The Spiritual Discipline of “Ecumenical Awkwardness”

By: Rev Laura E. Everett
April 16, 2012

Sometimes, the front pew is the hardest place to figure out what is going on at church. At 10:30pm on Saturday night, the Parish Council President greeted me at the front door of Taxiarchae/Archangels Greek Orthodox Church in Watertown. She saved me a seat of honor in the front pew. The only other people I know in the entire church of 300 people are the Priest and his wife, the Presbytera. A Protestant clergywoman at the holiest of Orthodox Christian feasts, I already feel a bit out of sorts. Quickly, I discover the problem with the first pew: you can’t follow the cues of the people ahead of you. By the tenth time we sang the Resurrection Hymn “Christos Anesti,” I think I had figured out both the tune and the proper movements of the lit Paschal candle. But there was a lot of page turning and fumbling in-between. This is the spiritual discipline of Ecumenical Awkwardness.

In the book and project “Practicing our Faith,” Craig Dykstra explains that Christian practices “are
patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced.”[1] I’ve come to believe in the spiritual discipline of Ecumenical Awkwardness, a Christian practice of being out of sorts and never quite conversant in the local language. Ecumenical awkwardness requires intentionally going to a new place, not knowing the customs but trusting that God has something new to teach you there and with those people. For the sake of the unity of the Church, we are called to go to places we don’t know, pray with people we don’t know and worship in ways that are unfamiliar.

My explicitly ecumenical ministry requires that I engage in this discipline, but why should anyone else? At this point in the Church’s life, I am convinced that all ministry requires border-crossing. We can no longer presume fluency or familiarity with Christian practices among the people we serve. By taking us out of our familiar settings, Ecumenical Awkwardness forces ministers back to a time when we too were strangers to worship and practice. This practice can only increase our awareness of the presumptions we make for our own parishioners.

Moreover, ministers must practice intentional ecumenical awkwardness because our congregations are no longer denominationally homogenous. As the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscapes Survey notes, 44% of Americans “now profess a religious rather affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised.” Or as a Roman Catholic priest quipped to me recently “Our large Roman Catholic parish was the biggest Protestant church in town, with so many inter-marriages, converts and guests.” When I visit a congregation or bring greetings to a denominational gathering, I ask people to raise their hand if they’ve ever been formed by another religious community. The majority of hands raised tell a story of movement and multiple identities. We’ve all heard it before, but the era of cradle-to-grave anything is mostly over. We must practice ‘ecumenical awkwardness’ because our people live it.

In her new book, “Still: Thoughts on a Mid-Faith Crisis” Lauren Winner writes of trying ‘dislocated exegesis,’ a practice of reading familiar Scripture in an unusual location- hospital waiting room or immigration detention center. Perhaps ‘ecumenical awkwardness’ is a practice of ‘dislocated worship’ or ‘dislocated polity,’ so that as we witness the worship and work of another Christian community, our own patterns and habits are exposed. When I am a guest, I fumble into all of the liturgical practices that are not explicit in the bulletin or book: when to stand, when to cross myself, what tune we use for the text that we assume everyone already knows. Visiting other Christian communities and practicing Ecumenical Awkwardness exposes for me how often my own church presumes information that would be necessary for fully participating in worship. I believe it is worth intentionally practicing Ecumenical Awkwardness if solely for the awareness it creates as we return to our own communities and view our own practices anew.

As an ecumenical guest, I depend on the Christian practice of hospitality to help me through the awkwardness. During the Pascha liturgy with my nose studiously in my book and facing the altar, the woman next to me tapped my shoulder and whispered, “Now is the time we all the face the icon of the Resurrection processing forward.” “Turn around,” she said. The spiritual discipline of Ecumenical Awkwardness puts us in a new posture where God can tap us on the shoulder and turn us around.

Tags: Thinking Out Loud


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