Ecumenism in Person

As several others in the Pray Tell conversation have noted, The North American Academy of Liturgy just met in Vancouver (4-7 January). The annual gathering often begins with pre-meetings of denominational or ecclesial communion specificity, moving to the plenary sessions and seminars where the heart of the academy work is done. While named as a North American group, the meetings are increasingly international in membership and more diverse in ecumenical representation – these are good things.

I enjoy my seminar sessions – even when I have not had adequate time to prepare by reading all of the papers, it is always a tremendous learning experience. And of all the excitement of learning about things I had no idea I would be so excited about, at the top of the list is the opportunity to listen to what is of concern in liturgical issues for those not in my ecclesial community. When there are several Ukrainian Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox, or other groups, eavesdropping on their conversation gives amazing insight into concerns that are different than the realm of pastoral urgencies with which I often engage. While the focus is on the history of liturgy and often contemporary ramifications of that history, there is always an ecumenical energy that alternatingly baffles, engages, entertains, or inspires the conversations.

In the days since the annual meeting, reflecting on this ecumenical dimension (especially as the return to office and classroom has also included preparations for liturgies in the week of prayer for Christian unity), I am reminded of the insights of several scholars I have used in my own learnings and presentations over the past two years, chief among them Dr. Judith Berling of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California. Dr. Berling’s work in comparative theology – focused on interfaith conversations rather than ecumenical conversations – does not so much focus on learning about the other religion, but rather to grow in understanding of the other religion. In order to do this, one must be somewhere, one must be rooted in one’s own tradition. As theological learners we begin by learning our own tradition, and then through recognition of other religions, we encounter the other, and listen to their articulations of who they are and what the “experiences and practices that constitute the world of their community” are. (Berling 2004, 61) The learnings from the other, the growth in understanding of the other is not, as Berling says, “easy or comfortable. There is always some loss of inward ease, an overturning of comfortable assumptions and cherished truths…” (Berling 2004, 62) But this second step seeks not to compare, but to receive the explanations and the observance of rituals. The third step is the “passing over and a coming back.” (Berling 2004, 62) In other words, the passing over into another religious tradition may have confirmed in our “coming back” that our “experiences and values” with which we began remain, or…the encounter “lifted up issues that seem wrong, that need to be addressed, within one’s home community.” In either case, Berling says, “we must determine ‘What do I make of what I have been made?’” (Berling 2004, 62) How are we Christian now that we have encountered and come to understand something about another religious system, and by extension, understand our own tradition in a deeper way?

Taking this process and bringing it to ecumenical encounter and prayer requires the recognition of the differences, between interfaith and ecumenical conversations, as well as differences between Christians. On the first point, Christians share a common set of basic beliefs and more fundamentally, a common baptism and therefore are members one of another, realities not to be assumed in interfaith encounters. The work in adapting comparative theology to ecumenical encounters continues to be shaped in several ways, most helpfully in what is often called “receptive ecumenism.” Paul Murray says that the central idea of receptive ecumenism requires that churches make what he calls a programmatic shift from asking what do our dialogue partners need to learn from us, to asking what do we need to learn and what can we learn from our dialogue partners.

While Murray and others point to shared prayer (ironically one of the things that the ecumenical and interfaith academy of liturgy does not do particularly well), it was the recognition, in this case, of ecumenical diversity observed, heard, and received, that was so striking. Standing in one’s own tradition, confident that the gifts of that history, theology and practice may be helpful to others, willing to listen, to understand, and to recognize the gifts of others’ traditions and where ours may fall short – these are luxuries in conferences like this. How do we do this on the parish level? I suspect that the patterning may be the same, even if the content of the conversations is slightly different. Knowing where we stand, open to differences, and having the opportunity to be in conversation with others as individuals and/or small groups provides a way for learning who we are through similarities as well as differences.

As we prepare for the common prayers and conversations surrounding the week of prayer for Christian unity, may we be renewed in commitment to exercise the unity within the diversity of the body of Christ.

Judith Berling, Understanding other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning. ed. Paul Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


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