November 9, 2009
A New Ecumenism
— Gregory Syler
Rome’s October 20th announcement that it will open the door for former Anglicans to join the Catholic Church led some to respond with suspicion, seeing the move as a conservative commentary on Anglican problems. That morning’s AP release, for instance, summarized Cardinal Levada’s statement and quickly focused on more gripping drama: an “increasingly conservative” Roman church, the Cardinal’s hasty travel plans (including his midnight flight), the Archbishop of Canterbury downplaying the fear, and the Anglican representative in Rome who was “surprised” by the Vatican’s decision and asked, with hints of intrigue, “[W]hy this and why now?” The possible merit of such suspicions notwithstanding, it might prove worthwhile to take the Vatican at its word. It may be that the Pope is offering a new model of ecumenism, and one which might bear great fruit in the long run.
Pointing to four decades of sustained ecumenical dialogue, the Archbishops of Westminster (Catholic) and Canterbury (Anglican) noted that the Holy Father’s announcement is rightly understood as his affirmation of the spirit of inter-Christian sharing fostered during the middle twentieth century and highlighted by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Indeed, this was confirmed by Cardinal Levada: “The unity of the church,” he wrote, “does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows.”
At the heart of the Pope’s model of ecumenism is his understanding of the identity of the church. Is the church a voluntary association of people who commit to living a certain way and therefore codify their common life according to certain precepts? Or is it a gift from God whose traditions we receive and in which we participate? Seeing it as the latter, the Pope and most Catholic Christians describe the church as the Body of Christ, and understand that that Body is neither of human origin nor determined by human legislation. Unity is made evident by the outward sign of a united church, but outward signs of Christian unity are not the same as true inward and spiritual unity. Thus, Rome is taking careful measures to outline what a more expansive Catholicism would look like, provided that the standards of apostolic ministry and sacramental practice are maintained.
This admittedly different approach to Christian unity may be a commentary on the last forty years of ecumenical work, in fact. In the years surrounding Vatican II, mainline Christian groups sought to refashion their liturgies and downplay theological sticking points that blocked visible unity among them. Congregationalists, for instance, focused less on their pilgrim heritage and joined with others to become the United Church of Christ. United Methodists have since embraced their Anglican liturgical heritage, and Episcopalians feel free to call their celebration of the Holy Communion by the more Catholic term “Mass”. In America, countless denominations feverishly sought to unite with others, and now the Lutherans (ELCA), Presbyterians, Reformed Church, Episcopalians, United Methodists and others can say they are in communion with others to some degree.
But the energy expended in these pursuits hasn’t made mainline Christianity any more attractive to spiritual seekers, nor has it made clear to the average person in the pew why it’s important for denominations to agree on denominational policies and procedures. The Pope’s announcement could be seen as an indictment of the shortcomings of the ecumenical movement to date. Perhaps he has been disappointed by the degree to which the ecumenical movement has distorted the initial impulse of the mid-twentieth century and the Council it fostered (at which his was a notable voice), focusing almost exclusively on the institutional shell of Christian churches while ignoring the received tradition of faith and practice.
It could be that the Pope is neither legislating the expansion of an increasingly conservative Roman Church nor poaching breakaway Anglicans, but expanding the Body of Christ to do precisely what, in his understanding, that Body does: to welcome all, and at the same time transform those persons through holy mysteries into a new community. It is for this reason that there has always been a deep connection between the sacramental theology of Holy Communion and Christian community – in other words, that Catholic Christians do not attempt to augment the gift of tradition but, rather, seek to receive it, and wrestle with it. The Pope’s model of ecumenism thus can be seen as a new alternative as well as a challenge to the rest of the Christian church to work from within the boundaries of received, apostolic tradition and, in so doing, grow Christ’s Body on earth.
Gregory Syler is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s ministry program, and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Washington, D.C.