March 09, 2023 | by Rev. Becky Goodwin
It was a breezy spring day when we discovered the magical opening in the hedge. Exploring a gap in the greenery that might save us a long walk on concrete, it was indeed a delightful shortcut, a leafy tunnel connecting a parking lot and a corner crosswalk.
Akiko Miyake-Stoner, Roxanne Bucaria and I were on one of our walks between our hotel and Christ Cathedral. We were going to and from the National Workshop on Christian Unity in Anaheim, CA, May 3-6, 2022. We laughed like the children in the book The Secret Garden as we passed single file through the green tunnel. Once we found that passage, we used it every day for our treks.
“The Secret Garden” shortcut through the hedge made our walks fun, but it also became a metaphor for seeking that elusive place we call “Christian unity.” Can we even get there? Should we even try? Or shall we stay forever divided by the polarities that are mirrored by the social and political turmoil of our times?
We can’t even maintain unity in our denomination! “Splintering” is well underway as both “progressive” and “traditional” factions emerge. Historians would say this is nothing new. Methodism has never been one whole and holy union.
We have seen other denominations go through splits and schisms, and here we are suffering more of the same. Not all Christians are interested in ecumenism, or they are outright hostile to it. We see the tensions in our nation and the world. It is a hard time to advocate for unity! But the National Workshop for Christian Unity tries!
While organizations like the Parliament of the World Religions highlight interfaith events and studies, the National Workshop for Christian Unity has a specific purpose: to explore and share ideas and struggles and successes in efforts and issues of unity among Christians.
It was an adventure for Akiko, Roxanne and I to meet Christian unity enthusiasts of many walks of life and many denominations from around the country, and United Methodists from many conferences. We became acquainted with our interim bishop, The Rev. Sally Dyck, who is the ecumenical officer for our Council of Bishops.
The 2022 Workshop theme was the saying of the magi in Matthew 2:2, “We saw the star in the East and we came to worship Him.” In plenaries, seminars, worship, field trips, and meals, we shared concerns about churches in late-pandemic times, current ecumenical dialogue, racial justice, care for creation and the future of ecumenism.
From the keynote message from Archbishop Elpidophous of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, to the closing day’s prayer, every workshop and speaker either alluded to or spoke intentionally about Christian unity challenges in the polarities and tension of our times.
Our theologian-in-residence, the Rev. Dr. Elaine A. Heath, seminary professor, United Methodist elder, and author of many books, offered practical examples of Christian unity that grows within intentional community like her own experimental “Spring Forest,” an intentional contemplative community and farm in North Carolina. It is rooted in her United Methodist resources, but open to all who participate, especially immigrants and all seekers of spiritual formation. She pretty much begged us all to let go of our varieties of dogmatism and other denominational attachments, and to focus instead on the practice of the ways of Jesus: spiritual formation, practical care for one another, and advocacy and action for justice.
Christians cannot unify as long as they glorify uniqueness and “correctness.” Every Christian denomination and nondenominational group has its heritage and good ways, but without better efforts at respect and cooperation, there is a downside. Each denomination may be “terminally unique.” Are we doomed to fizzle out one by one as we fail to look to what makes us able to unify in Christ?
There is a “secret garden” passageway to Christian unity. It is the beautiful leafy Vine of Christ on which we are the branches. It is the willingness to explore the mystery, like children in a secret garden, or like adults who find a lovely green passageway within the concrete city.
By looking for Jesus, like the magi who followed a star and made a journey through the unknown of their time, we, too, can find the path. And like the magi who went home “another way” to escape Herod’s wrath, we, too, must consider the forces of evil and danger that threaten our hope in Christ.
We contemplate, with love instead of judgement, the hard concrete hearts and minds of competitive Christianity.
We seek the garden path of love that softens our hardened hearts and opens us up to the light of Christ.
If you would like to participate in this year’s National Workshop on Christian Unity, registration is now open. You can find information here: https://nwcu.org/ Please contact the Committee on Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships (CUIR) Chair Akiko Miyake-Stoner (email@example.com) if you are interested in attending. There may be some financial support available. Thank you!