The Episcopal Church prides itself in the acceptance of all people – those of diverse cultures, ethnicity, race, gender identity, sexual identity, and abilities. This allows for congregations that share the wonderful uniqueness of each person, celebrate their varied differences, and promote stronger and richer missions through their shared ideas.
Each culture brings with it an approach to worship that enriches the corporate celebration of the sacraments. Christianity, at its best, is an all-embracing tradition, taking all that is good and true and beautiful in the world and bringing it together to give it a home. In so doing, it is able to appreciate a wide variety of practices, spiritualities, theologies, philosophies and cultural adaptations. Of course, there are elements which transcend differences, such as the sacraments, which bring us into the Church: baptism, chrismation, the eucharist, clerical orders, marriage and anointing may be celebrated in a variety of unique ways, but the central core is still in the celebration.
With diversity, however, comes many challenges. There are established cultural norms that discourage some members of a congregation from being open to new ideas. There are social and racial biases so ingrained that some congregants don’t even realize they have them. Every person comes with his or her own customs, manner of dress, music and liturgy preferences, and political views. Saint Paul encountered this in his ministry; each city he proselyted was different, with different mores, cultures and social guidelines. These differences created a messy church – just like ours today.
A major hindrance to creating a unity within a diverse church is the tendency of human beings to cling to their ‘own kind’, even if they live, work and worship in multi-cultural neighborhoods. It is more comfortable to be among people just like one’s self, rather than stretch to acknowledge and come to understand customs and behaviors that are unfamiliar or different.
Even within the church, many people accept the concept of diversity until activities become culturally uncomfortable to them – then they want to go back to ‘how we have always done it’, discounting the possibility that new ways or approaches might even be more enriching, or open their minds and spirits to God in fresh and exciting ways. Styles of music become a serious impediment to solidifying a congregation – there are those who refuse to acknowledge any worth in contemporary Christian or non-piano/organ music. Many cultures worship in a participatory manner during the service, especially during the sermon. To those who could be labelled the ‘frozen chosen’ (sitting silently during the sermon), this is an anathema!
No matter the number of sermons preached on embracing those who are not like us, social and cultural norms reinforce the concept of ‘that’s okay for other people, but not for my church’. Past schisms in the Episcopal Church demonstrate evidence of how rigidly some beliefs are held.
Today’s church is no different from the early church, where Saint Paul preached:
There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
One of the best ways we can achieve true unity in diversity is to move from speech to action, by actually celebrating diversity in our churches. It takes a concerted effort by all members of the congregations; but it can be rewarding, inspiring, and joyful!
First, we must come to understand some core obstacles that may keep us from unity:
1. Pride in one’s identity must make room for embracing the identity of others. Racial, political and educational characteristics are at the core of our ego and self-identity. If we pridefully cling to our differences as the core of who we are and what is right, we are unable to embrace the identities of those not like us – often resulting in bigotry and judgment rather than loving and sincere interest in others. Realizing that much more unites human beings than divides them, is essential to unity.
2. Openness to doing things in new ways must supplant the discomfort of not doing things ‘my way’.
3. We must meet changes and new ideas with patience, genuine interest and honest responses rather than anger and apathy. We should always care what happens in our church, and if we do not agree with it, gently and earnestly express our opinions, remembering that someone may cherish what we disdain – compromise can always be found among truly united people!
4. Forgiveness for perceived hurts and misunderstandings, rather than holding grudges, is essential for moving forward to a united church. We must help one another look at past slights and offenses in order to forgive, and put such incidents in the past.
5. A sense of ‘ethnic-awareness’ and appreciation must replace ‘color-blindness’ for true unity. We are not all the same, but we are all wonderful products of God’s creative imagination!
We pray daily that God’s Kingdom will come on Earth as it is in Heaven. Our churches should be the best example of what that Kingdom should look like. Blind conformity, rote ritual, token motions of mission and outreach, power plays and denominational pride are not found in God’s Kingdom – nor is disregard for the feelings and needs of each individual. The Kingdom of Heaven must be heralded by a church that is intentionally loving across ethnic, racial, and gender differences. Churches that are struggling together to love and care for those in need, will declare and model the Good News of Jesus in all they do.
The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves as Legislative Liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.