Palermo Perspectives # 3: Does What the Church Does Make Any Difference?

Palermo Perspectives # 3: Does What the Church Does Make Any Difference?

As part of my Global Ministries placement this summer, I am to share my reflections. So every couple of weeks, I will also send a “Palermo Perspective” to Old First, sort of a report since you all are making my summer service possible.

Ironically, Palermo Perspectives #3 is written from Leipzig, Germany… where I am attending the 2017 Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

But all things work together for the good! And this very international setting of a breadth of church with which I am unfamiliar has certainly added to the perspectives I have, even my thoughts on my temporary life and work among the cultures of Sicily, Syria and Africa in Palermo.

In Leipzig, we are doing the “high-level work” of an International church body composed of an improbably (at least back in the socio-political polarizations of the U.S.), almost impossibly broad range of the churches —  in various cultures, settings, theologies and politics. Business is conducted in English, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Indonesian…

There are denominations of the global north with their bureacracies and institutional forms. And even among them there is a range from the UCC or the United Church of Canada on the left to the ECO-Presbyterians who have withdrawn from the Presbyterian Church USA over homosexuality, and believe in the infallibility of Scripture.

And a even greater variety of church organizations and incarnations come from the global south  — 1500 member mega-churches that are part of a significant denominational structures and 55 member congregations in much looser affiliations of churches. Denominations as progressive as us, and groups that are very conservative.

For some of these churches and denominations, the WCRC serves as a primary or even sole identity and affiliation in the wider world.

This whole unlikely yet holy conglomeration is held together with some tension, it seems to me, by two variously held commitments:

1) A Sense of faithfulness to the Reformed theological tradition …

(…that, frankly, is a bit unfamiliar to me, but might be generally summarized as committed to:

a. to the Reformed principle of always being in need of reform according to the Word of God;
b. to the continuing relevance of the Barmen Declaration and the confessions of Belhar and Accra;
c. to the special place of the marginalized and the poor in God’s concern.
d. to the crucial link, among others,  between evangelization and justice;
e. to the priesthood of all believers;
f. to the peace, reconciliation and unity of the Christian Church;
g. to interreligious dialogue and cooperation.)

AND

2) A perhaps not similarly understood Agreement that a practice of justice in the wider world is integral to the church’s faithfulness.

As I have said, it’s a much wider range of churches and beliefs than I usually encounter. There are churches that do not yet ordain women. And churches that circumscribe Jesus’ work to a very tight personal salvation.

And Christians who believe Jesus was about a battle with Empire and that, therefore, the ministry of the church must be likewise. Actually, “empire” is a code-word for a number of, I suspect, sometimes, maybe even often contradicting, but important non-colonialist, anti-capitilist positions.

As I said, a common commitment to the centrality of justice in the Gospel and an attachment to Reformed tradition seem to be the anchors that hold these boats together through some sometimes choppy seas.

But the question that intrigues me is how what we do in a setting like the WCRC affects churches in many contexts, the world as a whole, and the lives of folks in pews near and far?

The same question can of course be asked about a UCC General Synod since that body neither legislates to nor speaks for the member churches. Instead it is it’s own constituted body, with Jesus present, speaking to the churches and the world.

Actually, this question about how what we do at church matters in the world, it occupies me often in ministry closer to home.  I wonder about it for the association and conference as well as for the national setting. I think about it for our local church too.  I ask myself and others about  what we say and do and believe in church, and how it translates and matters beyond the four walls and outside of the worship hours of our churches?

And I reflect and pray about what we could do… SHOULD DO in order for the teachings of the church to have more influence in our members’ lives and in the world at large. I’d like our justice commitments to get legs and cover greater distances! …Especially these days in the U.S. when there seems to be such a retreat from justice and concern for the common good much less the most vulnerable.

Here’s what I’m thinking about the church undertaking advocacy positions and actions.

At the WCRC General Council, we have passed resolutions that included:

Creation and Unity; Migration, Human Trafficking and Refugees; Treatment of Christians Globally; Interfaith Relations; Black Lives Matter (put together by the UCC delegation!); Violence Against Individuals Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, as well on Indigenous People, African Churches, Central America, Horn of Africa, Colombia, Cuba, Kenya, Korea, Mauritius, Palestine, Romania, Taiwan, Venezuela.

We were also part of a ceremony formalizing an agreement on the theological understanding of Justification. It was first signed between the Lutherans and Catholics 18 years ago. The Methodists signed on 8 years after that. Now the Reformed Churches have agreed as well. It’s not the end of all the divisions in Christ’s Church, but it’s an important step towards understanding and respect.

As I’m in agreement with the positions approved at the WCRC General Council, I wish they could simply be brought to pass! But I understand life and our world and its variety of positions and the process by which things change are complex.  And important things rarely happen over night! Instead, the processes  often stop and start. Decision-making and social movements are neither simple, quick nor easy, especially if we are committed to hearing all the opposing voices, experiences, fears and needs.

Still, I believe that church bodies, as communities organized around some moral center, taking positions and engaging in advocacy and organizing is crucially important.

It seems to me that such resolutions are the first step that serves two important purposes:

1) They set priorities and an agenda for the organization, in this case the WCRC, for the next 7 years until their next gathering.

2) When such positions are relayed broadly to member churches, even to people in the pews, and the world at large — if a pronouncement of the church is met with some sense of respect — these resolutions can be important exhortations and public leadership by the church.

I want to affirm the importance and effectiveness of the churches undertaking actions and other advocacy efforts for justice. Things do not come to pass because the church says so! But that does not mean the church’s actions are of no impact! Even if they are of less immediate impact than we might want.

In the United Church of Christ, we have an example in the progress made towards equality for LGBT folk — in the church and in the world. We have moved ahead through the efforts of good organizing. Much of that movement came out of organizing local congregations in the Open and Affirming process.

But the pro-LGBT effort in the UCC has been strengthened by our having a pro-LGBT-equality resolution at probably every General Synod since 1982! And in the UCC the General Synod is not a representative body, but a leadership body that, discerning God’s will,  is designed to challenge and lead the church and its local congregations.

The same would be true of the UCC’s justice work on worker’s rights, immigration, Israel-Palestine…

And I believe that the struggle for women’s equality, for example, will be furthered and strengthened by what we are doing at WCRC. And people of faith will be challenged to think of environmental justice as a confessional issue. And recognize that certain justice issues, like race and colonialism cross national and cultural and contextual boundaries.

What I am suggesting, where I am on the church’s undertaking justice advocacy and action: while the church in our time is not the most powerful institution in most of our societies, its taking and acting on positions fulfills the prophetic aspect of faithfulness. And while often not directly or quickly, the work of the church makes a difference in our lives and in the world:

It lifts and sustains voices that are quiet, forgotten and suppressed.

It challenges us to change as people and communities and to create a world with room enough for all and with resources shared to meet everyone’s needs.

And even if only one heart or mind changes at a time, with the long road of working for the world God wants for all creatures, the church cannot afford not to speak about justice in the world.

Let’s keep up the good work, and let’s make sure that we act in our local churches and in our communities to further the justice work of God’s church.

Thinking of you,

Michael