Is Ecumenism No Longer a Burning Issue?

Sometimes, I think the fire has gone out of our quest for Christian unity. To some people, it will always matter a great deal. The married couples who long to share Communion together, for example, or those who have been involved in ecumenical endeavours all their adult lives, will probably be more urgent in their desire to see some form of unity given official recognition than those who are happy being Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Free Church or whatever and make a point of concentrating on the commonalities of our Christian faith rather than what divides us. On the whole, I agree; what already unites us is amazing. Our baptism, our sharing of the scriptures, our life in Christ — these are not small things. But being an English Catholic does make one acutely aware of some of the differences and I am wondering whether we need to reconsider them if we are to advance towards a greater degree of unity than we enjoy at present.

An English Catholic Perspective
In England, Catholics are a minority; some still suggest that there is an element of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about us, or that we are socially and educationally an inferior breed. Partly that is a consequence of the Church of England being the Established Church and the indigenous Catholic population having been swelled over the years by successive waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa, India and so on. I think it also reflects the fact that, from an English perspective, ecumenism is predominantly about Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, whereas Rome’s eyes are focused on Orthodoxy. It is easy to conclude that because the Churches in England use many of the same words and ceremonies, we believe the same things. The fact is, we don’t; but we aren’t always honest about it. I was thinking this morning of one dear friend — an Anglican priest — who will tell you quite openly that theologically we are sometimes miles apart, but that does not get in the way of our friendship or our essential unity in Christ. It does, however, mean that there must be a constant effort to understand the other’s position. That requires honesty and trust and the willingness to give the process time. Both she and I have learned a lot from each other over the years, and I think that is how ecumenism grows: through seeking understanding, mutual trust, and the conviction that it is worthwhile.

Parallels Between Politics and Ecumenism
I think there is an interesting parallel between what has been happening in the U.S.A. recently and the way we often approach ecumenism. Some Catholics believe the best way of promoting pro-life policies in the U.S.A. is to condemn President Biden and demand his excommunication, to force him to change his public policy on abortion. As far as I can see, the same Catholics are not always so vocal about the need to convince others of the truth of their position, that all life is sacred, nor are they always so ready to provide the material and emotional support people need if they are to reject abortion (I write this as someone opposed to abortion and, before I became a nun, deeply involved in the Life movement). We never convince by condemning. We never spread the gospel by hatred. We can never force people to believe. Just as I think a pro-life stance requires thinking deeply, often painfully, about capital punishment, healthcare, gun control, social welfare and the like, so I think Christian unity can only be achieved if we are ready to have our own truths examined and to approach others in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By that I don’t mean some theatrical apology for the sins of our fathers in which we had no share but forgiveness for the little pockets of resentment and distrust most of us will uncover in ourselves if we look hard enough. It is only when we can be honest about how our own beliefs have been shaped that we can get down to the serious business of exploring what we believe and why, of being truly open to the other. Ecumenism doesn’t mean watering down: it means taking fire of the Holy Spirit. And that can lead to some surprising upsets and transformations.

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18 thoughts on “Is Ecumenism No Longer a Burning Issue?”

  1. When I was being interviewed for the seminary in the 1980s, I was asked by the diocesan seminary Theology professor what I understood by ecumenism.

    Only 20 years old I said, ”In the old days maybe we were very aloof and uninterested in what the non Catholics were up to or thought and they saw us as unfriendly, but now many Catholics think ecumenism means we all need to be so friendly that there is really no difference between us and we need to find a common denominator at any price, even to the dilution of the Faith. True ecumenism is sharing the Catholic Faith with our separated brethren honestly and integrally but in a very friendly and charitable manner to attract them to see the Light, renounce their errors and join us.”

    I will grant that the words there might be more ”grown up” than those I actually used back then after all its been 41 years since then, but I remember the conversation well and the Reverend Professor just nodded and gave the vocations director the thumbs up. I still believe the essence of what I said now : More good can be done using honey rather than vinegar as long as the message doesn’t change and we convert souls to the fullness of the Faith. Friendship cannot draw a veil over truth, but yes one must be patient and love those in error praying for the Light to embrace them or rather mutually….and do that oneself daily also to remain clear sited as the blind cannot lead the blind as the Good Lord tells us.

    Another element is striving for sanctity, love and holiness attracts and our society has become too secular to relate or care for the spiritual let alone seek truth honestly.

    If Catholics could have another holy/ardent New Spring or Pentecost, more could be done for Unity in Faith than in any quasi now empty of significance ”Week of prayer for Christian Unity” methinks.

    We brits are shackled by the traditional or cultural reserve supposedly demanded to be quiet on such matters – I was once told ”challenging someone’s Faith is such bad manners”

    Oremus pro invicem

  2. A well respected Lutheran theologian recently observed that the major difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is no longer theological but cultural. This is a most inciteful commentary.

    • I used to live next door to the Lutheran Church in one of my USA placements and have him over for a pleasant lunch sometimes. I would also be present at graduation services from time to time and they would mostly be held in the Lutheran church.

      I can assure you that your ”inciteful commentary” certainly had no application in North Dakota where Lutheranism is still taught from the pulpit in all its sad horrors. The poor children were told ”your life is before you, go do just what you like” rather than ”dear young people, your lives are before you, pray earnestly to God for guidance so you may be pleasing to Him and not sin.”

  3. How can there be any degree of official recognition of unity, based on our commonalities, when one or another Christian denomination holds firmly to the belief they alone are in possession of the fullness of truth and other Christians are living in doctrinal error?

    If we believe Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, is He not in possession of us, as disciples, rather than the other way around? Then to dismiss the faith of our brethren – faith which is given as a gift from God – is that not wrong? If we are sincere about the importance of ecumenism we will approach and dialogue with other believers having left our pride and arrogance behind us because we are all created in the image of God and in baptism belong to Him.

    • No it is not wrong – the Protestant religions who left the fullness of the Faith are in a shallower faith by default and did exactly what St Paul warned when he said ”A time will come when people will become tired of sound doctrine, and will make up new fables and teaching according to their own fancy or comfort needs” Luther did this, as did Calvin and the others and it continues to be done in modern society to the point that to the regular Joe or Jane, Faith is so diluted that it become irrelevant and certain churches just adapt practice to modern expectations making themselves a twisted and ungainly model of faith/religion. The Catholic Faith alone is guaranteed survivability and integrity based on Christ’s promise to Peter – even if it goes though tumultuous times now and then – by leaving, you abandon Peter, you go elsewhere and then have no guarantee of long term Faith and the further you go from the Church Christ founded the worse and more fractured will your beliefs and congregation become. Come home !

      • We read in Mark 9:38-49 that the disciples of Jesus alerted him to the fact “others” were driving out demons in His name. He replied anyone not against Him was for him and that anyone who gave so much as a cup of cold water in His name would not lose their reward in heaven.

        Jesus did not found an institution but rather a way of life, in loving service to God and each other, long before the institution of the RC Church. We are “the church”, those baptized into the fellowship of Jesus regardless of denomination. Ecumenism is a sincere effort to bring all Christian denominations closer to one another. As long as people remain stuck on the symbolism of “the keys” which has a number of different interpretations little or no progress will be made. Remember, St. Paul also said we see as through a glass, darkly. No one is in “possession of the fullness of truth” at this time.

  4. I know I have referred to this before, but here in what is considered Catholic Bavaria the lines are definitely blurred. In general people go to their „own“ church, but if that isn‘t possible, they pop next door to the other one. They are literally next to each other. In covid times it seems a reasonable compromise to them. The obligation to hear Mass has faded definitely. The critical distinction of the Real Presence seems to mean nothing to them. They certainly don‘t understand the way people in the UK choose to cross the Tiber. I find this difficult to explain to them, historically it having been a matter of life and death. So I don‘t know which is the better way. I have been a Roman Catholic since 1992 and feel I am in the right place. I wouldn‘t like to revert.

  5. I’ve been reflecting on this since I read it. I’m the only catholic in my whole family; in-laws and cousins are Baptist and low church, European family are nominal only, my adult children left some time ago (the abuse crisis and the position of women). It’s humbling to see what good other denominations do and how women are taking their rightful place among the people of God. When certain strident voices, here, and most particularly in the USA, assert they alone are holders of the truth and other Christians are shallow, mistaken and inferior, the cause of any sort of unity is clearly dead in the water.

    It’s consoling that now at least, the suspicion of other denominations and petty prohibitions about attending their services are all but gone, and that a respectful acknowledgement of different traditions is generally the case.

    I do think, and it would be interesting to hear others’ thoughts on this, that many Catholics are loyal to their church – defined as the parish they have chosen to join – and because they were born and brought up in it. You have only to see the way an arrogant, selfish or lazy priest can destroy a parish to see that.

    And what of the future? Wonersh is closing, there are almost no vocations to the priesthood and congregations will find themselves adrift with no one to minister to them. The rump of the priesthood will be reduced to a sacramental ministry and community will be gone.

    Leadership and authority will then have to default to the laity if any semblance of community is to be maintained.

    But I suppose these views will have me immediately excommunicated by some!

  6. As a former evangelical, anti-Catholic, Protestant who converted to Catholicism in 2015, I can tell you that the divide between these two branches of the faith is wide and rocky. Conversion to the Church brings with it a denunciation from and a loss of sometimes many family and friends. Crossing the Tiber is a very lonely journey. But in the other world of mainline Protestantism, nobody seems to care one way or the other. I have found that sadly many “mainstreamed” Catholics haven’t a clue what they believe and so they are not even aware of the disdain in which they are held by my former evangelical friends. Many Catholics seem just as unaware of Protestant beliefs and so can easily be “evangelized” and persuaded out of the Church.

    Because I studied my way into the Church, I tend to be very aware of the great theological divide between Protestants and Catholics, and the even greater divide between Christians and other faiths. To me ecumenism is just respect for all who practice a faith. I try to “be like God” in that I try and meet them where they are at without judging or belittling them, trying to find a common moral ground, and treating them with respect. If we can talk about and compare our faiths, all the better, but I don’t feel a need to convert them as was taught by my Protestant mentors. I can do the sharing, but I will let God do the converting. If he can use me in the process, I am honoured!

  7. As someone who travelled through two other Christian denominations to reach the Catholic Church, I can say that I’m grateful for the journey, love the people in whose houses – churches – I dwelt, have an understanding of their theological positions and a respect for them ecumenically, but, seeking the fullness of faith through Peter who was given the keys and adopting through theological study the position of fides et scriptura, I truly believe I’m at home in the unwavering Catholic Church. This does not mean that she does not have enormous challenges to face up to but that she does not waver in the fundamentals (not with a capital F), please God.

  8. As a Protestant I have great respect for the Catholic faith and have participated with Catholic friends in ecumenical ventures. Similarly I have benefited greatly from reading the reflections and comments on this site over the last year or so. It came as something of a surprise and great sadness to read today the comments posted by Oremus Pro Invicem where, to my reading, it is suggested that the Protestant interpretation of the Christian faith is ‘shallow’ and that the faith has become so diluted as to be a ‘twisted and ungainly model of faith/religion’. Now is not the time or place to debate the rights or wrongs of Luther’s actions but to dismiss his motives out of hand is to do an injustice to ALL branches of the Christian Church. This is the first occasion on which I have read this site – which is ostensibly is Catholic in nature – and felt like an ‘outsider’. I regret that your contributor has felt the need to disparage Protestantism in such strong terms however strong his own convictions may be. I had hoped that we had moved beyond such sentiments within the Christian faith

    • I too felt very sad after reading those comments. After I’d stopped being angry! I reflected on what Dame Catherine’s advice would be and waited a couple of days before adding my two penny worth!

      I remember those exhilarating times after V II when so many of us hoped that churches would come together in sacramental faithfulness, but for many reasons that didn’t happen. And the cause of unity – however it’s defined, isn’t helped by dogmatism and a refusal to accept that none of us can see through a glass clearly.

      For a fair few of us, it’s this blog that keeps us centred on what really matters. Listen to wise women!

  9. I think my own views are clearly expressed in the above post and all my other writing in this blog, including the post for 25 January 2020 to which I re-linked on Twitter and Facebook on 25 January this year. I am sorry that the discussion has taken a different line at times but that is a reminder how much there is still to do.

  10. I’ve just caught up with this. It seems to me that our Lord would have none of us describe any other in disparaging terms, even if we don’t agree! I have always understood that my priesthood is not recognised by the Catholic Church. I found it more painful when one Catholic colleague lumped the CofE in with “other faiths” as if we had nothing in common. Other colleagues have been more generous! From Sr Catherine I have had nothing but respect and courtesy, whilst we are both aware of the boundaries. I concur with her that the best and only way forward is to learn from each other, respect and love each other, and apologise when we think we have hurt or been misunderstood. From my (Anglican) perspective, we can leave the rest to God! Thank you Sister. I am grateful to be counted a friend.

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