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Saturday night ecumenism

May 01, 2012
By Laura Everett, guest blogger

This is the first in a series of three blog posts by this author about social media and Christian unity.

With the help of the Holy Spirit and a bit of advanced planning, I had finished writing my sermon fairly early on Saturday night. That week, Jesus was flipping tables in the temple and, with significantly less drama, I was guest preaching the next morning at a nearby Lutheran church. I scanned the screen for any last typos and toggled over to Facebook. There were everyday posts about dinner, the glorious but frighteningly warm weather in New England, and the second chapter of John. I watched two clergy friends post back and forth discussing the conclusions for their respective sermons. They were from two different denominations. Their exchange was theologically deep and public. In John 17, Jesus prayed that “they may all be one … so that the world may believe.” Is a Facebook exchange a foretaste of the unity of the Body of Christ?

Two major innovations create the possibility for interactions like this: the common social media platform and the common content. First, it seems obvious, but the major social media platforms are not denominationally specific. There is no “Roman Catholic Only Facebook,” or “Orthodox Only Instagram.” Certainly, there are corners of the social media landscape that are tribal, like “People who are rather fond of the Episcopal Church” on Facebook. But in general, most of our interactions in social media exist in a common space. We ecumenically eavesdrop into discussions about the resolutions coming before the United Methodist Church General Convention. We mark the areas where we are divided, such as the East/West split over the celebration of Easter. Social Media is inherently inter-denominational, and the medium is changing the way divided traditions interact.

Second, those pastors on Facebook were discussing the same scripture text. The common lectionary is a relatively new innovation, with the trial period beginning in 1983 and the Revised Common Lectionary published in 1992. Recently, I sat down with the Rev. Dr. Horace Allen, a retired Presbyterian Liturgics professor and a key player in creating the Revised Common Lectionary, who the Massachusetts Council of Churches is honoring. Allen quipped that the common lectionary offered “not the wisdom of the pastor on a Friday night, but the wisdom of the Church.” For years before the mainstreaming of social media, a common lectionary tilled the soil for ecumenical lectionary study groups that physically drew preachers together from divided traditions. Only 20 years out, I think we have not fully gleaned all of the ecumenical fruits of this innovation.

Because of the dual innovations and widespread adoptions of inter-denominational social media platforms and a common lectionary, we wrestle with our ancient texts across traditions and in public in new ways; this is “traditioned innovation.” L. Gregory Jones writes about this concept, we “who bear a tradition are called to be relentlessly innovative in ways that preserve the life-giving character of the tradition.” The Text this Week blogs, WorkingPreacher.org, and The Revised Common Lectionary Facebook group have found ways to innovate the craft of sermon preparation with new media. In order for the ecumenical movement to adapt and thrive in this digital age, we must practice “traditioned innovation” too.

In an earlier blog post, Jim Rice draws on Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and suggests that social media’s ability to collapse time and space provides us with “new and tangible analogies of God’s transcendence and immanence.” Our experience of social media can provide us with new analogies for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church. While social media may be inter-denominational, it is not necessarily ecumenical. In real life or online, it is entirely possible to work together and go back to our denominational groups without the hard ecumenical work of reconciling divisions. Moreover, anyone content with a rosy picture of inter-denominational harmony online need only look at the comments of any vaguely provocative blog post about the Church to see just how divided the Church can be online.

Yet, do social media provide a condition for the possibility for ecumenism? Jones writes that Christian leaders are called to a social entrepreneurship “that does not force us to choose preserving tradition or leading change, but thinking about them together.” Christ’s prayer that His followers be one is eternal; our ecumenical structures are not. All who have been baptized into the one Body of Christ then are called to ask what social media mean for the unity of the Body of Christ.

Ordained in the United Church of Christ and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, the Rev. Laura E. Everett serves as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a 110-year old ecumenical expression of 17 Protestant and Orthodox Christian traditions. Find more of her writing and preaching at http://RevEverett.com or follow her on Twitter at @RevEverett.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.


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