Lots of union churches (ministries, facilities, missions shared by more than one congregation, often Lutheran and Reformed) here in Pennsylvania. These arrangements date back to land grants in colonial times. In union churches and generally, Lutheran identities of old most often manifest now as ELCA congregations, and their Reformed partners are typically part of the United Church of Christ.
Also common: former union churches. Often, these congregations voted to part (to dissolve their union) on perfectly fine terms from a desire to flex the mission muscle of their respective traditions, for good and bad reasons, I’m sure, when separation was economically and politically feasible. Given that many of these congregations also shared cemeteries, there are more extant union cemeteries than churches, I’d imagine.
Funny that Christians of all stripes have been happy to remain united in death (the cemetery is a proto-heaven) even while often actively separating in life. Sad, that latter piece. Note, too, the consolidation of many churches, now, for worship and mission as the financial crisis continues, congregations age, and new Christian expressions emerge. Many times, these new expressions are hosted by historic churches until they, too, feel compelled to build or buy a space of their own.
We have a thing or two to learn about union again, and some communities, often in our cities, have led the way in teaching. Often, these are ELCA and UCC and other historic mainline communities. But we’re also blessed by the diversity of Christian service in the urban core. The more we come together to proclaim a year of jubilee, of God’s favor for the poor, of justice to the oppressed and good news to all people, the more we look like Jesus.
That is the goal, after all. To do what is right regardless of credit or fame or good press. To be more like Jesus by blessing all with all we have, by seeing his face across color and money and gender and sex.
Two years ago, my great aunt, a devout Italian Catholic, passed away. At her funeral, the priest made a beautiful point about her faith and the universal church’s historic faith in what’s called the communion of saints, the idea that those who’ve gone before us are with us in real ways, that our communion with them is not on some hiatus. As a lifelong Protestant, that struck me. Maybe that’s why I’ve never quite been able to feel like my great aunt or others who’ve passed on are truly gone from the realm of my experience. I don’t mean in some abstract way.
I come back to the image of the union cemetery, where the bones of the departed lie in close communion. What if our living Christian bodies cleaved so closely?