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Receptive ecumenism explored

By Kate O’Gorman


SASKATOON — Students enrolled in the advanced year of the Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation (PESF) recently participated in a session on receptive ecumenism presented by Dr. Darren Dahl, director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism and adjunct professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

Quoting theologian and ecumenist Dr. Paul Murray of Durham University in the U.K., a leading scholarly proponent and founder of receptive ecumenism, Dahl explained that receptive ecumenism is about reframing the work of ecumenical dialogue.

Instead of approaching the conversation with a view to teaching other parties what is truth, ecclesial communities engage in conversations in humility, offering possible areas within their traditions that are perhaps broken in some way and lacking fullness of expression in their current form. Rather than asking what others can learn from us, receptive ecumenism asks, “What can we learn from others?”

Dahl began by outlining three originating contexts of receptive ecumenism.

First, Murray’s work in the area of philosophical theology led to what would come to be called receptive ecumenism: “Murray was struggling with the idea of how the Christian Church makes truth claims in the world, given popular notions about relativism and philosophical arguments that one cannot say for sure what is true.” Working out of his own Roman Catholic tradition, “Murray was asking practical and political questions about the church: can the church be a truth-telling institution?”

Second, Murray ask the question, “Is it possible for the Catholic Church to incorporate a sense of catholic, or universal, learning into its sense of who it is?”

According to Dahl, “Murray is influential in making a case for the theological ressourcement (return to the sources) movement leading up to the Second Vatican Council, which called the Catholic Church back to its sources — biblical, patristic, pre-modern — in order to continue to open up the church’s catholicity — that is, the church’s whole tradition.” This plays a large role in Murray’s own understanding of ecclesiology and in his approach to ecumenism.

As Dahl further explained, “If the church is a truth-teller, then it has to have something to say. So what will it say? It has to become a learner from the tradition in order to get that content anew and be enriched by it.”

The third context out of which receptive ecumenism was born was Murray’s involvement in ecumenical dialogue as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

Quoting Murray, Dahl noted that receptive ecumenism sought to move beyond “the attempt simply to bring differing languages traditionally regarded as incompatible into reconciled conversion,” even as it recognized the implicitly receptive work taking place in ARCIC dialogues, as well as in Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogues.

“Here, Murray begins to make connections between his work regarding understanding the church as both truth-teller and learner of the tradition,” continued Dahl. “Thus began the grafting of his earlier work into the work of receptive ecumenism, or, as Murray often calls it, receptive ecumenical learning.”

Explaining the nature of ecumenical dialogues, Dahl said that they are “the quest of the church trying to find unity, not in terms of trying to find one monolithic story, but a much more complex story, layered through time and space, a diverse story with multiple voices.”

“At the national and international levels, the dialogues are about seeking some kind of differentiated consensus,” Dahl explained.

“Each party comes to the table first to seek mutual understanding. A breaking down of walls, a clearing of clichés and an overcoming of slogans are in order, to come to a mutual understanding of the other’s position,” he said. “Once we have reached mutual understanding of each other, the second step is to reach a common understanding of things. Not the same understanding but a commonality. We never want to lose points of difference, because that is uniformity, but the question is, can we find some commonality?”

This form of dialogue “is about both parties bringing their strengths, bringing what they do best; both parties trying to teach the other.” Murray described it as bringing the “fine china” to the table.

When such a dialogue process “hits a block” and there is no more exchange of commonalities to pursue, receptive ecumenism can come into the stalemate and offer a new way of thinking, Dahl said.

Receptive ecumenism “doesn’t bring the fine china to the conversation; rather, it brings the broken cups from the back of the cupboard that we want to hide from everyone else. It comes out of a basic idea that the church is always reforming, that the church is never complete in itself, it is always open to the Spirit and this process of being open to the Spirit is about being open to each other,” said Dahl.

Dahl went on to note that receptive ecumenism is only a decade old. “It is still quite young and the questions are still: will it work, what’s at stake? I’ve become persuaded that it is an essential option and way forward in ecumenical work.”

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