Ecumenism: Is it Necessary?

Ecumenism is a colloquial term for the trend, especially in the Twentieth Century, of Christians looking backward at the scandals of our historic disagreements (and there are many of them) with the sense that perhaps our priorities were misplaced. Maybe instead of arguing about how to express the dual natures of Christ at Chalcedon, how to recite the Nicene Creed properly in languages other than Greek, or how the authentic visible church is recognized by the faithful, we should focus instead on praying together, conducting liturgies that are mutually inoffensive, and serving the poor (in whom the face of Christ is chiefly to be reverenced).

Fundamentally I think the value of ecumenism as a sentiment is unquestionable. Christ Himself prayed, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). Given the weight of authority (the Lord Himself!), how can we in good faith resist the ecumenical impulse?

Head of Christ (Rembrandt)

The question implied in ecumenism is not, “should we be ecumenical?” Rather, the more important, serious, and (unfortunately) overlooked question is, “How are we to be ecumenical?”

Ecumenism should not strain credulity. If one pastor thinks baptism is necessary for salvation, and another thinks it is merely an outward profession of adult faith, a serious and mature ecumenism between these two is simply impossible, for one of them will wish to baptize infants not two weeks old, and the other will be content to wait for years and years until the congregant finally submits to the Holy Laver. How can these persons pray meaningfully for their congregants if they are in fundamental disagreement about how best to serve them? Phrased otherwise, the question of how to be ecumenical is inseparable from the question of what is true. Here we can see the spirit of discord, ecumenism’s foil, in the response of Pilate to Jesus just a single chapter after Christ’s eloquent prayer for unity: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

To cite a specific example, it’s no secret that the culture of the Catholic Church was vastly altered by the implementation — I am being deliberately precise when I say “implementation”; the documents themselves are mostly innocent — of the Second Vatican Council. Canon now permits Eastern Orthodox Christians to receive communion at a Catholic Mass. I criticize this not because I do not like Orthodox Christians (in fact I’m rather fond of their exquisite liturgical and aesthetic taste), but because I respect them: Orthodoxy’s view of Catholicism is unquestionably less rosy than the converse. As much as we may wish for the ancient schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism to disappear, we have been guilty in the Catholic Church of a double logic: on the one hand, absolute liturgical abuse, and on the other, a bad faith pretension that everything is alright between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and so the Orthodox are “welcome” at our communion tables. But what is such a communion worth through the eyes of the Orthodox? If we have bad liturgy, then why should they even want to receive communion with us?

This is what I mean when I say that ecumenism should not strain credulity. Any ecumenical unity worthy of the name will consist of a genuine harmony and order; order and discipline are essential to the life of the Church. In support of this assertion I would merely cite Saint Paul, who says precisely the same thing (1 Corinthians 14:40). How does one, after all, prevent bad liturgies? How does one resolve disputes? The Christian churches do not argue over small matters. Historically, many of our arguments touch on salvation itself. Hence, I suspect, the growing popularity of universalism in Christianity: if all are saved in the end, then ecumenism is at most a matter of convenience and expediency, dependent upon no urgency nor evangelical charity.

Be ecumenical by answering the question, “What is truth?” Our faith is a religion of revelation. We believe that God has revealed Himself to us in human life, a life penetrable by historical investigation. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27). We know from Scripture that Jesus founded a historical church and that He gave it authority. “…upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 16:18-19). If that is true, then we should be able to find ecumenicism in the earliest centuries of the Christian faith. We should scrutinize the early sources of Clement of Rome’s first epistle (97 C.E.), the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch (107 C.E.), the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, the Didache, and Irenaeus of Lyons’ extremely early portrait of heretics (202 C.E.). Perhaps there, in our past, we will find the way to the future.

I am convinced that the ecumenical vocation is ultimately one of memory and historical consciousness: “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). As a global Christian community I believe we have largely forgotten who we really are. We are too poor at being ourselves! If we call to mind our identity as women and men summoned to the table of the wedding feast of Christ and Church, if we can internalize the earliest Christian witness and consciousness in continuity with the faithful throughout time, then and only then will we succeed at being ecumenical. Until then, I submit we are simply pretending to be ecumenical, and are content to call a kind of forgetfulness “ecumenism”.

3 thoughts on “Ecumenism: Is it Necessary?

  1. I think I got confused, somewhere in the middle. You’ve presented some really solid reasons for, and not for, ecumenism. Your last paragraph resonated deeply with me, but I am thinking you are not talking about deconstructing the intricate institutiuons of church, and returning to the simple, organic approach of cfirst centruy believers (that’s something I wish would happen, away with ordination and roles, away with structures and programs, and catechisms that must be adhered to, and so on).
    Or…are you? Otherwise, how do we return to our roots and remember who we really are?
    To me, Christianity has become like this colossal shell covered in the detritus of the ocean’s bottom, that the poor little hermit crab has been dragging around and adding to for protection. At some point, it takes more energy to manage the shell than it does to simply abandon it and find something that fits better, and is lighter.

    1. I like how you phrased it: I advocate for a certain kind of ecumenism while denigrating another. The ecumenism I advocate is unity, which I believe to be achieved by participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the one catholic Church. However, what has become the commonplace understanding of ecumenism — a unity of “agree to disagree” that results in an irreconcilable plurality of practice — that I do not accept.
      Interesting. My impression is that the very earliest sources — the New Testament included — show that from the beginning the Church was both organic and institutional. (I do not believe that hierarchy destroys organic growth, as it is popular to say in some circles.) Christ tells the apostles how to use their authority (not as the gentiles), so evidently he gave them authority. Clement of Rome, who according to Irenaeus of Lyons met the apostles personally and had their traditions still “echoing in his ear” (Against Heresies III.3.3), clearly states that the apostles ordained successors of their authority. As a brute empirical fact, the institution and the organic coexist in the early church, which is precisely what the modern “organic” theorists say is impossible.

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