The Order of Ecumenical Franciscans

[July 23, 2013] Today is my daughter’s birthday. I am proud of who she is and what she has become. She has also sought to maintain a balance between body and soul, athletic on the one side, a caring psychologist on the other. I love being with her. She is warm and her conversation is always intelligent and stimulating. This coming year for her will be momentous. May she (and her husband David) be doubly blessed!

Sunday evening I came home from the annual Chapter of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. It was a twelve hour drive from Detroit. Owusu Slater of Brooklyn accompanied me. We stopped at my house where my wife fed us some savory dinner and then I dropped Owusu off at the George Washington Bridge, where he took the bus and subway home. He did not get home to his wife and kids until almost midnight. Since Thursday we had been staying at the Capuchin Retreat Center in the town of Washington, Michigan, with fellow professed members and with novices, postulants, and inquirers of the Order and guests.

We all have so much affection for one another, and I began to miss everyone before we even parted. Since we are vowed together for life, someone (I believe it was Lorraine) compared the bonds of our community to marriage. In a way, it is true. Most of the people we only see once a year and some we were only meeting for the first time, and yet our hearts are strangely knit. We are attentive to each other, we listen and care, and give ourselves to each other. We share our sorrows and joys. Nancy expressed what many of us feel when she said that she is in love with us all, for we are in love with each other.

As Anjelika said in our covenant document, we are “a community called by Christ and predicated on love of God and of all that God has created. In this community we seek to practice extravagant and inclusive hospitality to all who seek us out. We particularly desire to be attuned to the pain of those who may have been excluded from other manifestations of Christ’s church because of race, national origin, language, age, physical, psychological, cognitive or developmental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical appearance, and/or other personal characteristics or practices that may have caused them to be categorized as ‘other.’ It is our commitment to the best of our ability to be sensitive to the needs of all beloved of God to be treated with love, dignity and respect at all times. All relationships within the Order are avenues of God’s love and are vitally important to the overall health of our community.”

(I have known something about ostracism, particularly by the Christian community—until I got “credentialed,” that is—and usually for the things I will go on to discuss here. If one’s love of Jesus leads one to pursue its logical conclusions, this is called “heresy,” “fanaticism,” “extremism,” “other-worldliness,” “impractical”—even though it is merely the expression of orthodoxy—especially when this pursuit leaves one poor.)

Anjelika goes on to say, “We are a community of significant diversity and this diversity is a source of tremendous richness for us … We hold diverse views politically, liturgically and in many other areas of our lives. We also live, move, work and worship in highly diverse settings.” The document goes on to speak of the importance of sensitivity and of maintaining proper boundaries so that all may flourish and avoid injury. We are in this sense responsible for each other and accountable to one another. My point is simply to stress the reality of our diversity, for the Order truly reflects all these differences.

We represent the spectrum of every Christian denomination: from Quakers, Disciples, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Pentecostal, “non-denominational churches,” Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and so on all the way to Roman Catholics. We are from rural North Dakota and inner city New York; we have among us laborers and craftsmen and academic professors; outside the Order we are both clergy and lay (inside the Order we are only brothers and sisters). We are from different races and ethnicities and nations. We are women and men, old and young, straight and gay, single and married, with children and without, healthy and ill, with and without various challenges, with trade skills and with none, with high levels of formally recognized education and without that advantage, invested in high liturgy and/or the purity of orthodox doctrine (catholic or reformed) or invested in the freedom of the Spirit and the inner Light. Yet we are all, without exception, Christ-centered, invested in the reality of the Holy Spirit, certain of the importance of community, of love for the poor, and of love for the creation, and committed, somehow, to the leading examples of the Clare and Francis of Assisi (who lived about 1181-1253 C.E.).

What is a “Chapter”? Our entire Order (which consists of only forty professed members at present) gathers once a year (or at least we try) from all over the Americas and overseas (as far away as New Zealand) to conduct the Order’s business, pray, worship and study together, share our lives, and conduct our rites of passage. We are a self-governing body, governed by our professed members. We elect officers (servants) and make rules as we see fit, in accordance with the Order’s Principles and in harmony with Jesus Christ. We also renew our vows and personal Rule of Life.

This year we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary and received two people into profession and elected and installed a new chaplain and treasurer. We began each day together with Morning Prayer and Meditation and each evening we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. On Friday, during the day, we celebrated our anniversary with recollections of the Order’s beginnings “on a farm near Parshall, North Dakota,” and of what followed after that, by two of our founding members, Dale Carmen and Ronald Nuss-Warren, and by Brother Robert Hughes, with whom they consulted, of the Episcopal Third Order Society of Saint Francis. The next day we met with Patrick Carolan of the Franciscan Action Network, who began our sessions with Centering Prayer, spoke to us about our efforts to “appeal to congress to end the silence and act on climate change,” and ended with an exercise in one-on-one face-to-face meetings. On Saturday evening we remembered two brothers who died this past year, installed our servant leaders, celebrated the liturgy of the Word with a lengthy sermon by the Minister General, admitted new novices and had all the novices renew their vows for another year, and then received the vows of the two newly-professed members with prayer and the laying on of hands. Then all the professed pledged to keep their Rule of Life and the General Rule for another year, reciting together the seventeen Principles. After this, beginning with a general confession and assurance of pardon, we celebrated the Eucharist together.

In one way receiving the newly professed seems—like a wedding celebration—to be the high point of every Chapter. It was! Yet in another way, the high point, repeated each evening yet co-inhering as if it were one event, was our celebration of Holy Communion. It moved me deeply, our communion with Christ and our communion with each other in Him. The incarnation of Christ was the divine Person taking on our humanness, indeed, our createdness as such, as His own nature, and then dying … and rising again with His createdness divinized, forever taken up into Her, the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the divinization (in transfiguration) of us and of all that is created. My description here is personal, but in any case my words fail, for the Christian mystery cannot be articulated (our concepts in the end are stupid); it can only be met with awe.

But what is this “thing,” this Order of Ecumenical Franciscans? We used the Anglican “Society of Saint Francis” as our model, borrowing from the Roman Catholic “Third Order of Saint Francis, regular,” and then percolated the whole shebang in the traditions and faith of the United Church of Christ which stems from the Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed branches of the church, in order to create something that was truly ecumenical. The manifold Roman Catholic Franciscan Orders and the three Anglican Franciscan Orders recognize us as a fellow Franciscan Order, and this year we sent a letter to Pope Francis hoping that he might recognize us too.

But what is this thing? Most of us are not Roman Catholics, so what does it mean for us Protestants to be in this kind of covenant? Most of us have no intention of becoming Roman Catholics and our various expressions of Christianity are as Protestant as they get. Personally, I cannot even comprehend how most Roman Catholics think, with all their patriarchal familiaris and pagan superstition. So what is this all about?

As a point of history, by the way, Francis and Clare predated by centuries what we think of as the Roman Catholic Church. The Western Church divided at the time of the Reformation. The Reformers did not break away from “mother church,” but rather what was once a unity divided in two. The “churches” of the Reformation and the “church” of the Council of Trent both changed from what they were previously. It was as though Saint Augustine (whose thought shaped the Middle Ages) was divided in two—his ecclesiology went in the direction of Trent and his soteriology went in the direction of Augsburg. So for us, Francis and Clare, like the Creed, belong to the larger, undivided church.

When Francis founded his order it was in response to the call of the Gospel. He began to follow Christ and others wanted to imitate him. He intentionally did not want to form a monastic community but rather a way of life that combined contemplation with action. Those who heed the call to follow Christ and are baptized, have given Christ their loyalty, fidelity, and fealty. He has called them by grace (i.e., gratuitously), and He is their Savior Who has redeemed them and released them from the world. And He is their Lord who claims them. No other lord can lay a claim to them, none whatsoever. And He equips them with what they need to live in the world as He was in the world. For their part, they commit to a way of life in relation to the divine that is independent of the way of the world. They also commit to a perspective that the world (as such) does not share and to values that the world usually does not recognize.

In times of confusion, when Christianity loses its way and becomes part of the world, someone clarifies what the call of the Gospel means. He or she becomes a canon (from cane, literally, a measuring stick) that acts like a beacon and guides us. Franciscans believe that Francis and Clare are such. And so in our Order, the first principle is: “We covenant together, as the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of their life with God and people. Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the Gospel, going from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.”

In other words, we covenant together to be faithful Christians in such a way that we do not get lost in the confusion that has become contemporary Christianity. We commit to certain values and we commit to one another with respect to the keeping of those values, helping one another clarify them and follow them in our own way. Many Christians feel very alone in their discipleship to Christ, for the churches around them do not support them in the radical call of Christ. Covenanting together is a tremendous support. The covenant is not a church nor is it a replacement for the church. Indeed, it is a support to our being in the church. We are to “seek to encounter the living and active Person of Christ … in the church,” and “we shall go forth as witnesses and instruments of the church’s mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by our life and words. Called like Saint Francis to rebuild the church and inspired by his example, [we] devote ourselves energetically to living accountable to our respective denominations and in spiritual fellowship with Christians everywhere” (quoted from the second and third principles).

We commit to certain values, and when we profess, we commit to them for life. This does not mean that our understanding of those values is static; it grows and changes as we grow. However, making such a commitment for life gives us a certain stability. We are not a boat tossed about in the sea by the winds, having to figure things out over and over and subject to the moods of the day. No, we can go deeper, and we can expand, but we have a rudder to our ship and a compass to steer her by. There is comfort in this.

About taking a “vow”: they are Biblical. We see the modern value of vows in the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Jesus’ prohibition in Matthew 5:33-37 (see James 5:12) was about our word not carrying its own weight because we swear by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem, by our head, and so forth. “Let your word be, ‘Yes, yes; no, no’; for anything more than these is of the evil one.” We give this kind of word when we are baptized. It too is for the rest of our life. Here it is no different. When the professed vow they make a simple and true statement of their intention “before the Lord and this company.” They say, “I give myself to our Lord Jesus Christ, to serve Christ for the rest of my life in company with my brothers and sisters in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. I will seek to spread the knowledge and love of Christ, to promote and live in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, following the little way after the examples of Francis and Clare. I ask God for strength, and my brothers and sisters for prayer, as I commit myself to this lifelong endeavor.”

What is meant by “the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience”? We do not define poverty precisely, each person needing to see what this means in terms of following Christ in their own life. We reject any asceticism that disparages creation. Indeed, we strive to “enjoy all things richly” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Nevertheless, Christ certainly chose to impoverish Himself—out of His love for the creation!—and taught voluntary poverty as a way of life for His disciples. We simply say: “Christ chose for Himself a poor and humble life, even though He valued created things attentively and lovingly. [We shall] seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying our own material needs. [We are] mindful that according to the Gospel we are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children. We shall strive to purify our hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power” (our eighth principle). Notice that poverty also means that we forsake our lust for power.

Chastity does not mean celibacy, though some people make this confusion, nor does it mean to be without sexual passion and feelings and attention. Rather, it means to be respectful of all people and of their relationships, including the ones we are in. It means not to violate the boundaries of another and the boundaries of the relationships to which another is committed. When there are power differentials, boundaries need to be especially guarded. I am speaking here of my own understanding, not of others in the Order. For some chastity might mean no sex outside of marriage, or that one’s sexual attention cannot stray from your life partner. Personally, I do not think the Biblical values have to do with sexual conduct per se, nor for me are they about the exclusiveness of one’s sexual relationships. The Bible does not flatly deny polygamous or for that matter polyamorous relationships (in which the second relationship is not automatically adulterous), though they can be exploitive. (I, for one, think that in the resurrection we shall all be married to each other!) As I interpret the sacred text, it is about respect and what we call “personal boundaries.” Chastity is about love: not the restraining of it, but the purifying it of the will to power, control, grasping and possessiveness. Love never violates the personhood of another, nor does love violate the sacredness of the other’s—or our own—relationships.

Obedience is not to another human being. In our case it is to the Order and to the Minister General whom we have chosen to represent the Order, but in reality our obedience is to the values of the Order. We choose to obey these values. For their sake we surrender our “self-will” and deny our “soul.” Jesus denied His sinless will in order to do the Father’s will even though His own will was in agreement with the Father’s will. We submit to our spirit, not our soul, even when our soul is in agreement with our spirit. This is because the “soul” our self- and society-constructed sense of identity, is fundamentally false. Who we really are is underneath all of that. (This is where we find our true soul with all of its profound creativity!) It is what we are in our pure createdness, which stands before God. To submit to God is where we find the perfect freedom of being ourselves, without the distractions of false desires and ideations; it is the opposite of deprivation. Another way to look at obedience is to recognize that we do not belong to ourselves; we belong to Another Who has taken responsibility for us. So we let go of trying to take on this huge burden, as if the entire weight of the creation’s and our own salvation depended on us. We can let it go and simply do what we are called to do. We have a Master; we do not have to be masters. Our attempt to be our own masters is what alienates us from God and from creation and from our own createdness (our bodies). We are not our body’s master; the two of us, my body and I (there is no such division in reality) are a team; we work together; and our master is not my head but God, Who grounds us in creation. Because we belong to God, no one else can be our master either.

So let me spell out what I consider some of the most important values of our Franciscanism. For me, the first is obedience to the Gospel. We do not know what this means except as we actively seek to follow the Christ of the Gospel, going from the text of the Gospel (where we meet Christ) to life, and bringing our life into the narrative of the Gospel to be examined and laid bare before the Christ Who is present there.

Another is the value of creation, in and of itself. For me, all of creation is the goodness of God, and all of it is conscious (see Christian de Quincey, Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin and others). Only when we become aware of this do we become present to creation, and it becomes present to us. But, we are not the masters of creation to have dominion over it. If anything we are the image of God to the creation, as we also see God reflected in the creation to us. In virtue of the power that we have, we have the responsibility of stewardship, of caring and protecting the creation (primarily from ourselves). This is our “kingly dominion”; it is the ancient concept of the king as a shepherd, not a tyrant and plunderer. But in our minds, stewardship also implies superiority and use. We are not superior to the creation; we ourselves are only one creature within a complex web of creatures who need and balance each other. Nor is the creation simply raw material for us to use as if it were there primarily for us. This attitude of entitlement is a crime; the exploitation of creation is a crime. Regardless of climate change and an environmental crisis; we never had a right to treat creation as we have.

Another Franciscan value is poverty. Yes, not just simplicity of life but voluntary poverty. Socially poverty is undoubtedly a bad thing, for it is imposed on people, and it means that people (and other creatures) do not have what they need to subsist. But poverty before God is voluntary; it means letting go of our acquired needs and the cultural overlay of acquirement, possessiveness and accumulation that hide the personhood of others from us, that hide the creation—and our createdness—from our awareness, and that hide our immediacy to God from us. Poverty puts us in this bare place where we are always naked before God. We still have our things; we can barely exist in our society without them; and yet we can try to keep our needs simple. Moreover, we want to be aware of the poor person beside us, and the poor people around us. Our own practice of poverty is supposed to lend a dignity to them; which requires that we put ourselves on a level with them (not condescend to them). Gandhi again is a wonderful example of this.  The opposite of this is a paternalistic attitude to the poor, in which we maintain the distinction. Again, what poverty means to each Franciscan is different, but it is a value that we are always seeking. The Model is always the divine Son Who emptied Himself and as a human being kept emptying Himself before the Father. It was a form of penitence (on our behalf) but also of intimacy with us. For us too it is a form of penitence, while it is also good in itself, for it brings us closer to who we really are in our createdness and before God.

Another value is peace. Franciscans—as all Christians should—abhor violence, that is, any violation of the human person. Peace is not just the absence of conflict but it is the recognition and the elevation of the dignity of the human person (as distinct from the individual per se, the person is one in relationship to others). We are all sinful and we are all under the judgment of God, but this is beside the point. Before we are sinful, we are created by God and as such good and beloved by God. Moreover God has given us the gift of personhood, by which we bear the divine image. Even in our sinfulness (by which we mean not a rule-breaker but one who is willfully alienated from God), God became what we are—not in our sinfulness but in our humanity—to share our life as one of us. Therefore Franciscans always strive for peace between people and to lift up the dignity of each person. We are reconcilers between people, allowing conflict but always also striving to resolve it in a way that builds up both sides. Ultimately all people are destined for participation in the divine nature, that is, to be divinized in their createdness, as the persons that they already are. When we see someone now, we see that they are already participants in what will become their future. No person, therefore, can be of less value than another, and we always strive to be aware of this. Moreover, peace does not extend only to human beings, but encompasses the whole of creation. Creation, poverty and peace form a whole.

The last value that I will mention—my list has no intention of being complete—is that of the inclusive community, a community of love. We practice this within our Order, but we also embrace it as something that we always value, whether in the church, in our households, on the street, or in the society of the nation or world. While we may gather in more or less exclusive groups, depending on our purpose, we are particularly sensitive to who we exclude and why. We always strive to practice inclusive hospitality to the fullest extent possible. So we do not exclude LBGT people as such; we do not exclude people on the basis of gender or gender identity, or ethnicity or race or immigration status, or age or health condition or handicap. We do not exclude people on the basis of their appearance, or culture or class. Nor do we exclude people on the basis of religion or creed or political party or bias. But this is framed in a negative way (who we do not exclude). It requires, on occasion, that the cross works against our constructed soul. Community itself is based on active love and faith. It is our love for one another that creates community, and that requires that we “see” each other, that we really listen to each other and learn each other’s story; it requires that we are vulnerable enough to expose ourselves and also that we be able to put ourselves aside and make room for the other. It ultimately means that we are willing to befriend one another and help each other. Again, this is a value that we strive for and need to constantly come to understand in terms of what it means in our own situation.

I have expressed these things in my own way, and what I have written does not always expresses the opinions held by the Order as such nor by the members within the Order. I take sole responsibility for the theology I have expressed and do not mean to imply that it is anybody else’s in the Order. I have, however, expressed by own view of things. I have attempted to explain why I am a Franciscan, and I hope you will receive this essay as such an attempt.

The only thing I want to add is an appeal. If having read what I have written, you find the idea appealing, then why not find out more about the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans? If something here resonates with you, I would like you to become an “inquirer,” and see if this shoe fits you.

An inquirer enters into a dialogue with the Order coordinated by the Director of Formation Counseling, during which she or he is introduced to some of the formation materials and the General Rule and Principles. Only when they have fulfilled certain requirements (active church membership, letters of reference, acquiring a spiritual director, and drafting a personal rule of life) do they move on to the postulant phase. Nothing about the whole process is scary, though it is designed to be soul-searching and therefore intentionally takes time.

Consider what I have said, consider Saint Francis himself, and consider the Order’s website. If you think the Holy Spirit may be nudging you, contact the Director of Formation Counseling through this link. The Lord be with you.

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