"Receive one another…”:Honoring the Relationship between Hospitality and Christian Unity
I remember driving thirty-five miles on a Saturday afternoon at the invitation of a denomination which, for purposes of discretion, shall remain nameless. I had been invited to attend a worship service during the denomination’s annual meeting. I was one of several ecumenical guests, some of whom were bishops whose schedules were even more demanding than mine, and who had traveled still greater distances. After gathering to vest, we processed into the church, were seated together in the front row, and were ignored thereafter for a service that lasted over two hours. I was seething. Although none of my colleagues grumbled outright, I could sense them wondering why they had bothered to come. The occasion was a perfect example of a botched opportunity to demonstrate ecumenical hospitality and to model good practices for all the clergy and laity assembled there.
Sometimes we learn most effectively when we pay attention to experiences that make us uncomfortable. I began to think, “How would good ecumenical hospitality have looked in that situation?” The ecumenical delegation could have been thanked, both privately and publicly, for our presence. We could have been introduced individually, with the names of our churches making visible the rich diversity we represented. The reason for our presence could have been used as a teachable moment, and interpreted to the assembly in a few words about how our presence was a reminder of the real though incomplete communion that Christians share through our baptism. Prayers for reconciliation among churches could have been included in the intercessions. These simple, minimal acts, which wouldn’t have added significantly to the length of the service, would have gone a long way toward making the delegates feel that their presence mattered, that they were welcome, and that their gift of time was worth the effort.
Personal experiences of ecumenical hospitality, either mangled or handled with creative flourish, have made me aware of the significance of this element of our Christian life together. So much of ecumenical life is rooted in relationships. When those relationships are cultivated through intentional acts of kindness, either private or public, they provide a fertile seedbed in which institutional initiatives for cooperation and reconciliation can grow. Without them, little will happen.
This example already may have given you some understanding of a definition of ecumenical hospitality. A definition used by a working group convened by the Massachusetts Council of Churches and published in the book Receive One Another: Hospitality in Ecumenical Perspective is as follows: “Ecumenical hospitality…applies to generous and cordial actions between hosts and guests, which entail receiving persons in their wholeness—mind, body and spirit—by Christians and their churches, with an underlying or overt intention to heal the divisions among Christians for the sake of the world. [Please note this point about the intention being an essential ingredient.]
"This is, by definition, primarily a 20th and 21st century phenomenon, because ecumenical initiatives began to assume an ecclesial nature primarily in the last century.” As I noted in my introduction to Receive One Another, “The display of hospitality is not unique to Christians; nor is it confined to a particular era. Furthermore…Christians and their churches have offered hospitality from the beginning of the Christian experience…; churches may engage in hospitable acts without a reconciling intention. All these are laudable expressions of kindness and generosity, but...expressions of hospitality, when given with thought and care by Christians and their churches, can further the ecumenical quest for Christian unity.” The capacity to make a difference in this quest, for good or for ill, is the reason why thoughtful attention to ecumenical hospitality is so important.
Reclaiming the Wholeness of Christ
Delegates to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam declared that “Christ has made us His own, and he is not divided.” This is the “why” of the ecumenical movement. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with efficiency or economy of scale. Sometimes trying to live into our unity may be anything but efficient, as anyone who has tried to plan an ecumenical worship service knows! At its heart, however, we are engaged in the quest to reclaim the wholeness that Christ offers because it is rooted in the very being of that God whom we know through Christ.
Scripture and tradition point to this deeper reality. As the Letter of James proclaims, God is the giver of every good and perfect gift (see James 1:17), and thus, the ultimate source of hospitality. If God is the ultimate source of our hospitality, then all of us are guests; and all of us are hosts. Thus, we are called to be partners with God, imitating God’s abundant generosity through concrete acts of hospitality. These acts can lead to a conversion of mind and heart, and provide a rich seedbed in which churches can be reconciled.
As Pope John Paul II declared in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, [That they may all be one] “Jesus himself, at the hour of his passion, prayed ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn. 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the church because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape [love].” This, then, is the basis on which we are called to reflect together about the hospitality we are invited to give and receive in our own contexts, among our churches and in our communities.
This article was excerpted from a presentation at the September 2011 meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists
Diane Kessler retired as executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches in 2007, after serving the Council for thirty-two years (thirteen as associate director from 1975-1988). An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, she has served two terms on the Joint Working Group (1999-2006, 2007-2013), responsible for fostering relationships between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. She is a writer who has authored or edited six books and many articles.