For the next 48 hours the air will hum with angelic choruses from commerce, politics and faith, each in thrall to labour, to sweat and toil, to honest wages for honest work, to associations and obligations, to unity and comradeship, to the legacy of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. It’s likely to be all quite enchanting with tales of self-sacrifice, allusions to human solidarity intended to bridge gaps of age and gender and caste, the sharing of hugs, handshakes and hamburgers, anthems in praise of mutual struggle and rapprochement.
And then it will stop and sadly that blissful ambience will morph back into rancour, suspicion, petty griping, opposition, jealousy, competition and fear, all the ostensible amity evaporated, pushed aside for another day.
Funny how the restless mind plays tricks and how such a context recalls a mother’s hustling off of her 12-year-old to savour, or at least witness, what’s known in some parts nowadays as Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Remarkably the lad took the whole exercise to be moderately interesting there in a Baptist church across town seeming to teem with Methodists and Calvinists, the odd Salvationist, a bunch of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, his neighbours, the parents of school chums, his barber, his Little League umpire. They could be seen nodding as St. Paul begged them to live in harmony with one another; they appeared to get it when the apostle’s letter suggested they not be conceited, that they repay no one evil for evil, that they live peaceable with all. It was a classy time.
Except it wouldn’t happen again for another year. Like Labour Day frolics in the town square, further gracious camaraderie could wait for more convenience.
Mind you, there have been periodic examples of less transient kinships, the most sanguine popping up decades ago when the country’s Anglo-Catholic and United churches bowed in the direction of organic union and a whole new body of determined doers and dreamers took to the examination of beliefs, styles and administrative logistics. There were conferences and workshops, excited exercises in joint worship, the melding of hymn books and lectionaries, talk of pooling physical resources. They were dating. Would they marry?
Not so much. Who knows what ditched the courtship, scuttled the engagement, saw rings returned and the caterers cancelled. Conceivably the parties were so intent on walking down the aisle that niggling issues, like old scabs, got picked to infection. Was it bravado, neophobia, xenophobia, sloth, arrogance, deep-seated aggrandizement? Whatever: Balls got dropped and the game got lost.
The scriptural rulebook notwithstanding, the world of faith has long been awash with intolerance and vanity and the clinging to antique moments of perceived injustice. To be sure, there’ve been moments of dignified oneness: Anglicans and Lutherans have hooked up, vowing to look after (rather than askance at) each other. Some Methodists and Presbyterians share the same air and, on occasion, the same pastorates, even though they often insist on perching in separate nests a few hundred yards from each other. Still, congregations of various stripes, claiming common confessions, routinely refuse to have any truck with each other, citing ancient intra- and inter-parochial squabbles. Scant wonder that their kids find better things to do, other clubs to join.
St. Paul was a self-righteous pedantic who’s been given more than his share of airtime. But long before “solitary forever” he was right about the nobility of institutional accord and coexistence. And If consulted, he’d have rebuked the good games talked but rarely walked.
Meanwhile, the compulsions that have long brought miners to rallies and worshippers to temples seem clearly to be losing their oomph, fading in the absence of dogged determination to clean up a lot of messy rooms.
And what price survival? Probably a bit of that sweat, a lot of honesty, undiluted compromise, comradeship, self-sacrifice, maybe even some hugs, handshakes and hamburgers.
Whatever it is, it’s bound to be hard work; labour… of love.
Peter MacRae is a retired Anglican cleric and one-upon-a-time journalist now living in New Glasgow.