A little prayer, a little learning, and a lot of love…

Like many on “the other side of the Tiber,” I was disheartened by the decision to disallow the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, to host the ordinations of the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in England. I know that some of my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are saddened by this action as well. At the same time, I do understand what prompted the decision, and I am pleased that the Methodists involved are taking it in stride.

But I am frustrated, saddened and angered by the response to the decision by many Roman Catholics in the blogosphere. There seems to be at present a negative spirit toward any ecumenical venture, gesture or talk coming from a certain quarters, a negative spirit fuelled in part by a narrow, unofficial reading of Roman Catholic teaching on ecumenism on the one hand, and a lack of awareness of the advances of ecumenical dialogue on the other. Added to this mix is a virulent anti-anything-but-Catholic attitude (and sometimes anti-anything-but-Rome-the-rest-be-damned), and what appears to be, frankly, a lack of charity and good will. What is most disturbing is the fact that this situation serves no good purpose but to reinforce prejudices and a lack of respect that undermine any real progress toward Christian unity.

As I write, I am well aware of what Vatican II did and did not say about ecumenism; I am well aware of how the CDF document Dominus Iesus situates non-Roma Catholic Christians in relationship to Rome. Those of us who care — and we are not few — are usually quite aware of such as these, and are happy to work within the ecumenical structures that, from the Roman-Catholic side of things, are governed by those documents. Aware, yes; but please realize that non-Roman Catholics are not necessarily in agreement with them: for example, we do not view ourselves as “ecclesial communities.” We view ourselves as churches (small ‘c’); we view ourselves as part of the Church (capital ‘C’) in which we confess belief: one, holy, catholic and apostolic — if also, at present, fragmented and sorely divided.

Please also realize that we view one another differently (one church to another); and sometimes we view ourselves (within our own churches) differently as well. Lumping the diversity of Protestantisms together under one umbrella isn’t all that helpful, much less historically honest: the Reformations of the sixteenth century were quite different from one another, which is why there are Lutherans and Calvinists — usually called Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Reformed — and Anglicans and Anabaptists. Methodists came later, as did the variety of American Evangelical churches. Some of us are interested in maintaining hierarchical order with diverse (usually threefold) ministries. Others are not. Some of us have seven sacraments (even when we make a distinction between “dominical” and “ecclesial” sacraments); some have two, and some have only ordinances. Among our non-Roman-Catholic selves, our eucharistic theologies are different, our ecclesiologies are different, and even our doctrines of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ differ. Some of us have Mariologies and hagiologies, others do not. (Anglicans, to take my own tradition for an example, identify as either or both Catholic and/or Protestant, and do so along a perspective that can range from Papalist to Evangelical, with a surprising and not necessarily corresponding range of social and political commitments.) Thankfully, Roman Catholic “officialdom” seems to be interested in getting to know us non-Catholics, and to know our individual differences, at least to some degree: bi-lateral dialogues continue, even in a rather ecumenically-chilly environment, and have produced some splendid results. The “Joint Declaration on Justification” by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, which was subsequently adopted by the Methodist World Council, is a major step in mutual understanding. “Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ,” the agreed statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission on Our Lady, is another (and one that I hold particularly dear).

Such formal efforts at ecumenism are assisted by three things, three things that I find severely lacking at present: foremost is prayer — prayer by individuals, prayer in our separate churches, and prayer together. When was the last time you attended an ecumenical prayer service? None in your neighborhood? Perhaps that’s a problem. One thought, for starters: most Roman Catholics do not realize that Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the United States all have similar ordines for the Daily Office. This is something that we can do together, something that perhaps we ought to do together more often.

Second is a hospitable openness in learning about the other, whoever that other may be. This does not mean relinquishing theological positions, nor diminishing what one considers to be substantive to the deposit of faith. It does, however, mean learning about one another — learning what the other actually believes, how the other actually understands God to be at work in the church and in the world through the Holy Spirit. This is a two-way street, and may involve some learning together and learning from one another. It may also involve learning a bit more about oneself, and about one’s own church. It never ceases to amaze me to encounter Roman Catholics who deny that non-Catholics believe in Real Eucharistic Presence; further, many of these equate transubstantiation (a philosophical explanation for the mode of eucharistic change) with Real Presence, or equate Sacramental Presence with Physical Presence. Undertaking to learn about the other may help us all to understand ourselves.

Such learning about and from one another will cause us to recognize what common ground we share, and also what gifts we have to offer to one another. Roman Catholicism makes a number of claims about Truth (capital ‘T’); officially, it recognizes (and even rejoices) when that Truth is to be found among other Christians. Moreover, it admits that such Truth is sometimes cast in new light when differently articulated and understood by other Christians. While such does not make a contribution to the Truth per se, it does contribute positively to human understanding of the Truth, for the betterment of all. This is the “mutual enrichment” of which much has been said in the wake of Anglicanorum Coetibus. Obviously, I do not share the Roman Catholic perspective on its claims regarding truth in itself. I am, nonetheless, excited by the recognition that other Christians have a contribution to make toward understanding the Truth. Learning from one another, learning about one another, will enrich us all — theologically and spiritually.

Food for thought:

Finally, the formal efforts of our respective church hierarchies toward ecumenical dialogue are assisted by our charity toward one another: charity in speech or print, charity from the heart. In practice, I think this means exercising a bit of constraint in speech and print — which constraint we all (myself included) need to learn and relearn over and over again. Anglicans, for example, are well aware of how our orders are viewed by Rome in the light of Apostolicae Curae; rubbing that document in our faces doesn’t prompt us to reconsider our own assessment of the validity and sacramentality of our orders or succession. I don’t mean to say we should pretend that the document wasn’t written or isn’t still binding on Roman Catholic perspective; I do mean to suggest, though, that it’s not necessary to trot it out every chance one gets — much less to do so with the “we’re better than you are” tone that so often comes across on blogs, and especially in their comment boxes. (It might also help to remember — be aware, that is — that, in this particular case, the document has been challenged by Roman Catholic as well as Anglican scholarship. Not overturned, but called into sufficient question that perhaps, just perhaps, we should all revisit it together?)

In this same vein, putting the word ordination in “scare quotes” when speaking of what would have taken place at Liverpool is both unnecessary and unhelpful. It is belittling, and deliberately so, because it tells nobody anything useful or new. Most informed Christians know that Catholics do not consider Methodist ordinations to be valid. My experience is that, even so, most (one would hope all) Catholic bishops respect that Methodists (and other Christian bodies, to be sure) do “order” their communions in particular ways, and that within those communions such ordered or ordained persons function effectively as ministers. Even though such Catholic bishops are unable to recognize a Methodist (etc.) minister’s ordination as valid for the purpose of ministering sacramentally to Catholics, said bishops can and usually do respect the integrity of the ministry that goes on for and within those assemblies of other Christians.

Also — and I think this is rather important, if also under-considered — denying that non-Roman Catholic Christians are in any way a part of the Church (speaking in the broadest possible terms here), but only members of “ecclesial communities” in which some elements of the Church may be found, raises a question: can the Church be considered as equivalent with the “body of Christ” or is one more encompassing than the other? If so, which? Do we need to revisit questions surrounding what baptism means and who can baptize? What joins one to the body of Christ, and what does it mean to be so joined? I don’t raise these questions point hypothetically, by the way — I’ve seen comments following reports about the Liverpool issue that have denied that Methodists are part of any church, and some that have suggested (in the worst possible terms) that Methodists shouldn’t be called Christians.

These are but a few examples among many, some not worthy of recognition here. Such things are, perhaps, a minor slight, but have a cumulative effect for the worst. They belittle the gains we have made together (including the lasting fruits of the ecumenical monastic endeavors at Taizé and Bose, among others). They contribute to a renewal of mutual distrust and increase unnecessary, prejudicial sentiments of anti-Catholicism among non-Roman Catholic Christians. They deny the dignity of the human person that is the backbone of religious freedom (remember Dignitatis Humanae?). They short-circuit the processes of ecumenical dialogue.

I am quite certain that these are not the effects that are desired by any of the involved communions’ leadership, much less by the Lord Jesus.

This is not a call for the “false irenicism” against which Unitatis Redintegratio rightly cautioned; it is rather a plea for respect: respect for persons who hold different opinions than your or my own; respect for the fact that those opinions are held in good faith (however right or wrong those opinions may in fact be). A little prayer, a little learning, and a lot of love will go a long way toward opening Christians of all denominations (ecclesial communities, churches or what have you) to that work of the Holy Spirit in which our common Lord’s prayer will be fulfilled, that we “all may be one” (John 17:21).

I’m off-line for the next few days while travelling. Comments are closed, if only because I’ll not be able to take part in the conversation. — CCU+