For many in today's world the word "religion" has more negative than positive connotations, and with good reason. Far too often religion has been wielded as an instrument of division, exclusion, and even violence in our world. People of differing religions have committed atrocities against each other in the name of defending or expanding their worldview. For that matter, people who share the same religion have done the same to each other; we Christians have shown a particular capacity for inflicting violcence on each other over the centuries.
Etymologically, however, the word "religion" has a very different meaning. It is derived from the Latin word "religio", which combines the root words "re" (again) and "ligare" (bind, connect). At its best, then, religion is meant to be something that reconnects us with God and with each other. Having been created in the image of God, whom we Christians believe is actually a communion of "persons" (the Trinity), we were created for relationship and for connection. All too often, however, we create barriers and build walls (sound familiar?) of separation, becoming increasingly disconnected from God and one another; and once the walls have been erected, we invest enormous amounts of our time, energy, and resources to ensure that "they" on the other side can't scale the walls.
Unfortunately, religion has not only failed at times to counter this wall-building, but has actually contributed to it in various ways. This certainly is true for Christianity, with its many denominations. On the one hand, Christian denominational-ism allows for a wide variety of ways for Christians to practice their faith in a wide variety of contexts. On the other hand, Christian denominations have often built walls of separation between each other to such an extent that it can be wondered if they really share the same faith.
In recent months, I am very happy to say, the Christian denominations in our small island community of Jamestown have begun a proactive and intentional move in the direction of what religion is meant to be: something that re-connects and binds people together, rather than driving them apart. I have the had the privilege of serving for ten years as rector of Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church in Jamestown. While there has never been any animosity among the three Jamestown churches during that time, there has been, for various reasons, a certain lack of connection or collaboration. The recent arrival of new clergy at the other two churches in Jamestown (St. Mark Roman Catholic and Central Baptist) has allowed for a new beginning and led to a significant and positive change in dymanics.
Soon after the arrival of Fr. Ron Brassard at St. Mark and Rev. Kurt Satherlie at Central Baptist, the three of us connected and have been getting together regularly for prayer, meals, conversation, and collaboration. I must admit that at first I viewed this development with caution and even a bit of trepidation. There is a certain level of risk inherent in "crossing boundaries" like this. To do so requires a willingness to let go of certain preconceived notions, some of which have deeply informed one's own identity. It also requires an openness to being challenged by a differing perspective and an openness to change. This can feel quite threatening, especially when past experience has brought into question the benefits of taking the risk.
I am thrilled to say that the recent developments in Jamestown have moved me beyond my caution and reminded me of the truth of the Psalmist's words, "How very good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!" (Psalm 133:1). Not only have the three clergy been meeting together, but our congregations have actually signed an ecumenical covenant in which we have expressed our commitment to support each other and work together, while respecting each other's differences. This commitment is already beginning to bear fruit, as we have begun to discuss specific ways that we can work together to serve the needs of people in Jamestown and beyond.
No, we are not always going to agree on matters of theology or ecclesiology, but we can acknowledge our common faith in Jesus Christ and a shared commitment to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so I believe we are being "religious" in the best sense of the word.