Head to Head
For many decades, some Christians have struggled valiantly to bring
unity to the fractured body of the faithful. After much effort, their
successes have been few and far between.
Rick and Mick, despite their
very different perceptions of the world, agree substantially that much
of what goes for ecumenical dialogue today is largely a waste of time.
They think that practical ecumenism might be the way ahead.
The term ecumenism derives from the Greek
oikoumene, meaning the inhabited world. At the time of its original
use, that world referred to the Roman Empire. Today the term usually
refers to the various Christian denominations and their efforts to find
unity and ultimately return to one Christian Church.
Ecumenism has recently been
extended by some clergy to include all faiths including Jews, Muslims,
and Sikhs, Hindus and even Druids and neo-pagan witches as was the case
in the interfaith prayer service held in Yankee Stadium in the aftermath
of September 11, 2001. Even atheists might be included by some since
they have faith there is no God.
For any religious organization
to aspire to ecumenism it seems to me they must have some common
beliefs. Since monotheism and Jesus Christ are the pivots of belief
within the Christian Church it is logical for these Churches to attempt
finding common ground on which to ultimately unify. For the purposes of
this discussion I suggest that ecumenism be restricted to the Christian
Church lest we go off into a very complicated and convoluted path of
I don�t want to dismiss the
possible positive contributions that ecumenism could have vis-a-vis the
other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam) but, as I intimated, that
could be a numbing detour.
The first question I would pose
is why unification is either desirable or necessary for the Churches to
carry out their respective missions?
In his Decree on Ecumenism (Unitas
Redintegratio) Pope Paul VI said:
restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal
concerns of the Second Vatican
Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only.
However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as
the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers
of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ
Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of
Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching
the Gospel to every creature.
Thus Pope Paul VI framed the
issue. Ecumenism satisfies the will of Jesus Christ. These are strong
and authoritative words, Mick. How do you view them?
As far as I�m concerned the Pope�s words, apparently wise and accepting
of others, are reduced to near nonsense by the facts.
First, whatever else he says, the Pope declares that only those who
unreservedly embrace Catholic doctrine (as stated in the Catechism, for
example) can be �at one� with him. That is, the scandal he refers to is
perpetuated by the Pope and his subordinates (who will themselves be
swiftly expelled if they depart from the official line, for an entire
Vatican department is devoted to smelling out doctrinal dissidents).
This extremism goes back to the early centuries of Christianity when the
official Church, claiming a hotline to God, ruthlessly wiped out rival
Second, all those who claim that Christian unity is the perfect state also
claim for themselves the right to say what is the nature of that state.
If they did not, there would be no reason for disunity.
Third, the history of the Church is one of constant schism. We can�t
return to one Christian Church because there never has been such a
thing. Even when the Catholic Church was at the height of its power,
stubborn Christians who had reformed their interpretations of Jesus were
a constant menace to so-called unity. Catholicism has always been an
unattainable goal. There will always be those who choose to live by
their own interpretations of Jesus. Luther, that irascible, constipated,
Jew-hating, inspired visionary is a good example. Melanchthon�s
Augsburg Confession of 1530 remains a doctrinal norm to this day - a
sort of Pope in print. Similarly, Anglicans may return to the
Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 as a potential source of doctrinal
trump cards. Presbyterians still study Calvin�s writings. Many Orthodox
Christians maintain that any doctrine later than the 11th century is
I think that ecumenism as we now know it is generally a waste of time and
energy. It consists in discussions about the impossible (doctrinal
agreement) by those who have the most to lose personally from unity
What then �satisfies the will of Christ� to which Pope John refers above?
I suggest that only thoroughgoing acceptance of other Christians as they
are - no matter how imperfect - can be called ecumenical. We may
choose to worship with like-minded folk; but we must live and
work with any brand of Christian.
I accept much of what you say. I too think
is a utopian concept. However, to use an old clich�, let�s not throw out
the baby with the bathwater. I think the world needs the tempering
influence of the Church as I have previously argued. It has special
relevance to the maintenance of civil society.
To suggest all we need is to have everyone accept everyone no matter
what their imperfections may be every bit as utopian as ecumenism. Perhaps we should simply strive toward comity among the
various Christian entities and be realistic about our goals.
Doctrines are slow to change and there may yet be hope of accommodation
if we be but patient. Despite what you may say, there are nuggets of
wisdom in ancient Church doctrines. I for one find Philip Malanchthon�s
theological writings (particularly the Augsburg Confession) to be
relevant to my faith. But let�s not open that wound.
I see much good in continuing dialog among the various Church bodies.
Certainly isolation from each other does no good. Moreover, parallel
charitable activities can be amplified by mutual cooperation and
Thus, I urge some slowness and common sense in approaching the matter.
Perhaps our exchange is a model of civility to be copied. We often agree
to disagree but I don�t think we have lost our cool or unnecessarily
raised our voices.
Like you, I think that na�ve ecumenism is impossibly idealistic. It
takes little or no account of the nature of traditional doctrines as
incontrovertible answers to questions about the meaning of life. But if
that�s the case, what are we to do - those of us who nevertheless think
that we could get even closer to other Christians?
that we could all try a slightly different tack, one which might just
have the merit of putting fewer on the defensive. What about calling for
a staunch Lutheran, you will be able to give me a useful reaction.
Ecumenism would have two main components:
The local leaders of all denominations would agree on a number of
practical priorities into which they could pool some of their assets
and income. These might be largely incontrovertible aspects of
Christianity like assisting the poor, comforting prisoners, and
guarding civil liberties. This would be done at a local level first
where there may be less resistance because, in turn, needs will be
clearer and leadership defensiveness lower. (I�m not sure about the
latter, but it�s worth a shot. At any rate, here in the UK this is the
level at which a good deal of ecumenical endeavour is already bearing
fruit - even while church leaders potter around issuing
An essential component of any such movement would be an agreement to
disagree about doctrine on one hand, and on the other to positively
assert that no doctrine will get in the way of practical actions. At a
more theoretical level, those who think more carefully about such
matters might have to acknowledge that this requires them to accept
that their teachings, while valid and highly valued, may not
necessarily be absolute and final answers to life�s puzzles and
you? Perhaps your local church already does this sort of thing. Or is it
practically too difficult and doctrinally too challenging?
I absolutely agree with you. I can report that your number one component
is already in place in my community. My church cooperates with others
in, for instance, using our facilities to provide shelter and food for
There is a Rochester Ministerial
Association composed of clergy from Judaism, Islam and Bahai and of
course Christianity. They meet regularly to discuss ways to cooperate in
In the US, Eboo Patel, an
American of Indian descent, has founded the Interfaith Youth Core that
has programs to promote tolerance and understanding among the various
faiths particularly on college campuses.
Charity in the US is alive and
well. Over 300 billion dollars were given in 2009 of which a large
proportion was supplied by various faith-based organizations. My church,
the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, has given 30 million dollars
in aid to Haiti disaster relief.
I have not been keen on
ecumenism as conventionally defined. We have already cited reasons for
this lack of enthusiasm. While tension exists between various faiths,
for the most part there is huge co-operation between faith-based groups
in my country in charitable efforts. I think we should take some solace
in this fact and understand that
doctrinal capitulation or dominance is
unnecessary for cooperation. Practical ecumenism is a good concept.
We agree that something like the practical ecumenism above is the best
way forward. We will always find people who can�t move away from their
safe doctrinal formulas and who are therefore unwilling to enter into
any significant degree of closeness to other, different Christians. We
must, I suppose, keep them always in mind and refuse to write them off
as hopeless conservatives.
Having said this, I�d like to
finish by suggesting that practical ecumenism, while a useful concept
for Christians, might well be extended somewhat further.
What I mean is that it may well
be rightly extended to focus on the issues and the work around the
issues, rather than on who works together with us as Christians.
So, for example, it may well be that Christians should not tackle
environmental matters as Christians. Rather, they should work on
ecology, as a matter of principle, with anyone who wishes to work with
them. The same principle of ecumenism could be extended to any practical
matter - even something like politics.
To close: I think that
Christianity, if it is to be true to its roots, must be prepared to sit
at table with Scribes, Pharisees, tax collectors, loose women - and even