On the Sunday morning after the deadly riot at the United States Capitol, Father William Corcoran put on his black suit and clerical collar and stepped into St. Elizabeth Seton church in the Chicago suburb of Orland Hills to celebrate the 7:30 a.m. Mass.
So begins a recent account in the Chicago Tribune.
When it was time for the homily, he stood… removed his mask and looked out at the 140 or so masked parishioners who sat in the sanctuary, which was still ornamented for Christmas. He had a feeling this might not go well. At the 5 p.m. Mass the day before, nine people had walked out as he delivered the remarks. he prepared to say again now, which began like this:
“On this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we drink in the last goodness and glories of the Christmas season, and begin ordinary time on Monday.”
“Goodness and glory,” he continued, “are not two words that we would use describing our past week…
At which point, Father Corcoran made a careful observation about the violence in the nation’s capital, its origins, and how that entire spectacle was contrary to the ways and calls of faith in Jesus Christ. He started by taking responsibility for his own behavior in light of God’s paths, but then also called out the actions of the President.
By Corcoran’s count, a dozen people walked out of Mass that morning. Nearly two dozen more at the 9:30 Mass. “Probably 30,” he estimates, at the 11:30. Each time he was startled. Saddened. “Awful,” is how he described it later. And each time he knew he was doing what he had to do.
Corcoran’s struggle with speaking out reflects the struggle many Americans are having in their workplaces and at their dinner tables, as well as the struggles pastors are having in the pulpit during this extraordinary season. As the article observed, Father Corcoran sees one of his pastoral jobs as “keeping people together.” Yes. Few people – let alone pastors – would disagree. But how to keep people together when congregations are so divided, each camp feeling they are in sole possession of the truth? Silence from the pulpit may help to “keep a lid on things,” but it may also feel like a betrayal of deeply held values and the call of scripture. If, as we discussed last week, truth is challenging, unity seems ever more illusive.
How, in this time, do leaders work on unity?
Our Ministry Collaborative colleague and partner, Dave Feltman, observed yesterday:
It doesn’t get much press these days but it is the “week of prayer for Christian Unity”. For those who like a text, it is John 17:21, where Jesus prays for those “who believe in me…. that they may all be one… so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus’ prayer for unity is tied to our witness in the world. Lord, hear our prayer of confession.
Having spent the last jaunt of my ministry in many of the smaller communities in Iowa, working with churches, the question is – if our small towns will have any Christian witness (any church) when the dust settles after all the loss in rural America. And it is still practically impossible to get Christians to work together in a meaningful way. Is it any wonder our nation looks the way it does?
None of this has ever been easy. And it is an especially high challenge for each church – and church board – right now.
Unity cannot be achieved by stuffing our disagreements, our worldviews, our faith convictions out of sight.
Unity cannot consist of a congregation trying to concoct warm feelings of togetherness and make “everything alright.”
But perhaps there is a clue for us in the connection that Jesus makes between unity and witness. Perhaps we need to start with John 17, and ask ourselves: why does Christian unity matter to the world?
The need for an end to enmity and division is acute in our society right now. What are we as Christians – and our churches – willing to do about that?
In John 17, how does Jesus tie unity to witness?
When has your congregation felt especially unified? What were the markers of unity? What and who were the makers of unity? To whom did that unity matter?
What is the most significant disrupter of unity in your congregation?
What is your church board’s vision of congregational unity? What texts might you use to talk about that vision, and whom it serves?