Ecumenism is the movement within Christianity that aims at “the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church’s mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church’s obligation to be one.” Thus, ecumenism is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of Christianity. Ecumenism is distinguished from and should not be misused to mean interfaith pluralism. The interfaith movement strives for greater mutual respect, toleration, and co-operation among the world religions. Interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths, does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations.
Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation. It is used predominantly by and with reference to Christian denominations and Christian Churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, the term ecumenism refers to the idea of a Christian unity in the literal meaning: that there should be a single Christian Church. Not to be confused with Nondenominational Christianity. The word contrasts with interfaith dialogue or interfaith pluralism aimed at unity or cooperation among diverse religions and referring to a worldwide ‘religious unity’ by the advocacy of a greater sense of shared spirituality.
The word is derived from Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means “the whole inhabited world”, and was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. The ecumenical vision comprises both the search for the visible unity of the Church (Ephesians 4.3) and the ‘whole inhabited earth’ (Matthew 24.14) as the concern of all Christians.
In Christianity the qualification ecumenical is originally (and still) used in terms such as “Ecumenical council” and “Ecumenical patriarch” in the meaning of pertaining to the totality of the larger Church (such as the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church) rather than being restricted to one of its constituent churches or dioceses. Used in this original sense, the term carries no connotation of re-uniting the historically separated Christian denominations.
Post Second Vatican Council developments
Real rapprochement was achieved under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, whose foundation of the “Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity” encouraged Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to make a historic, though not entirely official, visit to the Vatican in 1960. Subsequently the Bishop of Ripon, John Moorman, led a delegation of Anglican observers to the Second Vatican Council. In 1966, Archbishop Michael Ramsey made an official visit to Pope Paul VI, and in the following year, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission was established. Its first project focused on the authority of Scripture, and the Commission has since produced nine agreed statements. Phase One of ARCIC ended in 1981 with the publication of a final report, Elucidations on Authority in the Church. Phase Two has been ongoing since 1983. The most recent agreed statement dealt with Marian theology, and was published in 2004.
Pope Paul VI went so far as to refer to the Anglican Church as “our beloved sister Church,” though this description might not tie in with present thinking in the Vatican. Until recently it was used the website of the Roman Catholic Ampleforth College (referring to Anglican pupils at that school). Despite the productivity of these discussions, dialogue is strained by the developments in some provinces of the Anglican Communion primarily concerning the ordination of women, permissive teaching on abortion, and the ordination of those in public same-sex sexual relationships as priests and, in one case, a bishop (Gene Robinson). More progress has been made with respect to Anglican churches outside the Communion.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, warned that if the Church of England was to ordain women as bishops, as the Episcopal Church has done, then it could destroy any chance of reuniting the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Although ARCIC had just completed the major document on Marian theology in 2003, Pope John Paul II temporarily called off all future talks between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion upon the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop. Pope John Paul II made Pastoral Provision for Anglican congregations which as a whole wish to become Catholic. There has been only a small number of Anglican Use parishes, all of which are in the United States. These are Roman Catholic parishes which are allowed to retain some features of the Book of Common Prayer in worship. Additionally, one of the Continuing Anglican Churches is currently attempting to achieve the recognition of Rome without abandoning its liturgical traditions as the Anglican Use parishes have done.
According to Catholic Canon Law, Catholics should not receive the Anglican communion (canon 844 §2) and permits Catholic ministers to administer to an Anglican the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick, only in danger of death or some other grave and pressing need, and provided the Anglican in question cannot approach an Anglican priest, spontaneously asks for the sacrament, demonstrates the faith of the Catholic Church in respect of the sacrament and is properly disposed (canon 844 §4).
In October 2009, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to create a new type of ecclesiastical structure, called a Personal Ordinariate, for groups of Anglicans entering into full communion with the see of Rome. The plan would create diocese-like structures for former Anglicans within the Roman Catholic Church independent of existing Latin Rite dioceses. It would allow them to preserve elements of Anglican liturgy, spirituality and religious practice, including married priests but not married bishops. Anglicanorum coetibus was issued on 4 November 2009.
Contemporary Ecumenical Developments
The general understanding of the ecumenical movement is that it came from the Roman Catholic Church’s attempts to reconcile with Christians who had become separated over theological issues. After World War I the Catholic Church was not the only church which began to make changes within the denomination. The world war had brought much devastation to many people. The church became a source of hope to those in need. In 1948 the first meeting of the World Council of Churches took place. Despite the fact that the meeting had been postponed due to World War 2, the council took place in Amsterdam with the theme of “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design”. The focus of the church and the council following the gathering was on the damage created by the 2nd World War. The council and the movement went forward to continue the efforts of unity the church globally around the idea of helping all those in need whether it be a physical, emotional, or spiritual need. The movement led to an understanding amongst the churches that despite difference they could join together to be an element of great change in the world. To be an agent of hope and peace amongst the chaos and destruction that humans seem to create. More importantly the council and the movement lead to not only ecumenism but to the forming of councils amongst the denominations that connected churches across continental lines.
The mutual anathemas (excommunications) of 1054, marking the Great Schism between Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches of Christianity, a process spanning several centuries, were revoked in 1965 by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. It is to be noted that the Canon Law of the Catholic Church states: “An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication, without prejudice to the provision of Can. 194 §1, n. 2; a cleric, moreover, may be punished with the penalties mentioned in Can. 1336 §1, nn. 1, 2 and 3.” This penalty would include the Eastern Orthodox and other non-Catholic sects. Also, similar provisions exist in the Canon Law followed by the Eastern Orthodox.
The year 2006 saw a resumption of the series of meetings for theological dialogue between representatives of the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, suspended because of failure to reach agreement on the question of the Eastern Catholic Churches, a question exacerbated by disputes over churches and other property that the Communist authorities once assigned to the Orthodox Church but whose restoration these Churches have obtained from the present authorities.
Catholic and Orthodox bishops in North America are engaged in an ongoing dialogue. They are meeting together periodically as the “North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation”. It has been meeting semi-annually since it was founded in 1965 under the auspices of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially joined the Consultation as a sponsor in 1997. The Consultation works in tandem with the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops which has been meeting annually since 1981. Since 1999 the Consultation has been discussing the Filioque clause, with the hope of eventually reaching an agreed joint statement.
Similar dialogues at both international and national level continue between, for instance, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
Issues within Protestantism
Contemporary developments in mainline Protestant churches have dealt a serious blow to ecumenism. The decision by the U.S. Episcopal Church to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay, non-celibate priest who advocates same-sex blessings, as bishop led the Russian Orthodox Church to suspend its cooperation with the Episcopal Church. Likewise, when the Church of Sweden decided to bless same-sex marriages, the Russian Patriarchate severed all relations with the Church, noting that “Approving the shameful practice of same-sex marriages is a serious blow to the entire system of European spiritual and moral values influenced by Christianity.”
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev commented that the inter-Christian community is “bursting at the seams.” He sees the great dividing line – or “abyss” – not so much between old churches and church families as between “traditionalists” and “liberals”, the latter now dominating Protestantism, and predicted that other Northern Protestant Churches will follow suit and this means that the “ecumenical ship” will sink, for with the liberalism that is materializing in European Protestant churches, there is no longer anything to talk about.
Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches USA, Churches Uniting in Christ, Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship and Christian Churches Together continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics. There are universities such as the University of Bonn in Germany that offer degree courses in “Ecumenical Studies” in which theologians of various denominations teach their respective traditions and, at the same time, seek for common ground between these traditions.
Influenced by the ecumenical movement, the “scandal of separation” and local developments, a number of United and uniting churches have formed; there are also a range of mutual recognition strategies being practiced where formal union is not feasible. An increasing trend has been the sharing of church buildings by two or more denominations, either holding separate services or a single service with elements of all traditions.
The Organization of Ecumenism
Vatican II committed the ecumenical task in a special way to the Bishops. The Ecumenical Directory recommends the setting up of ecumenical commissions in each Diocese and at national and regional levels, or at least the naming in each Diocese of a delegate in charge of promoting the ecumenical spirit and inter-church relations.
The PCPCU is pleased to see that only very few Conferences do not have a department or commission for ecumenism. On the other hand most respondents indicate that these commissions or delegates work in restricted conditions, and they mention the lack of continuity in carrying out projects, and the need for new, younger blood among those engaged in ecumenical work.
At the level of Dioceses, matters are not so satisfactory. The lack of personnel, of specific training, of resources, financial and otherwise, make ecumenical work difficult.
On the other hand, in some countries there are flourishing support groups and associations of people well trained in ecumenism, active in ecumenical education in Dioceses, parishes, groups and seminaries. More attention needs to be given to finding and training such experts and volunteers. Regarding membership in Councils of Churches, we see that a substantial change has taken place in recent years. Forty years ago, the Catholic Church did not belong to any such Council of Churches. Today, she is a member of 70 of the existing 120 national councils of churches, and takes part in three out of seven regional councils of churches, and in seven regional councils associated with the World Council of Churches.
An analysis of the implications and forms of Catholic participation in such councils, as well as suggestions as to how to meet the difficulties and challenges which impede Catholic participation in some places, is contained in a new document of the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches due to be published in the next few months.
The consultation shows that the degree of commitment to the ecumenical task at the local level throughout the Church is growing in intensity and extension. In a globalized world Christians in all Churches feel an impetus to overcome the state of division between them. Spiritual ecumenism – conversion of mind and heart to Christ, joint prayer for unity – is attracting more and more attention.
In responses to the questionnaire, many good suggestions for future ecumenical work have emerged. The inquiry underlines three areas as needing urgent attention now and in the future:
1) the insertion of ecumenical initiatives in the organic pastoral programmes of Dioceses;
2) the ecumenical education of the laity, of Religious, seminarians, priests and Bishops;
3) and reflection on how to respond to the problem of aggressive proselytism.
In a world that has changed much since the Second Vatican Council, a new realism permeates the Catholic approach to the restoration of unity. It is clearer than ever that ecumenism can only be promoted on a solid doctrinal basis, on serious dialogue between divided Christians. Above all, there is a fuller realization that the work of unity can flourish only within a deep and convincing spirituality, a spirituality of Christian hope and courage. The PCPCU hopes that the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio has served to inspire new hope and courage in those most directly responsible for the implementation of the Church’s ecumenical commitment.