This weekend begins The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for churches in the northern hemisphere. Those in the Global South usually meet during Pentecost. It is a time to reflect on the past and look to the future of the movement to bring visible unity among the churches. In a recent article for the January 19th edition of The Living Church, Robert Jenson gave his thoughts on “The Strange Future of the ‘Ecumenical Movement.’” Jenson concludes his short reflection with some scenarios “of things only God can do,” one of which is that perhaps God “will carry on the ecumene with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern churches, and Pentecostal groups.” For this reason, he suggests that we must join Jesus’ teaching us to pray “thy Kingdom come” to his high-priestly prayer “that they may be one.”
Across North America there will be events on the local level in which persons from different Christian faith traditions come together to sing, pray, and hope. Two such events that are significant for Pentecostals will occur in Sacramento, California and Springfield, Missouri. The former will be held at Capital Christian Center, an Assemblies of God (AG) megachurch in Sacramento. Mel Robeck, an AG minister who also has led the Pentecostal team for the International Pentecostal-Catholic dialogue for several decades will speak, as will John Crossin, OSFS, the Executive Director of the Secretariate for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The event in Springfield will occur at Evangel Temple Assemblies of God. There has been a local Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue between the AG and the diocese of Springfield Cape-Girardeau for some time. Retired bishop John Leibrecht will participate as will the current General Superintendent of the AG, George Wood. The fact that this event will occur in an AG church in the city where the AG headquarters are located with the current AG General Superintendent in attendance is highly significant. Both events highlight a shift within the AG in favor of ecumenical dialogue, which is in keeping with how the AG views the church.
From its founding, the central idea within AG theology has been to view the church as a living organism. The church is a living entity, filled with the Spirit and in union with Christ. It is significant that in 1937 the AG Bible teacher Meyer Pearlman quoted large paragraphs from William Dunphy’s The Living Temple to illustrate how the church is an organism. Dunphy was an Episcopalian theologian connected to Nashotah House, an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Seminary that continues in that tradition today. Dunphy himself had taken the idea of the church as the mystic body of Christ organically connected to its head from the Russian Orthodox lay theologian A. S. Khomiakov. Khomiakov utilized the Slavic term sobornyi, which means catholic, but also carries the idea of to gather together, to see the church catholic as a communion of persons in the Spirit. And thus via a circuitous route, the Russian idea of sobornicity, a union and communion achieved through the people gathered together in the Spirit, developed by Khomiakov and later by John Meyendorff in his Living Tradition, made its way into Pentecostal views of the church.
Meyendorff once proclaimed that the task of the church was to make the believer live and grow in the Spirit so that the person may come to see the truth. Put more provocatively, Khomiakov would suggest that the church is not an authority, but the authority is the Spirit who is internal to the church and causes the church to grow in the truth. AG thinkers saw the idea of the church as a living organism as implying the kind of anti-institutional direction Khomiakov’s thought could be taken in. At the same time, AG thinkers pronounced that the church was the mystical body of Christ and this body manifested itself in a visible organization.
What strikes me in all of this is the fact that a number of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox thinkers were developing ideas about the church along similar lines. One finds it in Catholic thinkers like Yves Congar, Orthodox thinkers like Meyendorff, and Protestant thinkers like John Nevin. And, surprisingly enough, in Pentecostals like Meyer Pearlman. It is the heritage of a convergence between a number of streams from the nineteenth century in which thinkers from Thomas Carlyle to the German Catholic Johann Adam Möhler were reconceiving the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.
The social nature of humanity had its counter in the organic union of the church. This was a shared vision of an enchanted world that allowed Methodists like Frances Willard to proclaim temperance as a virtue that should be adopted on the personal and social levels. It was central to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s coupling of abstinence from alcohol with voting rights for women, and one still finds it in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration that rights came from the structure of human existence. Civil Rights was ultimately about the struggle to bring humanity in line with that more fundamental structure.
The connection between the personal and the social was torn asunder under the weight of a host of ideas and events too complex to discuss here. What has resulted is the slow erosion of the idea that freedom grows best in the context of human community and that this community is itself a reflection of a deep communal structure to life grounded in God. The church ceases to be perceived as a place in which human freedom is fulfilled as it is brought back into communion with the deep structures of life and instead is viewed as an obstacle to freedom.
It may be, then, that the prayer for unity is also a prayer to recover an enchanted view of the world and it is here that Pentecostals, Catholics, and Orthodox (and I would add Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, etc.) have something to say to one another, which brings me back to Jenson’s scenario “of things only God can do.” It is yet another reason to pray next week that we may be one even as we pray “thy Kingdom come.”
Updated with link to Jenson article.