A vision for ecumenism

Those of us involved in the ecumenical movement need to take a global look at our mission. In my opinion, this vision needs to take into account a few key points:

Why bother?

The disunity found in the Christian world is a threat to the credibility of the Gospel. This realisation was what prompted the start of the ecumenical movement in the first place, flowing as it did out of the missionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If we are serious about accomplishing the mission Christ has given us in the world today, a concern for Christian unity has to be part of our spiritual mindset.

The standard of unity

Jesus set the bar high when, during the Last Supper, he prayed to his heavenly Father in these words:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (John 17: 20-23)

Jesus himself first pointed out the problem of disunity with regards to the credibility of the Gospel, but notice how he does not propose unity merely as some sort of marketing tactic. Instead he sets, as the standard of Christian unity, the unity of the Persons in the Trinity! Yikes! And yet, it must be possible. Every person who has received the Holy Spirit is a child of God by that very fact, sharing in the very "DNA" of the Father and Son. So the start of the path to Christian unity is for us to be constantly renewed in the presence and action of Holy Spirit in us. And since the Holy Spirit is generally understood to be the substantial, living Love between the Father and the Son, to be fully alive in the Holy Spirit means to be living the fullness of Christian love and charity. Genuine love is both the means and the standard of Christian unity, and Jesus himself said that the world would know we were really his disciples by how we love one another.

The measure of unity

It is very significant that Jesus prayed this prayer during the Last Supper. According to Tradition, it was during this supper that Jesus instituted the sacraments of Eucharist and Holy Orders, both of which are sacraments of unity. On a personal level, Jesus already taught us that, if we know we are a cause of a lack of love with a neighbour, we need to be reconciled with that person before we offer our gift at God's altar. But this also works on the level of Church communion: we will know that unity has been achieved between Christian confessions when we can properly "approach the altar" together as well. In practical terms, inter-confessional unity can be said to be achieved when (1) the members of each church are generally permitted to receive communion in the church of the other, and (2) when the ministers of each church are allowed to substitute for each other for the same spiritual functions.

How do we get there?

The best roadmap to Christian unity, in my opinion, was the Decree on Ecumenism, published in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council. Yes, I know, this is a document coming from just one church, but consider these points: this was the largest gathering of Christian leadership *EVER* in the history of Christianity, and it included participating observers from every major Christian denomination (and who, I might add, were heavily consulted in the preparation of the Declaration). Surely the Holy Spirit was in there somewhere, and if so, we should pay close attention to what He said.

What does this roadmap contain? Read it for yourself:

The term "ecumenical movement" indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, "dialogue" between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions. In addition, the way is prepared for cooperation between them in the duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience; and, wherever this is allowed, there is prayer in common. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.

When such actions are undertaken prudently and patiently by the Catholic faithful, with the attentive guidance of their bishops, they promote justice and truth, concord and collaboration, as well as the spirit of brotherly love and unity. This is the way that, when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning.

Notice the boldness of the second paragraph? It says that if we follow the roadmap of the first paragraph, the end result will be a common celebration of the Eucharist — the measure, as I have already pointed out, of Christian unity. That hopeful tone just sounds to me like the voice of the Holy Spirit.

So what about activities to promote ecumenism?

There is a lot more in the Declaration than the brief bit I copied, but even now we have a good place to start to look for what kinds of activities ecumenists can focus on. These would be:

  1. Promotion of mutual understanding

    All Christians are responsible before God to make sure we do not bear false witness against our neighbours. Ecumenically speaking, however, this can only be avoided if we truly get to know the perspective of the "other" (something mentioned in the Declaration in point #9). Ecumenists could help all churches "acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background" (point #9 again) by organizing conferences, symposia, festschiften, and so on.

  2. Organization of dialogue opportunities

    While there do exist certain "official" dialogues between the various churches, these often lack a certain focus. In many cases it is unofficial groups, like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) or the Groupe des Dombes that are able to make the most progress in overcoming theological barriers. Eventually some sort of official decisions would need to be made by the church hierarchies regarding concrete acceptance of the results of such dialogues, but in the meantime ecumenists could contribute quite a bit by organizing "groups of theological interest", always seeking some deeper unity behind the questions which divide. The latter must always be at least possible, thanks to the basic moral principle that humans are always seeking the good, even when what we happen to be affirming at the moment might be a deficient good. What is the "particular good" that the doctrine and practice of the "other" seeks to affirm? If we look for the particular goods behind the various statements, we often find ourselves discovering a deeper unity behind the differences — even if that is simply the discovery of the basic humanity of the other, and the common quest for the fullness of life.

  3. Joint charitable action and work for social justice

    Christians are called to animate the temporal order with the Spirit of Christ, and this is a practical mission that can already be shared on a broad level by the various Christian churches. #12 of the Declaration mentions several possible areas of cooperation:

    This cooperation, which has already begun in many countries, should be developed more and more, particularly in regions where a social and technical evolution is taking place be it in a just evaluation of the dignity of the human person, the establishment of the blessings of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, the advancement of the arts and sciences in a truly Christian spirit, or also in the use of various remedies to relieve the afflictions of our times such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, housing shortage and the unequal distribution of wealth.

    With regards to work for social justice, the differences in the moral theology of the different Churches sometimes makes this hard to accomplish. Almost without exception, however, Christian churches agree that the principle of religious freedom should be respected, in that no one should ever be *coerced* with regards to religious beliefs and practice. Surely the defense of the right of freedom of conscience, under attack in many parts of the world, can be a way for Christians to work together, extending then further to pro-life work, work for economic justice, and so on.

  4. The promotion of ecumenical spirituality and common prayer

    The term "spiritual ecumenism" refers to the thirst for holiness and accompanying change of heart that comes from a genuine brush with God. And this spiritual ecumenism is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the ecumenical movement itself, because a sincere and humble desire for holiness can be easily recognized across denominational boundaries. Each community of Christians contains "hidden saints" whose greatest desire is to live in communion with God at all times, and these persons, given the chance to share their journey together, would be a powerful force for growth in unity. Ecumenists can organize "spiritual seminars" where an ecumenical spirituality is promoted, organize ecumenical retreats around particular spiritual disciplines, and even promote "field trips" between Christian communities, to give these "hidden saints" a chance to discover one another. One the connections are made, the Holy Spirit would take over from there I am sure.

One final point the Declaration made with regards to the road map is "the task of renewal and reform" in each particular church. In all honesty, I think this is an area where formal ecumenical organizations cannot really have a directive role, simply because nobody likes being told by outsiders and strangers what their problems are and how they need to change (and besides, there is just too great a risk of giving bad advice anyway). Nevertheless, there is something they can do, to act as a "catalyst" for this process of renewal and reform.

To "renew" something means, literally, to "make new something which has become old". Ecumenical organization can promote a greater study of the ancient treasures of the Christian tradition, through Patristic and historical studies, and thereby stimulate a process of renewal within the churches.

The term "reform" is something which is generally understood, but which is also generally controversial, in that it there must always be a careful discernment between true "reformation" and false "deformation". Still, even here ecumenical organizations could make a genuine contribution, by having an on-going study program of the great reformation movements in the history of the Church. What motivated them? What made some successful, and why did some seem to flop? From this could come a vision of what "reform" really is, and help members of churches discern better between true and false reform.

The final key point

Lurking behind all ecumenical activity is the question of the mission of Christ (i.e. just why *did* he come to Earth?), and behind that is the ultimate question of all: what is salvation? This is, in my honest opinion, THE KEY THEOLOGICAL QUESTION of the 21st century. Whoever is involved in ecumenism has to have a good sense of what this question means, or else we're just having fun with meetings and not really advancing the cause of the Gospel in an ecumenical manner. May the Lord bless our work for Christian unity!