We have spent this week sharing quotations from people who, had they lived later, might have been called ecumenists. Since their lives and work fostered peace across denominational lines well before the ecumenical movement, we wanted to recognize them during this Week of Christian Unity. There are many more such people whose stories we did not share this week.
The obvious challenge of highlighting quotations from this era is that it only tells part of the story. The records we have were left by the white Europeans, primarily men, who were literate at the time. We recognize the limitations of sharing experiences only from a certain, narrow segment of the population.
We still think these experiences are worth sharing and that they can add to our understanding of what ecumenism means now.
The heart of ecumenism has always been love for neighbor. Treating another person the way we want to be treated, regardless of how deeply we disagree with each other’s dearest theological principles, is at the center of the gospel, which all Christians share. Anyone can practice this kind of ecumenism, and there are many stories of ordinary people in this same time period doing just that.
Rembrandt’s 1662 portrait of The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild depicts five officials from different religious backgrounds– a Mennonite (from the strict Old Frisians), two Catholics, a Remonstrant, and a Calvinist– all working together, assisted by a servant, in the common task of evaluating the cloth before them. During this time in the Netherlands and other places in Europe, people were drawn together by business interests, neighborhood location, and intermarriage.
Catholics in Paris sheltered their Huguenot neighbors, friends, and acquaintances during the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. 16th century Protestant midwives in the Rhineland performed emergency baptisms for Catholic infants in danger of death (and Catholic midwives agreed not to perform emergency baptisms on Protestant infants if their parents did not will it). Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn of Wurburg instructed the Lutherans of Kitzingen to live “peaceably, amicably, modestly, and as good neighbors” with the Catholics in their city, and the Lutherans pledged to do so “in Christian love and unity.” Various faiths in Poland (Greeks, pagans, Jews, and Hussites) coexisted peaceably for centuries before the Reformation.
Ecumenism always begins with relationships. When we know and trust one another, we assume the best about each other. If we don’t always agree on the details, we are unified by the centrality of Jesus’ commandment.
This is the stuff of everyday life: buying food and selling merchandise, delivering babies and attending funerals, passing one another in the street. Love for the people in front of us, grounded in the practical, everyday ways we relate to one another, is really what Jesus was talking about.
Does this mean we don’t need a Week of Christian Unity any longer? No, of course not. We are divided, even within denominations, and there are as many things to argue about as ever. It is good to remember, though, that we know how to do this work, the way people always have. It begins in relationship with the people in front of us, whether they are in an internet comment box, across the aisle, across the street, or across the world.
We still have a lot to do.
Keep up the good work…until we all are one, or at least can say nice things about each another.
Other posts in this series:
Benoist, Élie. The History of the Famous Edict of Nantes: Containing an Account of All the Persecutions , That have been in France From its First Publication to this Present Time. Faithfully Extracted from all the Publick and Private Memoirs, that could Possibly be Procured / Printed First in French, by the Authority of the States of Holland and West-Friezland, and Now Translated into English. London, Printed for John Dunton .., 1694. Vol. 2, Book 8, p. 326. Accessed 1/24/22 at http://ezproxy.csbsju.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/books/history-famous-edict-nantes-containing-account/docview/2248509745/se-2?accountid=14070.
Blomenal, Jan, and Frans-Willem Korsten. Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679): Dutch Playwright in the Golden Age. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
Kaplan, Bejamin. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Weintraub, Wiktor. “Tolerance and Intolerance in Old Poland.” In Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes. Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1971), pp. 21-44. Accessed 1/23/22 at http://ezproxy.csbsju.edu/login?url=https://www.jstor.org/stable/40866318.