Guest Column: In religion, there’s no pattern of fads, style

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece for this column about our Lenten ecumenical activities that was entitled “Praying Together and Where It May Lead.” 

Nine years later, I’m not sure where it has led. But I can tell you that the prayer and worship services on each Wednesday of Lent at 11 a.m., rotating among the churches of our members, are going strong yet again. GEM, the Greenport Ecumenical Ministry, a professional association of clergy, celebrated its 50th birthday in December and has sponsored these services every Lent since its founding it.

In my 2009 column, I noted that there was movement at the higher administrative levels of the churches, and conversations were taking place between Catholics and Methodists, among Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Lutherans and so forth. At our GEM meetings, these conversations take place all the time. We share each other’s liturgies, sing the common hymns and, in Holy Week, join the Seder at the synagogue.

From time to time, the popular media will research and publish a feature about the increase of religious sentiment in America — with ample statistics. And then, from time to time, there will be another report with statistics about the decline of religion in America. Religious sentiment, as interpreted by feature writers and statisticians, has its ups and downs. But when it peaks, it never seems to overflow into a new enthusiasm; and when it slips down, it never seems to disappear. These popular theses notwithstanding, religious sentiment and allegiance do not to follow the pattern of fads and styles.

There is a consistency we have found in observing the work we do. Our congregants come with us year after year, the old ones and the new ones. I said in 2009 that they have come to pray; and one of their prayers is for themselves, that they will continue to find strength and peace in their association. And also, for their brethren in absentia.

Who knows whether there will soon be a perfect union of believers? Theologian Joseph Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI, has written that “no one can predict when convergence will end in unity, just as no one could have foreseen the ways that have brought us this far. Unity can grow only if particular communities live out their faith with unity as their goal.”

Another theologian and writer, Methodist scholar and pastor Thomas Oden, sees the Holy Spirit creating forms of unity beyond our poor attempts.

The promise of the Spirit is to guide the church into all truth. The Spirit enables accurate memory of the apostolic testimony. The Spirit is even today reliably reminding the faithful of the good news of the kingdom. The Spirit is at work to transcend ecumenical bureaucracies, provide a critique of blatantly politicized ecumenism and restore confidence in classic ecumenical teachings. This uniting work of the Holy Spirit is taking form on a breathtaking worldwide scale, yet manifested primarily in quiet and inconspicuous ways in local churches, parachurch ministries, food relief, Bible studies and grass roots missions.

On point. I couldn’t have put it better in describing what is happening in the GEM Lenten Wednesday program. I’ll add just one thing: The kitchen of the host church has a tradition of providing us with the most succulent of repasts, together with warm and personal interacting at table of the Lenten Wednesday worshipers.

Geoff Proud is president of the Greenport Ecumenical Ministry