Vol 42 No 3
The churches and ecumenism, 2008
AS IS CUSTOMARY, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave an address to its Plenary Assembly on November 14, 2006 which was, as it were, a ‘state of the nation’ address concerning the ecumenical scene worldwide from a Catholic perspective.
A New Situation
Among other things, he drew attention at the beginning of his address to the obvious truth that we are in a very different situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century than we were at the beginning of the twentieth century.1 It is too easy for us to forget this and not to appreciate the enormous fruitfulness of the ecumenical movement.
A second general point he made was that he rejected the interpretation of the present situation very current in discussions about ecumenism, that we are in a time of wind-down or of stalling, or that we have passed into a period of ‘winter’, or as some have said, ‘an ice age’.2 He rightly rejected such a reading of what has happened these past twenty or thirty years.
One of the problems confronting many striving to interpret the present situation is that they are not aware of all that has been achieved in international dialogues, and in relationships at the highest level between Christian world communions. Because ecumenical practice at the local level is very often little different to the practice of twenty years ago, and some in fact can point to a diminution of ecumenical activity in their area in the past ten years, this is seen as an indicator that the whole ecumenical movement has ground to a halt.
It would be more accurate to interpret the present situation on the local level in terms of the ecumenical journey having reached a plateau. The churches have achieved a very significant level of mutual understanding and have established structures for collaboration that required an enormous amount of effort. As these were being achieved, they were seen as wonderful ecumenical gains or even ‘break-throughs’. While those agreements and structures are capable of providing a continuing growth in ecumenical collaboration and understanding, they are not of themselves capable of generating new major ‘break-throughs’ or of taking us to new levels of ecumenical relationship, and hence people speak of a stalling in the ecumenical movement. More dramatic development than this can really only happen for the Catholic Church through the dialogues and negotiations that take place on the highest level of ecumenical inter-connectedness.
A New Methodology
But even on the local level, something more and something more exciting can happen through a more intentional harvesting of the fruit of the ecumenical relationships of the past century. We need to review what has been achieved in that time which is the basis for the new level of relationship or the deeper communion that has been achieved. Then we can ask of each other whether we are actually living in accord with this new degree of communion, this new relationship, and finally we can explore together what we can do to deepen it even further.
This was the methodology used and then recommended by the Anglican-Roman Catholic Joint Commission for Unity and Mission that grew out of a meeting of Anglican and Catholic bishops in Canada ten years ago. It recognised that Anglicans and Catholics no longer had the same degree of communion, or more accurately lack of communion, that they had forty years before, and also that they hadn’t really taken seriously this new level of communion, or used it as the basis for new initiatives that could take them to a deeper level of communion.
In a similar way it is possible to move from what people on the local level see as an ecumenical impasse by this methodology of harvesting, of recognising, and of planning new initiatives. The covenanting proposal of the National Council of Churches of Australia, which follows from the Covenant signed by the Heads of most major Churches in Adelaide in July 2004, is a method whereby local parishes, congregations, dioceses, presbyteries and so on can covenant to do certain things together, to carry forward the ecumenical relationship they already have, so that a new relationship can be achieved.
Moreover the other commitment that can be made on a local level to further the ecumenical cause is to take more seriously the contribution of prayer and of sharing one’s spiritual gifts and resources with each other. This spiritual ecumenism has always been one stream of the ecumenical movement, but has seldom been the main stream. Some movements of prayer and monastic life have focussed on prayer and everyone has done something by their prayer together in the Week of Christian Unity, but even this has ceased to be a major spiritual event in many places.
In 2008 Christians celebrate the centenary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, at least since it began its earliest form as an Octave of Prayer for the Reunion of Christians started by the then Episcopalian priest, Lewis Thomas Wattson, the founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement who have committed themselves to the ecumenical movement. Many are seeing this year as an appropriate time to renew their commitment to praying together.
The ecumenical movement has not stalled. Extraordinary things are happening on an international level by way of dialogue and the deepening of relationships between Christian communions; and even on the local level Christians do not need to stay where they are if they take seriously the new level of communion achieved by past ecumenical efforts and above all, enter more deeply into the spiritual way forward.
In his overview of the present situation of the ecumenical movement, Cardinal Kasper named five changes that have occurred in the ecumenical landscape that need to be taken account of if we are to move forward ecumenically on any level. The first he called ‘Climate Change: the new question of individual identity.’ He suggested that a hermeneutic of suspicion was replacing the hermeneutic of trust that had reigned supreme in the ecumenical movement up until now. Christian communities, churches, communions are drawing the boundaries more clearly and are affirming their identity more definitively over against the others.3
* * * *
The Question of Identity
Neither he nor anyone else would or should question the importance of identity in the ecumenical movement. It has always been obvious that one cannot dialogue with others unless one knows who one is oneself, and that there is no real ecumenism if the parties involved do not identify with any community or represent any tradition. There can be no exchange of gifts if no-one can distinguish the gifts they have to offer. There can be no agreement reached if people do not know what they believe. Identity is very important in the ecumenical movement, but a hardening of identity, a self-defensive identity, an accusatory identity, is not helpful to the movement.
Cardinal Kasper was speaking from his very rich experience of ecumenical relationships with other Christian communities in Germany. For example, he was disturbed by the reaction of some Germans to the Joint Declaration on Justification which is arguably one of the greatest achievements of the ecumenical movement. Scholars such as Eberhard Jüngel described such achievements as ‘cheating’.4
The ecumenical movement flourished because of the discovery of what were often described as the hidden agreements in our disagreements. In a public lecture in 1972, Günther Gassmann, a German Lutheran, who had been a guest at a meeting in Windsor of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission discussing the Eucharist, described an evangelical Anglican and a more conservative Catholic discussing some aspect of eucharistic theology about which all other participants had found agreement. According to Gassman, everybody stood around and watched them. They could hear the two arguing with gentle accusations that if one were to hold the position being put forward by the other, then one would be contradicting the Scriptures or the great Tradition of the Church, and so on. Eventually they heard one of them say to the other: ‘Is that what you mean?’ and the other said: ‘Yes, that’s what I mean.’ The first speaker then apparently said: ‘Well, if that’s what you mean then that’s what I have been trying to say as well.’ They had discovered a hidden agreement in their apparent disagreement. Four hundred years of determination to speak in a way that reinforced differences had finally crumbled as they listened attentively to the faith the other was trying to describe theologically, and heard the same Gospel in which they believed.
What has been suggested by others, not least of all Cardinal Avery Dulles in a talk in 1990 at St John’s Seminary, Boston, is that we are now discovering hidden disagreements in our ecumenical agreements.5 This is perhaps understandable. For people who haven’t experienced the intense meeting of minds and hearts that occurs in an ecumenical dialogue and only have the text of the statement before them it is easy to ask a thousand questions of the text and even perhaps in one’s heart to accuse the participants of not having dealt with all the problems. The participants may well have, but may not have canvassed them all as one would in an article or an academic paper, in the briefer and more focussed ecumenical agreed statement.
It probably is also true that sometimes the enthusiasm of the early decades of the ecumenical movement led some participants to agree too easily, and in that sense to fail without intending to, to be truly representative of their own communion. Sometimes indeed, participants representing one or other communion have been of one particular school of thought in that communion. This was seen by some to be the problem in the early days of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. There was not thought to be sufficient evangelical representation among the Anglicans.
So there are grounds on which one can question whether there are now hidden disagreements in the agreements, and then to bring any so discovered into the continuing dialogue. This is a normal understandable development in ecumenical dialogues that have often been going for forty years. But people who find these hidden disagreements can also sometimes be taking an ideological stance. They may well be unsympathetic to the ecumenical movement. They may not see it as a movement of the Spirit as those involved certainly do. They may see it as jeopardising an identity, whether it be Catholic or Protestant, or Orthodox, or all the variations in between and beyond, that they consider to be true and to be placed at risk by these agreements.
Properly conducted ecumenical dialogue ought not place any identity at risk. Ecumenical dialogue normally involves people who robustly adhere to their own identity, entering into profound relationships with others in such a way that they are thereby able to see reflected in the other something of themselves, and to discover themselves anew in the meeting with the other which confronts and challenges their own clearly held identity. What grows from this encounter is not a compromised identity for either party, but rather a re-appreciation of their own and the other’s identity and recognition by each party that the other is to a greater or lesser degree, depending on who they are, likewise representing the faith and the Church that they see their own identity as embracing and protecting.
Cardinal Kasper rightly suggests that this stress on identity serves us well when it enables us to define who we are and our differences, but only as long as this is done within the framework of a larger shared faith, and when it is done with the aim of overcoming differences through dialogue rather than establishing barriers to progress or simply of asserting one’s own identity come what may.6 He obviously fears that the latter is beginning to happen in Germany and at times among some Orthodox.
The Basis and Goal of Ecumenism
The second major theme of Cardinal Kasper’s address he entitled: ‘Disputed Questions on the Basis and Goal of Ecumenism’. For him: ‘the foundations of ecumenism are not a sentimental irenicism in which the question of truth has become irrelevant, not a vague feeling of belonging together, a defuse humanism or an amorphous global religiosity’.7 According to his Catholic understanding, ‘the foundation of ecumenism consists in the common confession of Jesus Christ and the Triune God as it is expressed also in the basic formula of the World Council of Churches’,8 and is expressly cited by the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council.
A new problem is that the Trinitarian and Christological basis of ecumenical relationships is not as secure as it used to be. The ancient creeds which have served the church so well and which were forged through such incredible debate and conflict are now not always appreciated. They are sometimes being unravelled because of new questions confronting the churches, such as those raised by Christian feminism.
A study by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which resulted in a report entitled Confessing the One Faith9 in 1991, has not been taken up very fully. It never captured the imagination as the earlier statement from the Faith and Order Commission Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry had done. This may well have been a lost opportunity to stave off the loss of a shared language about God which is disturbing many at the moment.
This is only one aspect of the changed theological context in which ecumenists are doing their work. There is also a difficulty in that many theologians are just not as concerned about the theological and especially the ecclesiological issues of ecumenical dialogues. Those of a less classically Protestant or Catholic theology whose concerns are those raised by the issues and challenges of contemporary culture will be far less interested in the traditional goal of achieving organic unity or uniting Christian churches according to some other model, because it is simply far less important to them.
But even those who are concerned about church unity do not necessarily describe the goal in the same way. The World Council of Churches through its own Faith and Order Commission has at each Assembly attempted to describe more fully the goal of the ecumenical movement. While not a member of the World Council of Churches, the Catholic Church has played a part in that formulation for many decades and would support the statements from the Canberra Assembly (1991) of the World Council of Churches and the Porto Alegre (2006) Assembly. However, it would not be true that Christians generally actually share that description of the goal. Kasper concluded very tellingly that ‘the lack of a common goal is, in addition to the lack of clarity on fundamentals, the most profound problem of the contemporary ecumenical situation. For if one has no common goal there is a danger that one unintentionally moves in different directions and finds oneself in the end further apart than before.’10
There are very significant consequences of this lack of a shared description of a goal for the ecumenical movement. Catholics, Orthodox and many other Christian ecumenists strive for unity in faith, sacraments and ministry while rejoicing in diverse expressions of the faith and the liturgy and the canonical forms that the same ministerial order take in different churches. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a beautiful example of this unity of faith but diversity in expression and emphasis. On the other hand Christian churches in Europe have entered into various agreements which do not demand this same level of agreement in faith, sacraments and order, and believe this is sufficient, perhaps justified by the Augsburg Confession’s requirement only of agreement in the teaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments according to the gospel.
Some of these Christians can become very impatient with the Catholic Church for not permitting a sharing of eucharist and ministry given, for example, the agreement on justification by faith in the Joint Declaration. Their impatience is understandable given their perception of what is required for Church unity but it arises because two vastly different understandings come into conflict on this question.
That the Orthodox would share Cardinal Kasper’s concern was well illustrated by the address at the third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu in Romania on September 5, 2007 by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. According to him the Orthodox were committed to doing everything in their power to ‘promote the sacred work of restoration of full ecclesiastical and sacramental communion among churches on the basis on the same faith in love and respect for the particular expressions with which the apostolic faith is experienced.’11 He hoped that the Assembly would result in real positive steps toward that goal. But the churches would need, he said, to ‘agree upon the character and form of the Christian unity that we seek, especially since we know that one of the existing and preliminary impediments is precisely the different opinion among Christian churches as to the purpose and goal of the ecumenical movement’.12
One of the most heartening recent events for Catholic ecumenists was the Consistory for new cardinals in Rome at the end of November last year. Pope Benedict chose to invite Cardinal Walter Kasper to give the address to the College of Cardinals which had gathered for that Consistory and their major discussion was on ecumenism. When speaking to the other cardinals, Kasper gave an update on the present state of all the relationships of the Roman Catholic Church to other Christian World Communions. He then made many of the same points that he had made a year before in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council. He phrased this particular point rather colourfully: ‘What we hold to be our common patrimony has begun to dissolve here and there like glaciers in the Alps.’13
Evangelicals and Pentecostals
The third major theme of his address to the Pontifical Council was entitled: ‘New Challenges: Evangelicals and Pentecostals’. He acknowledged that these churches and communities are sometimes referred to as a third wave in the history of Christianity. Speaking first of Evangelicals he made the point that on matters of the Church and the sacraments, they are often very far apart from other Christians such as Catholics, whereas on Christological doctrine and on ethical questions, they are often very close to Roman Catholics, and often closer to them than some other Protestant Churches. This is a new configuration within the larger ecumenical world.14
Kasper sees the Evangelical movement as a counter-current or a reaction against the more liberal protestant theology which he perceives to be fairly prevalent again today; and he can see their concerns and the concerns of the Catholic Church often coinciding. However there are major theological differences on ecclesiology, sacraments, biblical exegesis, and the understanding of the tradition which can hinder even this coming together.15
In October 2006 a statement entitled ‘That they may have Life’ was published by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) which is an American group of Evangelicals and Catholics who have achieved a significant level of mutual respect and co-operation and try to speak together on moral matters about which they are equally concerned. Some of the Catholic representatives and signatories of that statement were George Weigel, Fr Richard John Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles. A similar coming together has occurred to a lesser extent in Australia.
The report acknowledges that it is not always easy for Catholics and Evangelicals to find a common voice on moral matters because of their different understanding of the capacity of human reason. It claims that Evangelicals, and the Protestant tradition generally, view human reason as deeply corrupted by sin whereas Catholics see it as still having a capacity to discern truth including moral truth, despite its being wounded by sin.16
So while a new partnership may be arising between Catholics with some other Christians and Evangelicals on ethical issues, the differences between them on ecclesial, anthropological and biblical issues make that not always an easy partnership. At the same time, it is a partnership which could become increasingly important if those involved in it recognise that they are coming out of two very different world views. While they may share particular commitments and theological positions, they are truly very different and need to deal with that difference, if the relationship is to grow. This means that dialogue about who they are and not just about ethical issues, is essential if the partnership is to work.
Concerning Pentecostalism, Cardinal Kasper distinguished three different waves: ‘Classic Pentecostalism, within which good dialogue has been possible with some groups; the Charismatic Movement within the traditional churches including the Catholic Church; and Neo-Pentecostalism, which often turns into a religion of purely worldly promise of prosperity’.17 He said rather critically of this third wave: ‘Its relationship with the traditional Churches is mostly quite aggressive and proselytising; a practical dialogue is of course possible, but dialogue in the real and accepted sense has until now scarcely been possible.’18
One has to remember as one reads these words that he is looking at the Catholic scene around the entire world. In parts of Latin America his concern about aggressive proselytising would echo those of many bishops. There is a fair level of hostility among Catholics to Pentecostals in parts of Central and Latin America. At the same time he acknowledged and has done so on many occasions, that part of the problem lies with the Catholic Church itself. If they are losing tens of thousands of Catholics to Pentecostal groups, they need to look at their own house to put it in order so that people will not go elsewhere looking for ‘life’ as they understand it.
Many Pentecostals are committed to unity. Though because they do not have a very highly developed theology of the Church or appreciation of the larger Christian Tradition through the centuries, that unity is described as something Christian communities can achieve by working together. It would not necessarily involve doctrinal or institutional unity. Whereas for Catholics and Orthodox and many other Christians, the unity they are seeking is a restoration of the unity they had before the divisions which have torn them apart, and it will be a unity within the great Christian Tradition of the Gospel. It will encompass faith and sacraments and ecclesial order or ministry as has been stated so often by the World Council of Churches. Consequently, while Catholics may meet an enthusiasm for unity among Pentecostals, the unity sought does not involve many of those elements Catholics believe are essential for unity. This can lead to disappointments and misunderstandings unless people deal with their differing understanding of ‘unity’.
The third category of Pentecostals described by Kasper is an interesting dialogue partner for Catholics in Australia at present. Not all Pentecostal churches still use the charismatic gifts of tongues and healing in a normal Sunday service, whereas the dominant image of Classic Pentecostals is of Christians distinguished by their use of such gifts. The relationship of Catholics with this new wave of Pentecostals is similar to their relationship with independent Evangelical Churches and mega-Churches that have grown up in Australia, often according to an American model.
There seems to be a mega-church model of worship sweeping through Australia. It often involves very strong music or ‘praise worship’, a strong sermon, a brief prayer and a collection. Many pastors in more traditional Western churches are inclined to adopt this model because as they perceive it, ‘it works’. However, there is a flow through of participants in such churches. Pastors sometimes have a major task to hold their members for more than a few years. So, in dealing with these bodies Catholics are not dealing with Churches in the traditional sense of the word.
In addition, there is a tendency among some Evangelicals and Pentecostals to believe that God is sending preachers or pastors or movements or strategies or events into our midst to bring about the radical and dramatic change they are hoping will occur to our secular culture. They give regular invitations to other Christians to join in one or other rally, listen to one or other speaker, or make some new commitment to prayer together. There is always a promise that this will bring something rather dramatic to one’s city or the nation.
Once more Catholics are dealing here with a different ecclesial or spiritual phenomenon than certainly ecumenists are used to in their dealing with each other. Sometimes Catholics and representatives of other Christian Churches share some of the Evangelical / Pentecostal priorities. Because these are so different to classical ecumenical priorities, collaboration can be fairly awkward at times. This is particularly true when representatives of traditional ecumenically open churches, including Catholics, attempt to organise an event with Pentecostals and Evangelicals, only to discover that their goal and their methods are very different. A civic prayer service can become a rally unless all can agree about the nature of the event.
Cardinal Kasper added as the fourth element in the contemporary ecumenical terrain: ‘Ecumenical Fragmentation and New Networks’. This may be a peculiarly Catholic concern. The Catholic Church sees itself as dealing with World Communions which themselves do not necessarily describe themselves in terms of being one church, except in the sense that all Christians belong to denominations which are each part of the one Church. This denominationalism is alien to a Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the Church. That is why Catholics speak always in the plural of ‘Churches and ecclesial communities’, rather than of ‘the Church’ as a word inclusive of everyone, and why they avoid the word ‘denominations’.
To take one example, the World Methodist Council is an association of extraordinarily diverse churches maintaining some allegiance to the theology and spirituality of John and Charles Wesley. Among these is the Uniting Church because the Methodist Church of Australia became a member of the Uniting Church and the Uniting Church retains the original membership it had of the World Methodist Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
There are also Waldensians, Church of the Nazarene and the Great United Methodist Church of the United States which has bishops and which retains as members of itself all Methodist Churches in Asia, Africa and Europe which were founded by missionaries of the United Methodist Church. Their bishops are members of the College of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, and their representatives attend the General Conference of the United Methodist Church of the USA. On the other hand, there are Methodist Churches in many parts of the world which were founded from Great Britain and which do not have bishops and which are independent and, other than historically, are not connected to the Methodist Church of Great Britain.
This is a very diverse body as often are other World Communions and as a consequence, there is what Cardinal Kasper calls an ‘asymmetry’19 in the relationships. This is true as well for other Christian communions in their relationships with each other in different ways. Nonetheless, such an asymmetry is something that the ecumenical movement has been dealing with since the beginning. However his concern was, and is, that greater fragmentation is occurring, or could occur in even those bodies. Kasper’s concern was particularly focussed on the Anglican communion. The whole ecumenical world is praying for the Lambeth Conference this year which will be the centenary Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion and one in which it has never faced such tendencies to division and to splintering.
Kasper also pointed to all kinds of new High Church Movements within other Christian traditions, and monastic movements such as Taize, Bose and Chevetogne etc., as well as the Focolare movement and to Chemin Neuf. In May 2004, about 10,000 young people from Christian movements of young people of many Christian Churches gathered in Stuttgart in Germany, and found a spiritual linkage between themselves that perhaps would have surprised their more official and older Church members.20 The up-shot of all of this is simply to say that the ecumenical world is becoming more diverse and more complex.
The fourth contribution of Cardinal Kasper to the Assembly of the Pontifical Council was to speak of ‘Secular Ecumenism and Fundamental Ecumenism’. He attributed the notion of ‘secular ecumenism’ to the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser.21 It would consider that in the future the churches will come together not through theological dialogue but through collaboration for achieving justice, peace and freedom throughout the world. This is a new paradigm of ecumenism. Kasper maintained that ultimately this would not be enough because questions of theology would still arise.
Secular ecumenism may be a continuation of the earlier ecumenical stream of the ‘Life and Work’ movement which paralleled the ‘Faith and Order’ movement in the early days of the modern ecumenical movement prior to the formation of the World Council of Churches. The mantra of some in that movement was that ‘doctrine divides while work unites’. Cardinal Kasper described the crucial significance of this issue as follows:
The fact that many people are by now no longer interested in the old controversies or in overcoming them cannot be simply solved by putting these issues aside, but rather by opening them up anew. This ignorance and often also indifference relate not only to the old controversies but also to the common foundations on which the churches are based.
Many people, especially young people, simply cannot understand the traditional doctrinal distinctions even with the best will in the world. They need a new elementary vocabulary; the fundamental Christian message must be made accessible to them in a language that they understand. Where such a fundamental form of communication exists, a new type of ecumenism comes into being on the foundation of the Christian faith, and thus we are able to speak of a fundamental ecumenism that must move towards the ultimate aim of full visible unity.22
In speaking further about this ‘fundamental ecumenism’ he argued that it must not be simply academic even though serious academic work would always continue to be indispensable. But it needed to be spiritual as well:
Ultimately fundamental ecumenism is a spiritual task. It places the focus once more on the fact that ecumenism is most profoundly and in its heart of hearts spiritual ecumenism, that is, an ecumenism that after all the simple divisions, the sins against love and truth, the prejudice and the malice towards one another makes room for the spirit of Christ, which is a spirit of reconciliation and love.23
In Oberlin in the United States a conference was held in 2007 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Faith and Order Conference in that same city. Fr John T Ford, a great Catholic ecumenist, reported that he was struck by the fact that young people were not able to understand and were not concerned about the issues to which the participants who had been at the first Oberlin Conference in 1957 were referring, and about which they were apparently still concerned. He saw young people as much more interested in what again would have been called the Life and Work movement rather than the Faith and Order movement, with its emphasis upon common witness and collaboration for the sake of the world, and the great sense of unity this generated. In fact, they were inclined to see doctrinal discussions as reinforcing division rather than overcoming what separates the churches.24
Ford used a distinction taken from John Henry Newman between notional and real assent to describe these two approaches. Notional assent tends to be abstract and while intellectually defensible, can be somewhat divorced from concrete situations. Real assent on the other hand is concerned about the concrete realities of daily life and so is usually far stronger than notional assent. Notional assent speaks to the head and is integral to the way human beings work. They need to be intellectually persuaded before they make real decisions. But real assent is what motivates people and drives them on. He saw the need for a coming together of both streams of the ecumenical movement and both ways of thinking and working.25
As he said: ‘In life, the notional and the real go together: the notional without the real tends to be speculation, while the real without the notional tends to be superficial. If so, as an ecumenical corollary, Faith and Order and Life and Work need to be more engaged as ecumenical partners.’26 Both he and Cardinal Kasper highlighted one of the most fundamental problems that the ecumenical movement faces internationally and here in Australia.
Many, and especially younger people, are often not at all concerned about those things in which committed ecumenists of the past invested all their life and energy for the sake of the unity of the Church. The doctrinal issues do not capture their imagination. On the other hand, issues of justice, peace, the integrity of creation do capture their imagination and they are happy enough for Christians and secular people, and representatives of other World Religions, to work together for these causes. The doctrinal difference between Christians and other World Religions are seen to be minor in comparison with this positive common engagement.
However, the situation may be even more barren than either of these authors have suggested. In fact, they are actually only talking about a small number of people, and particularly a small number of young people who would be interested at all. We live in a secular age and an age in which Pope Benedict has said we suffer from ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.27
In our secular age, so powerfully analysed by Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor,28 a major problem for Christian ecumenists is that their work has become irrelevant to many of their contemporaries. The issues that divide Christians and which concern ecumenists are of no concern at all to those who either do not look beyond the human for their meaning or even for their self-transcendence, or who only have a vague appreciation of what it is we believe, but who nonetheless may be on a spiritual quest, and who can hold contradictory religious or philosophical positions together without being disturbed.
Some commentators are suggesting that secularism and atheism are ‘on the run’, so to speak, at present, but this is not obvious in Australia. Rather the Churches give the impression to secular commentators that they are ‘on the run’. Their ecumenical endeavours may appear in the eyes of secular observers to be reorganising the deck chairs on the Titanic. This places an enormous challenge before Christian Churches and religious communities to find the way to speak to their secular culture that will enable the Christian voice to be heard so that the Christian gospel can be embraced and the Christian community can be seen as a life-giving body to which to belong.
* * * *
Ecumenism in the Future
Ecumenism in that context is not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but reorganising the body to make it stronger to carry out that task. Australian Christians need a commitment to the new fundamental ecumenism that is based upon the profound spiritual ecumenism, of which Cardinal Kasper spoke. The prayer of Jesus recorded for us in the seventeenth chapter of St John’s Gospel: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their work, that they may all be one. As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:20-21) is still the basis of the ecumenical movement.
Christians strive to fulfil Christ’s prayer by working to restore the unity that was there from the beginning and to do so for the sake of the world. However, they can sometimes forget that the prayer is truly Christ’s prayer and that Christ dwells in all of us. Therefore there is an urgency in Christians that comes from him because it is his longing for Christian unity that finds expression in all of their ecumenical efforts. Indeed their hearts are one with his heart through baptism and faith and any efforts they contribute to the restoration of Christian unity are simply their carrying forward his longing, his desires, his inspirations, his actions through them.
If Christians return to him together in prayer, and there can be no better year for doing so in this centenary year of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he will inspire them, and move them to take the steps that they need to find that unity which will serve the cause of sharing his life anew with secular Australia. This is the new ‘world’ that needs to believe that it is the Father who sent him, as he so prayed.
Our ecumenical task is a new responsibility in a secular age. It is the essential coming together of Christians so that they will have the strength, the wisdom, the knowledge, the power, the courage, the strategies, the structures to convey anew to a secular culture the joy of knowing Christ Jesus. He longs for that far more than they do. Their task is simply to surrender to the longing of his heart that they will find within themselves and together to pray anew and to dialogue anew and collaborate anew with greater commitment that we may be one so that Australia will believe that it is the Father who sent him.
Bishop Michael Putney is the Bishop of the diocese of Townsville and the Chairman of the Bishops Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Relations.
1 Cardinal Kasper, ‘The Current Ecumenical Transition’, Origins 36:26 (Dec 7, 2006) 402.
3 Ibid. 409.
4 Ibid. 408.
5 Avery Dulles, ‘Ecumenism Without Illusions: A Catholic Perspective’, First Things 4 (June/July, 1990) 20-25.
6 Ibid. 410.
9 Confessing the One Faith. An Ecumenical Explication of the Apostolic Faith as It Is Confessed in the Nicene-Constantinapolitan Creed (381). Geneva:WCC,1991.
10 ‘The Current Ecumenical Transition’, p.410.
11 Patriarch Bartholomew, ‘Hope for Christian Unity in Europe’, Origins 37:15 (Sept 20, 2007) 238.
13 Cardinal Kasper, ‘The Current State of Ecumenical Dialogue’, Origins 37:28 (Dec 20, 2007) 452.
14 ‘The Current Ecumenical Transition’, p.411.
16 ‘That They May Have Life. A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together’, First Things 166 (October 2006) 2.
17 ‘The Current Ecumenical Transition’, p 412.
21 Ibid. 413.
24 John T Ford, CSC, ‘Oberlin 2007: The Need for an Expanded Methodology?’, Ecumenical Trends 36:8 (Sept 2007) 5.
25 Ibid. 6.
27 ‘Future Pope’s Homily for Conclave Opening’, Origins 34:45 (April 25, 2005) 720.
28 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. London: Harvard University Press, 2007.