By Pat Magness
Celebrations light up my life, from major events like birthdays and anniversaries to lesser-known occasions such as the first daffodil of spring or the last tomato of summer. But even with my commitment to celebrations, I was surprised to receive an invitation to be a part of the 2009 Task Force that will plan centennial/bicentennial celebrations in 2009.
I must confess that I did not immediately resonate to the significance of the year 2009. Why celebrate in 2009? I began doing some research and learned there are some very important reasons to celebrate, important enough that I am helping recruit others to join in the celebration.
Reasons to Celebrate
The first reason for celebration is it is the bicentennial of the Declaration and Address written by Thomas Campbell. This document sets forth the ideals of the unity of the body of Christ and a commitment to the teachings of Scripture. The Declaration and Address has been described as the “DNA of our movement.”
In October 1809 in a small town in western Pennsylvania, Thomas Campbell—after years of Bible study, discussion with other Christians, and fervent prayer—set out his ideals in a way that has inspired thousands of people for the past 200 years. One of his propositions includes the memorable statement, “The church is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”
The second reason for celebration is to remember the great centennial celebration held in 1909 in Pittsburgh to honor the writing of the Declaration and Address. A historian friend of mine loaned me a copy of the original program—it is a bound book more than 200 pages long, with many photographs, including a photograph of the steamship that was purchased by the assembly for missionary work in Africa. The theme of the convention was “The Union of All Believers, on a Basis of Holy Scriptures, to the End that the World May Be Evangelized.”
More than 25,000 people attended, and the central event was a huge Communion service at Forbes Field. According to family tradition, my grandfather (born in 1896) was one of the young people present at this great assembly, and the event shaped his commitment to Christian unity and his role as a preaching elder in the little country church where many of my ancestors worshiped.
For those who consider it odd to “celebrate a celebration,” that is, to commemorate the centennial celebration of 1909, I would suggest that many of our celebrations commemorate previous celebrations. On a personal level, I think of the celebration of a wedding anniversary. Partly an anniversary celebration honors the years of marriage, and partly it recalls a joy-filled day from the past, the day the wedding was celebrated. Thus, a wedding anniversary celebrates a celebration.
In terms of our Christian faith and practice, we celebrate a celebration in the Lord’s Supper every week. Yes, we celebrate the death and resurrection and presence of our Lord, and we anticipate the great heavenly feast, but at the same time we remember the night Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the night of a Passover celebration with his disciples. We celebrate a celebration every single Sunday when we meet for worship.
Finding Ways to Work Together
While we have good reasons to celebrate, we must admit that a dark shadow falls over the light of celebration as we recognize many divisions in a movement dedicated to unity. As we have divided, we have devised a number of labels—“a cappella,” “independent,” and “denominational”—and at times we have used these labels in a pejorative or belittling way.
More accurately, the three great streams of the movement are referred to as the churches of Christ, the Christian churches/churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Each group has its own colleges, its own camps, its own publishing houses, and its own conventions.
At times these divisions have led to bitter hostility, at other times, indifference. Through it all, however, all three of these groups have maintained a heartfelt commitment to the unity of the church as prayed for by Jesus, and in recent years there have been many coordinated projects, many healing actions, and many living demonstrations of unity. From the sharing of pulpits in local congregations and great conventions, to the publication of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, to Restoration Forum events and joint publications, the three divided streams of the movement are finding ways to work together for the cause of Christ. Thus, there is much to celebrate!
The 2009 Task Force was called together by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee. A small group of original dreamers and visionaries had a glimpse of a celebration that could light up the world for Christ, a “Great Communion Celebration.” The celebration would bring together all three streams of a unity movement that is divided. Reemerging unity is itself reason for celebration, but, even more important, the “Great Communion Celebration” will serve as a dramatic way to inspire a vision of the unity of the church in the 21st century.
Rather than plan one megaevent limited to one location, the 2009 Task Force envisions a global network of events focused on the common meal, the Lord’s Supper, that is central to worship in all three streams of the movement. To support the work of local congregations, the 2009 Task Force will create and assemble a wealth of resources easily available on a Web site. Some of these resources will provide a contemporary understanding of the principles of the Declaration and Address. Others will be directed to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Yet another group of resources will provide materials for use in worship services.
In each community, believers will celebrate this centennial/bicentennial in the ways most meaningful to them, but in every case focused on the Lord’s Supper and the unity of the church. These celebrations will honor both Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me” and his prayer for the unity of all believers.
Dreaming for the Future
No one on the 2009 Task Force wants to return to 1809 or even 1909. We have a dream for 2009. We hear the words of Jesus praying in the garden that all his disciples will be one, and we want to participate in that unity. We want to make the idea and the reality of unity as exciting today as it was to those who listened to Thomas Campbell in 1809. His language sounds old-fashioned to us, but his ideas are as relevant as ever. Maybe you have had dreams of unity in your community. Perhaps this celebration will provide the opportunity you have been looking for to live out Christian unity.
Now that I know the significance of 2009, I am getting ready for a celebration. I plan to begin my celebration by attending the World Convention of Churches of Christ to be held in Nashville in 2008. Christian unity will be visibly demonstrated at that convention, and from there I hope to see the celebration spread around the world, community by community, congregation by congregation.
As we celebrate the great events of 1809 and 1909, we can make 2009 a year worth remembering.
Pat Magness is professor of humanities and English at Milligan College in Tennessee.