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Challenge of Ecumenism

By Tom Ryan, CSP

Tom Ryan, CSP

Unity must be preserved and deepened at local level


With each year of experience in church unity work, I have become more and more convinced that, no matter how important theological work is for reconstituting unity, the real crux is to preserve and deepen the experience of unity on the local level.

During the 2015 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I participated in four different services — one in a Franciscan monastery, one in a Lutheran church, one in a seminary and one in the Catholic cathedral. Of course, part of the motivation for going derives from prayer, but part of it also derives from the opportunity to encounter people with whom we have all too few opportunities to meet and talk.

The division and separation of the churches both within Western Europe and between East and West was in significant measure the result of broken fellowship and communication. Particularly between eastern and western Christians, this was then confirmed by the fact that people literally no longer had the language to communicate with one another.

Similarly in our time, coming to theological consensus over time through the official dialogues will open the door to church unity, but the only thing that will get us through that door is growing together in newly discovered fellowship and commitment at local levels.

It is communities of believers, even more than articles of belief, that need to be reconciled. Love alone makes truth a lived reality and sets us free to make new beginnings. When I was a seminarian, one of my professors gave me a word of wisdom that has stayed with me: “Meet people on a human level first and just get to know them before you try to talk theology with them.”

When we get to know one another on a human level, a trust is born that enables us together to broach the most sensitive subjects in a spirit of mutual respect. And the better we get to know one another — no matter how different our backgrounds — the more we recognize similarities between us. The Christ in me warms to the Christ in the other. Put in another way, the closer we draw to the centre of our faith lives, the closer we draw to each other.

The quest for Christian unity began when seemingly providential circumstances brought friends together. The chance encounter on the island of Madeira in 1890 and subsequent friendship of Lord Halifax, an Anglican layman dedicated to the reunification of the Church of England with the church of Rome, and Abbé Fernand Portal, a French Catholic priest, eventually made possible the encyclical Divinum illud munus which established the Ascensiontide novena of prayer for unity.

A similar example of this dynamic is that a book by another Anglican, Rev. Spencer Jones, entitled England and the Holy See, evoked an extensive correspondence with Rev. Paul Wattson, founder of the Graymoor Atonement Friars who subsequently began the original Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Octave. Their friendship became, in the words of Wattson, “the seed-thought of the Octave.”

Lord Halifax and Abbé Portal, Rev. Jones and Rev. Wattson came from diverse backgrounds and experiences. But as the classical and Christian tradition demonstrates, friendship consists of three movements. First, friends enjoy one another’s company. Next, they render service to one another. And finally, they share a commitment to the common good.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that we have just celebrated internationally emerged from the efforts of friends in different churches. Could there be a more fitting symbol of what God can do through persons open to the grace of Christian friendship and committed to pursuing the common good?

As we go forward now into the year, let’s continue to “grow” the relationship, both with individuals newly encountered, and between local church communities who only infrequently do something together. Church union will happen in much the same manner that friendship takes hold: through a gradual process of growth, not as a once and for all move.

In our Sunday assemblies, do we pray by name for the neighbouring Christian communities, thereby witnessing to a sense of real albeit imperfect communion in faith with them? When we play as a faith community, do we extend an invitation to the congregations down the street to join us in our picnic so we can get to know one another? When we respond to the gospel mandate for peace and justice, do we pool our resources with our Christian neighbours and do it together?

The World Council of Churches’ meeting in Lund, Sweden, established a principle for the normal operating procedure of each church: “Do everything together as far as conscience permits.” If you stop to think about it, there are very few things that conscience obliges us to do separately.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.