A high school friend tells the story of the first time his father, an East Texas boy, visited his mother’s family in the Bronx. He found them in a state of anxiety about the expected arrival of the “erl man.” “When is the erl man going to get here?” they all wanted to know.
Out on the sidewalk, the Texas boy asked the Bronx girl who the “erl man” was. Surprised, his future wife answered, “He’s the man who delivers the heating erl for the house.”
“Oh!” the Texan replied, as the penny finally dropped. “You mean the awl man!”
“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 10: 9). Everything else about which the various churches make such heavy weather—from the number and efficacy of the sacraments and who is allowed to receive them, to the exact details of Jesus’ nature and origins—amounts, in my opinion, to erl-man/awl-man disputes.
During my days as a Hospice chaplain, a few Roman Catholic patients with whom I had become close asked me to anoint them. If, after I had reminded them that I was not a Catholic priest, and could not, according to church law, validly administer the sacrament, they maintained that they didn’t care, and wanted me to anoint them anyway, I would do so. My position was that in chaplaincy, pastoral concerns always trump doctrinal ones. (Afterward, I would, if applicable, notify the patient’s parish priest that I had done so, lest they should think I was attempting an end run around canon law.)
I once asked an evangelical Christian missionary to India if his organization ever partnered with the historical Saint Thomas churches of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. By way of denial, he faux-tactfully replied that “we have some doctrinal differences with them.” For Pete’s sake, I thought, these people had a highly developed Christian civilization—which, by the way, never included an Inquisition—while your ancestors and mine were still living under rocks, painting their backsides blue with woad! Who cares about your “doctrinal differences”? God? Woad warrior, please!
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,” prayed Jesus, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Unless we are more committed to being right than to being disciples, it seems to me we ought to get over ourselves a little. If we pray, as Jesus did, that we “all may be one,” perhaps we can at last say, of all our petty clericalisms and exclusions, “You say ‘erl man,’ and I say ‘awl man’; lets call the whole thing off.”