Week of Christian Pabulum

by Ken Briggs

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The week set aside by Rome for Christian Unity after Vatican II was literally a curtain-raiser at first. Tribes of church people who had never crossed the thresholds of each other's sanctuaries found themselves exploring hymnals, altars and religious fixtures they'd only heard about. Catholics could finally feel free to enter Protestant space without fear of divine sanction. Protestants began sorting out fact from fiction and superstition.

That was on the management level, the province of institutional and clerical priorities. On the ground level, at least among my neighbors in my working class hometown with its 26 churches, the denominational lines were taken much less seriously. Sectarian labels meant relatively little beyond the generally accepted chasm between the Catholic and Protestant traditions that still frowned upon intermarriage. A cluster of survival needs took precedence. We got along and didn't demand the "right answers" as to whether the Bible alone was sufficient unto salvation or the Virgin Birth fit into our beliefs. In that sense, lay people were way ahead of the keepers of the truth tests who were the visible heads of faith communities. Getting along with each other and delivering casseroles and jumper cables at crisis times seemed much more important.

At the start of this years Week, the high minded venture is greeted in ho-hum fashion by clergy and laity alike. The get-acquainted period is over, though never pursued with much verve, the polite exchanges went off quite well though nobody much wanted to stay to mull over the sticky issues, and the window of openness during a time of American religious prosperity turned into a period of religious ebbing and growing church anxieties over keeping the doors open or the air conditioning paid for. It was close to what we knew in college as a "mixer" where we peaked into each others spiritual laboratories, shared punch and cookies, met new people, symbolically removed any horns that might have been thought to exist on the heads of the "others," and overall promoted a climate of good will that has served us well.

We are now at the point where little to nothing is known about the various traditions and what used to mark them so clearly in comparison with each other. The era of generic religion is fast upon us. It isn't unusual for people who are familiar with each other, maybe friends, to be unaware of their respective church identities, or, if in fact, they have such. One of my neighbors, for example, is close to a family whose daughter is in seminary and wasn't aware which one or what tradition it belonged to. News features about a person described as "religious" or even "ordained" often feel no apparent need to locate the subject in a particular branch of Christianity or whatever. Exceptions are sometimes made for links pertaining to socially prominent or influential churches such as Episcopalians, Catholics, maybe Southern Baptists, but if you are on the minority fringe either racially or socio-economically, it's considered irrelevant. The New York Times obituary of the fabulous Meadowlark Lemon, for instance, mentioned he was an "ordained minister" but said nothing more about it. Same went for Angelica R. in the profile of her as an angel of mercy in her poor urban neighborhood. She, too, was simply "ordained" without portfolio.

This isn't all bad. It testifies to the erosion of barriers and sources of prejudice that inspired cross burnings and holy bad-mouthing. It just doesn't matter, with the exception, of course, of fundamentalists of every denomination and whole denominations that continue to insist on exact conformity to special requirements (the high hurdles track to salvation). Most people, I surmise, have no gripe with anyone else's beliefs, much less an impulse to go to war over something like the validity of transubstantiation.

The down side of this, obviously, is that awareness of any Christian substance, even one's own, accompanies this benevolent forgetfulness. Poll after poll underscores the gathering cloud of willful ignorance of the Bible, key elements of Christian history or the origins and development of central beliefs. That doesn't bode well and is the far pole removed from what originators of the Unity Week had in mind. They envisioned robust branches of the faith somehow becoming attached to a common truck. Some still do. Prodigious ecumenical dialog found vital chords of common beliefs behind the frontal spats. But once those were uncovered, progress stopped in its tracks. Popes got nervous and Protestants got impatient. The procession stopped at the penultimate staging area on the mountain, unable to attempt the peak.

For the moment, then, we can thank the Week for easing along a degree of reconciliation without coming near the more daring moves toward finding a formula that works. Perhaps it has succeeded as well as it could, given our fussy and stubborn natures and our need to find more adequate signs that show us the way.Right now, if they gave a party for Christian unity nobody might bother to show up.


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