Christian Unity

I am greatly honoured by your invitation to join with you in worship here today. Like many other born and bred Dubliners, I know your church building well . . . from the outside. So thank you for bringing me inside today.
Keith has asked me to talk about ‘Ecumenics’, as distinct from, say, Ecumenism or Church Unity or Christian Unity. That distinction is important to me. I work at the Irish School of Ecumenics. And if I tell this to people, their first response is usually to ask ‘Irish School of What?’ Those of us who work at the Irish School of Ecumenics have thus worked out our own, off the cuff, definitions of Ecumenics to save us from appearing not to know what our place of work means. One of my colleagues once defined ecumenics as a disciplined interaction of theology and politics. As pithy definitions go, this is good and this is short. And it has been a great help to me in explaining where I’m coming from to those who are perplexed by Ecumenics. Without a ready-made definition to hand, people often find it more credible that the school name is really a typing error and they adjust it accordingly: each week brings a fair crop of letters addressed to the Irish School of Economics (though if that was our name, we would probably not have to devote ourselves quite so energetically to fund raising).
Mind you, those who make the mistake of substituting economics for ecumenics have a point. The words have a common root in the Greek word oikos, meaning a house. Economics has to do with the governing and managing of a household, discerning and applying the oikos nomos, the law of the household, so that all who live in the shared house might flourish together. Ecumenics shares this concern with habitation: in Greek there is the word oikoumene – often spelt out in Greek lettering on flags and banners at ecumenical gatherings. Oikoumene means the whole inhabited earth. It is the word that lurks behind the well-known expression in Luke’s gospel – which we will have heard in the recent past – of how Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that ‘all the world’ should be taxed, thus sending Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem. When Christian bishops were gathered together by the Roman Emperors in the fourth century and later, they called their gatherings ‘Ecumenical Councils,’ indicating that what they were doing there was understood to have relevance for this whole, inhabited earth.
But what does the whole inhabited earth look like? How does it appear to our imaginations? One of the striking things about our species is our love of drawing maps in order to locate ourselves. And, in locating ourselves, we also take care to locate Others. And, in locating ourselves and Others, a concern with dispassionate accuracy is not always on display. Many of us probably grew up with school atlases that made use of Mercator’s projection: that was our world; and we were struck by the inaccuracies of Mercator’s projection when the new orthodoxy of Peterson’s projection became available. The old map had made certain countries bigger, and certain countries smaller, than they really are. In the name of geographical science, the map had tried to confirm – scientifically – a view of how the world really is.
So, we like maps. We like to know where we are. And knowing where we are, requires that we know where they – the Others – are. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon that began with the replacement of Mercator by Peterson. It has been part of human experience since we started to represent ourselves visually on cave walls. If you visit an exhibition of historical maps, you may come across what was called a mappa mundi, a map of the world, of the oikoumene. These are wonderful attempts to blend what we know with matters of speculation. We are at the centre. At the periphery, however, we are no longer so sure. At the limits of these maps, we see that our forbears have often filled in the gaps of our knowledge with dire warnings of storms, swamps, and, of course, the warning that ‘Here be Dragons.’
These maps confirm for us that we live at the very centre of the world; they tell us that the world is ordered so that we live at the centre of things; and these maps tell us that others do not enjoy these privileges, and that this is the way that Things Should Be.
When early Christians claimed ‘Ecumenical’ status for their Councils and for their Councils’ decisions, they were claiming for themselves a significance that we today might more easily call ‘global.’ But there was a downside. The map of the world with which the early Christians operated (and not just the early Christians) was one that identified the oikoumene with the Roman Empire, and with the civilization that Rome had acquired around the Mediterranean in the city states left behind by Alexander the Great. Now this is probably something that we didn’t hear in Sunday school. Christianity saw itself – from very early on – as something for the ordered, civilized world of the city. By definition, to be civilized was to live in the civitas, the city. Outside the city, things were not so hopeful. Our word ‘pagan’ was originally used to describe country dwellers: strange, untrustworthy, uncivilized people with strange, untrustworthy, uncivilized Gods. Not like us, at all.
Indeed, at one stage within the Christian church there was considerable debate over the gospel could be shared with those uncivilized creatures from outside the city walls. It can be alarming t o read some of the great Christian thinkers of the period insist that only civilized city dwellers can be evangelized. And so, within the empire, the followers of an itinerant Jewish rabbi from rural Galilee had decided that the gospel should stay in the city, where it belonged.
What about those outside the empire’s frontiers? They were considered worse than the empire’s pagans: they were ‘barbarians.’ They were barbarians because they could not speak properly: they could be heard across the frontier – they said ‘bah, bah, bah.’ Meaningless gibberish: hence they were ‘bah bah-rians,’ people evidently unsuitable for the good news of Jesus the Christ.
Of course, the borders that we draw, and to which we become deeply attached, are open to negotiation. By the fifth century a few eccentric souls were beginning to view pagans and barbarians as capable of receiving salvation. Patrick – the Irish patron saint – was one of these. As a slave, on the edge of the western ocean, he had seen the end of the known world, and like a latter-day St Paul, he believed that God had given him the task of bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Our maps are not always explicitly before us. The great French Reformer Jean Calvin said that the human heart is a factory of idols. Our capacity to misimagine what is most real is evidenced by much of what we say and do. And, significantly, by much of what we don’t say or do, but by what we assume. And assume that everyone agrees with our assumption. The Belfast-based educationist Yvonne Naylor calls this kind of assumption ‘the level.’ Everyone knows what the level is. It doesn’t have to be declared up-front. Unexpressed, it remains unchallenged. Like a mappa mundi, it tells us how things are, and it tells us that this is how things are meant to be. The level does not relish having its status challenged or negotiated; indeed it can prove quite vicious.
So, how do we gain remain vigilant to the level? How do we purge our world-views from the kind of self-serving and parochial imagination that can become toxic to our vision of a shared and flourishing existence? The poet Rudyard Kipling seems to be suggesting a therapeutic and cultivated irony as part of our cure in his poem ‘We and They,’ which contains a challenge to cross over the sea, rather than settle for an easier sense of identity that is immediately to hand.

We and They
Father, Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We have kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

‘Ecumenics’ is a disciplined reflection on how we imagine our one, inhabited earth, and how we imagine ‘our’selves. It knows that the inhabitants of this earth are immensely different and strikingly alike: some are religious, some are not; some are human, most are not. A Christain ecumenics starts from a position of repentance: we have often imagined our world in ways that were too small; the God of love and mercy we have reduced to a petty tyrant fixated on trivial issues of personal morality; we have put ourselves at the centre of a cosmos that is so much more vast and mysterious than we have allowed ourselves to dare. We have read the creation stories in Genesis as confirming our privileged place. Yet human beings are not the grand finale of the days of creation – we appear on day 6, along with the beasts and cattle. The climax of creation is the Sabbath, when God invites all creation to celebrate all that God has made. This is a great cosmic vision, one that our relentless desire to map frequently suppresses.
And, though we often violate and subvert its imperatives, the vision of oikoumene – the flourishing together of all God’s creatures in the great Sabbath – is a vision that needs to be articulated again and again for a world where division and strife continue to be massaged by human-manufactured borders that claim divine sanction. Ecumenics is a gently ironic attempt to seek wisdom in a world of compromised traditions – traditions that we did not make, but for which we are now – for a time – responsible.
Andrew Pierce 19 January 2008
Unitarian Church, St Stephens Green.