Not all Christians believe in ecumenical Christianity. Some are simply indifferent to it. But for those who do believe in ecumenical Christianity, it is a particular way of being a Christian.
Before outlining conditions for this way of being, it is important to clear up a common misunderstanding. To be an ecumenical Christian does not mean respecting or even treating nicely other Christians. Such courteous or even warm respect is “civil Christianity,” which was a good thing initially when it developed in the eighteenth century; and it accomplished some good things as it flourished for the next two hundred years in the Anglo-West. Civil Christianity is founded on the conviction that separated Christians are not in fact separated, but are rather expressions of diverse human epiphenomena of taste and habit, and hence can and should find a way to live together in a hopefully cooperative manner parallel to the differing political and social parties of the civil polity. Originally, civil Christianity was permeated with hopes for greater visible unity among Christians. But these hopes dissipated as civil Christianity itself became evangelically diluted.
The ecumenical Christian, by contrast, knows that Christians are separated from one another in a way that contradicts the will of God and the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore that all Christian life and witness is, just now, intrinsically compromised. This knowledge is a sine qua non of ecumenical Christianity.
What follows are some of the necessary aspects that shape the enlivened reality of this knowledge.
I. Intellectual Conditions
1. An ecumenical Christian accepts the fact that there is such a thing as a divided church, in its counter-evangelical sense.
This acceptance stands in contrast to Christians who believe there is in place an identifiable entity that is “true church.” Not only is there such a thing as a divided church, however. The ecumenical Christian sees this division as universal in extent. Division is a geographical and quantifiable characteristic, that dark counter-image to Catholicity.
Some Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox cannot be ecumenical because they do not believe the church can be divided, and they believe that those who are often identified with divided entities are in fact heretics and not true Christians. These non-ecumenical Christians may be very good at evangelism around the world — that is, they move about quite well, and have links around the oikumene — but they are not ecumenical because they do not see clearly the (dislocated) extent of the oikumene .
2. Ecumenical Christians have an idea of what a divided Church constitutes.
This is necessary because just believing the church to be divided is meaningless unless it has a place in Christian self-identity. Can “Christ be divided?” Yet “there are divisions among you” (cf. 1 Cor . 1:10, 13). These two realities, stated by Paul, point at best to a tension, at worst a shattering contradiction and blasphemy. Their conjunction cannot leave one at rest. Ecumenical Christians are restless. And if not at rest, one must know where and how one is moving, or have some sense of this, or one is simply tossed about aimlessly. Ecumenical Christians have a theology of division; and even if these theologies are legion, they are articulate, examined, and relentless. This imperative has been too long ignored.
However, it is possible that, restless and relentless as one is, an ecumenical Christian is also exhausted in his or her search for such a theology of division. In which case:
3. Ecumenical Christians must at least have an idea as to why they do not know what a divided Church constitutes.
Maybe having a theology of division is too hard. In this case, ecumenical Christians become the “child” at their “mother’s breast.” calmed and quieted (Ps. 131). This posture is not one of quiescence however. “I do not occupy myself with things that are too great and too marvelous for me.” Rather, the deferral of a larger theology of division is faithful only to the degree that it constitutes a claim about who one is — ignorant, needy, dependent. Or perhaps sinful. If not a theology of division, then an anthropology of Christian failure.
4. And ecumenical Christians must thereby be driven to the Scriptures and to grace.
Whether as restless theologians of division, or as quiet asserters of their own fallen limits before God, ecumenical Christians engage in an intellectual practice that derives from such theological engagements. They read the Scripture in a spirit of openhearted thirst for God’s gifts, which only God can give. Ecumenical Christians are like the Psalmist of Psalm 119. If the church is divided, the present church herself can never be the home of the Christian, only the place where the truth of the divided church is laid out.
II. Practical Conditions
These practical conditions are rather straightforward; but they are also essential, and derive from the intellectual grounding above.
1. Ecumenical Christians constantly face up to their own ecclesial culpabilities.
There are no “true” churches as such in the world today because the Church is divided. If that is so, this church, where I am, is sinful, and sinful at least in the particular way of being divided, that is, sinful in relation to other churches. As with all confession and repentance, ecumenical Christians are heartfelt cataloguers of their own ecclesial misdeeds, perverted structures, and warped vision of others. This makes ecumenical Christians rather somber in their self-presentations, and they must simply accept this element as a part of their life. Of course, there is also more to their life than this.
2. Ecumenical Christians love their enemies.
All Christians are called to such a love. But ecumenical Christians have no wiggle room here. For there is no love of other Christians without first this love, fundamental and world-embracing, towards every concrete opponent in every place of life. Family, neighbors, colleagues, abusers, jihadists, betrayers.
- “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
- “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Lk. 6:27).
- “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish (Lk 6:35).
3. Ecumenical Christians love other Christians before they judge them.
Judgment follows love, not the other way around. This is crucial, because it is usually completely reversed. But the entire movement of the ecumenical Christian follows the movement of God in Christ in its fundamental form, apart from all claims to considered conclusions: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19). It is not because God judges us as sinners that he loves us; it is because he loves us that he judges us sinners and thus dies for us (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Part of the practical issue here is that we are unable to see another Christian rightly — and in their failures and sins — unless we see them through the eyes of love. Without that, their sins become simply repulsive and destructive. We see this among many failed ecumenical Christian claims.
4. Ecumenical Christians are always located in a place where love is concrete: a congregation and a church.
Love is central. But love is utterly concrete and personal. There is no general love, only embodied love. There are no ecclesially floating ecumenical Christians. That is why ecumenical Christians are always part of a real congregation and church, bound to actual people with whom they pray, make daily decisions, give money to and receive from, seek agreement or correction among. An ecumenical Christian is always a member of a given church. Otherwise, no love will be learned, given, or received. Indeed, division is faced precisely within the realities of actual life and its challenges.
5. Ecumenical Christians only engage other Christians from within this concrete location of their church.
Observers and civil Christians are often puzzled by the fact that ecumenical Christians cannot simply shed their ecclesial identities as they relate to other Christians. But such shedding of our identities and locations is impossible given the reality and definition of division. It is not a matter of principle, but of fact: we can only encounter, and therefore deal with our divisions through a lived confrontation with — not dismissal of — the edges and boundaries of human distinction and human sin. Since love is localized, its healing takes place as a form of transfigured localization.
This, by the way, is the place where formal ecumenical dialogue must take place. But ecumenical Christians know that such formal dialogue is only one part of a much larger set of realities, tasks, and conditions.
III. Some strategic conclusions (based on my own theology of division and its practical consequences):
1. I am in an outpost of a broken church.
An ecumenical Christian is committed to the universality of the church in the sense of its breadth and fullness as also being “one.” But that breadth has been broken up. We are far-flung from one another now. There is a universe, but its connections are cracked or crumbled. So, we are neither “just broken” nor “just a part of,” but “out of joynt” (Ps. 22:14 and Donne). Our Christian life has been distanced, one church from another — everything is far away from everything else. Yet still, we are part of the Church.
The question is how to describe this reality in providential terms that are ultimately hopeful of God’s work, rather than simply submissive to his judgment. How is our separation a felix culpa? One approach is to say that we are “outposts” of the Church. I am part of a distanced life. This is a positive, as well as negative formulation, because it means that we belong to one another, even if we are not next to one another, let alone at the same table. And it implies an ecclesial ethic, as the center supports the outpost, and the outpost exists for the sake of the center.
2. Those who feel that they are at the center should learn how to support the outposters.
In my case — and because of the localizing reality of my Christian life, my “case” must be defined by particular churches in their measurable constellations — I am an outpost of the Catholic Church, unable to share the table, because too far from the room. (For others it might be Orthodoxy at the center, or Pentecostalism, or the Chaldeans — the shape of the constellation of the distanced-church looks different from each galaxy.)
3. My prayer is thus twofold.
First, I pray that I may faithfully serve, somehow, the center: its faith, its integrity, its witness. At the same time, I also pray that the Catholic Church may find a way to support me as a far-flung servant, perhaps on a distant border “waiting for the barbarians” or sending in dispatches about the marvels of this far-flung world, or sharing news of the city to those who have never heard, or yet more. I am an ecumenical Christian in this, because I neither know how to do this, nor does the church at the center remember who I am or where I have gone. Out of this as yet unanswered prayer, flows the whole of my ministry.
The featured image is “Otley All Saints Church” (2009) by Tom Blackwell. It is licensed under Creative Commons.