
Denominations, associations, parties, and groups will always be with us. I don’t think we can eradicate them. But we can and must eradicate a party spirit (Gal. 5:20) along with the rejection, contempt, anger, and malice that go with it.
I can’t do that for anybody other than me. And by myself I’m powerless to do it. But grace, cultivated by careful and consistent spiritual disciplines, can help me become the kind of person who willingly and easily rejects rejection.
This my personal project, it’s also my proposal for a missional-ecumenical movement, and with Bishop Jeremy Taylor it’s my prayer.Prayer for Gentleness
O Almighty God, give to thy servant a meek and gentle spirit, that I may be slow to anger, and easy to mercy and forgiveness. Give me a wise and constant heart, that I may never be moved to an intemperate anger for any injury that is done or offered. Lord, let me ever be courteous and easy to be entreated: let me never fall into a peevish or contentious spirit, but follow peace with all men, offering forgiveness, and courtesies, ready to confess my own errors, apt to make amends, and desirous to be reconciled. Let no employment or weariness, no sickness nor cross accident, make me angry or ungentle, or discontented, or unthankful, or uneasy to them that minister with me; but in all things make me like unto the holy Jesus.