Surface ecumenism vs. lasting ecumenism

from: Father Ed Tomlinson – TunbridgeWells Ordinariate.

There are two different approaches to ecumenism floating around the church today. Both have the same good intention at heart; the bringing together of the fractured body of Christ. But that is where similarity ends. Let us examine.

‘Papering the cracks’ approach: 

The first approach is to brush historic difficulty under the carpet. This allows for a rosy picture of imagined harmony to emerge. The press photo of Catholic and Anglican counterparts is made possible. They grin from ear to ear, looking like the greatest of chums… even though they are not actually in communion at all, remaining deeply divided on any number of fundamental issues of doctrine.

The benefit of the approach is that it is profoundly easy. Little demand is being made. You share sandwiches, clap each other on the back but can then retreat to the safety of your comfort zone; delighting in a mutually convenient fantasy- that unity  somehow occurred. And the bonus is that, because you didn’t bring up the pain of the past or present, nobody gets hurt or need face up to uncomfortable truth.

The weakness of the approach is obvious then. Any gain is very slight in concrete terms. Friendship may emerge, and that is good, but no actual reconciliation of differences can occur. It is a triumph for political relations and good manners but so often a complete failure on all other counts. And those are the ones that matter if we are to reconcile our differences.

Deep down I suspect the approach- which is reliant on watered down liturgy and inoffensive teaching- is based on fear. Hence the desire to ever remain in the shallows; a search for surface gloss not lasting walks of unity. A more timid approach because its adherents do not actually believe unity is possible or desirable. The hope is not to bring people into one fold so much as to celebrate one another’s closed doors- presented as ‘a celebration of diversity’- but of course…

Only that is NOT what Jesus called for. He he said- we should be one as the Father and He are one. So whilst it may prove a useful approach for the FIRST stage of creating unity- the building of friendship- it is deficient as the ultimate means.

‘Widening the doors’ approach:

The other approach, favoured by Pope Benedict when he launched the Ordinariate, is to move things to a deeper but more challenging level. But one that at least has a realistic hope of achieving the unity people desire.

Now if the first approach is akin to expecting a separated couple to get on at a daughter’s wedding, this approach is more like getting them to sit down before a marriage guidance counsellor to reconcile differences and save the broken marriage. A more frightening request certainly but a vital one if friendship is restored and authentic reconciliation is actually hoped for.

So instead of brushing difficulty under the carpet you confront it; but in the most generous way possible. A call to unity is actually made but a celebration of differences is also present. We see immediately why those entering the Ordinariate had to sign up to the catechism- the necessary demand- but were gifted their own liturgy- the celebration of healthy difference. The right sort of diversity.

This serious approach to unity rests, as it must, on shared proclamation of truth. Gesture and appearance is not enough here. There must be a working out of house rules. A doctrinal base must emerge on which to build a common future. It is a riskier approach then. Because bluffs will be called when a real call to unity is issued. The fakes are soon spotted. Those who only ever wanted the photo opportunity and who were perfectly happy to exist apart for personal and corporate reasons. For them the first approach must continue but not at a cost to the second. For the Ordinariates are proving daily- this more meaningful approach really does create unity. No longer is it all talk, talk; one also witnesses genuine walk, walk.

A final thought

All of this has been on my mind because it is being reported that Pope Francis wishes to be present at a Lutheran celebration of the reformation. This does not sit at all comfortably with me. Not because it is a very clear example of the first approach. As stated that approach has uses. But because it could seriously send out the wrong message and thereby damage the second, more meaningful approach.

Not that I am surprised. This pontificate has been all about photo opportunity and political gesture at the cost of doctrinal certainty. Hence the use of ambiguous messages and media pleasing; a rescuing of a battered reputation, one suspects, in the wake of the abuse crisis. Be that as it may- THIS photo opportunity seems one too many. For whilst it would be fitting for the Pope to celebrate aspects of Lutherism, how can he possibly celebrate the moment of schism itself given that it caused so much death and division? Given that it stopped the church speaking clearly to the world which, in turn, led to the rise of secularisation.

The Pope is of a generation who only tend to endorse the first approach to ecumenism. But too much will be swept under the carpet here if Rome is not careful. If Francis is seen to ‘celebrate’ the reformation…what does this say about the deeper reality of disunity? What does it say about the sacrifice of reformation martyrs? Are they to be forgotten? More importantly, is what they stood for and died for to be ignored and downplayed?

I have no doubt the intention is good. But what if disunity is blessed and not challenged? So that the world imagines God delights in diversity of a fractured  body, though he called us to be one via shared proclamation of the faith he revealed.

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5 Responses to Surface ecumenism vs. lasting ecumenism

  1. Mimi says:

    “This pontificate has been all about photo opportunity and political gesture at the cost of doctrinal certainty.”

    That seems to hit the nail on the head.

  2. GC says:

    I have to confess that I still nurse a certain fondness for the Type A ecumenism above. As I’ve said elsewhere here recently, it was great when “your ecumenical people got together with our ecumenical people and they all had a wonderful time. And I must say the caterers were excellent.”

    It wasn’t only that it was all harmless fun but we did get along nicely too. We did nice warm-hearted things together in the community and even discovered that we on either side weren’t necessarily ogres. And there were some good lasting friendships formed.

    I’d be wistful if all that changed.

  3. toadspittle says:

    Fie, GC. Playing ring-a-roses with a gang of sodomite-loving, feminist, heretics?
    That will be the day, eh, chaps? Over our dead bodies.

  4. GC says:

    I don’t know what the ecumenical scenario is like in Moratinos (pop. 35), Toad, but we don’t have that sort of thing in our fair city (pop. 7.5 million). Not much anyway. Much too moratinoan in your perceptions, I’d say.

  5. toadspittle says:

    The pop on a daily basis is actually more like 20, GC. All nominally Catholics, bar one Episcopalian. No Muslims, Mormons, Quivering Brethren (as far as I know) or Lutherans. At least one Agnostic, a handful of don’t cares and one or two don’t knows. Attending Mass seems largely a matter of whim and the weather.
    I go religiously, rain or shine – because I feel sorry for Gaspar the priest, among other reasons.
    A happy and harmonious situation, in fact.

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