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Being an ecumenical Christian

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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is a beautiful piece, Charlie; it should be widely read. What MIlliner desribes is a flash of light — and there are others out there — that should both shock and encourage us. The question is how the wider church can be shocked into a new hope more broadly. We have that vocation.

  2. On the one hand, I think that this is a fantastic piece, not least because it starts with the reality of Christian division (itself too often papered over). On the other hand, I am unclear on what to do with the following conclusion taken from II.1: “There are no “true” churches as such in the world today because the Church is divided.” Is “true” synonymous with “complete”? If so, is this not like saying that there is nothing catholic – nothing that might be according to the whole? If so, there is no real possibility of being ecumenical. However, if “true” means “perfect” or “self-sufficient” then yes, no church can claim to be self-sufficient. It strikes me that “true” needs some significant nuancing here. Otherwise, we end up with, e.g., the claim that there are no “true” sacraments, no “true” Bible, no “true” creeds, etc. All of these things vary across churches – but surely they are effectual signs of grace and truth.

    It also might be worth nuancing “true” because of the realities of history. Writing that “There are no “true” churches as such in the world today because the Church is divided” seems to imply that once the Church was not divided. And yet, even in the time of the apostles there were divisions. Did no “true” church exist then? If so, no “true” church has ever existed. In such a case, we seem to be left as Seekers of some sort (a la Roger Williams or his latter-day, more quasi-Gnostic progressives), as neither creedal purity nor ecclesial structure might be able identify the “true” Church, its “true” teaching and sacraments, etc.

  3. Ben’s question is deeply pertinent.

    In general, the Church has been parsed in a way analogous to God; after all, she is the “Body of Christ”. But there is no “partially true” God, only a whole and simply true God. Hence, until Protestantism emerged (and even then only gradually), “the Church” was always understood as either true or false, period. And, when there were rival churches, only one could be the true church. There were no “part churches”.

    How do we hold on to the notion that the Church is the “Body of Christ” — which we are not, Scripturally at the least, permitted to let go of — yet still maintain that the Church is divided? That has always been the logical, theological, and moral challenge of Christian division. I know of no real satisfactory resolution to this, and my own attempts at one, through the figural means of “the church as cursed” — as bound to “Christ who was made a curse” (Gal. 3:13) — have lots of problems. Still, it seems to me quite possible theologically, as well as plausible historically to agree in some sense that there was no true church even at the time of the apostles (as you wonder): Israel was a sinner from her beginning (Pss. 78, 106, etc., Deut., Ezekiel, Heb. 3:16, etc.) — indeed, if we take Psl. 51:5 more broadly, from her birth. Christ’s Body is just that which bears this truth, so that the liar is made truthful.

    This, by the way, ought well to make us wonder about our sacraments: they are not charades; but they are hardly what they are meant to be. The eucharist is “bitter” in many respects, and remains so. WE can certainly affirm that God gives himself wholly in the eucharist as the Body of Christ; but that this body is the one that comes to us as him who is “made sin for us”.

    Indeed, if church and sacraments and the rest of ecclesial life had, at its core, that which was “just fine”, there would be no necessary compulsion to repent. But there is (according to an ecumenical vision).

    To nuance “true”,then, we must perhaps say it means “healthy” or “integral”. There is no “healthy” church; there is no church that is “whole” in a Scriptural sense; there is no church that is not a sinner; there is no church that is “just fine”; there is no church that is not cursed in the same way that every sinner is cursed. There is no church that must not be saved by God, fundamentally, wholly, integrally, utterly.

    Non-ecumenical Christians cannot accept this; ecumenical Christians cannot escape this.

  4. As I have been reflecting on this piece over the last several days, two things have been sticking in my mind, like pebbles in my shoe that won’t go away even when I ignore them. There is much that is commendable here and helpful. I am moved by the description of love before judgment. I am also moved by the epistemic humility that is required in order to say we are broken and that where we stand is broken. Still, two pebbles remain:

    1) Though the word “Anglican” never appears here, it seems to me that what you are describing can only really take place in a modern Anglican context. For most Protestants, there is simply not enough of a sense of the need for a visible, tangible Church. The unity is in the faith itself, built upon Scripture, and requires no greater institutional bond than agreement upon the Lordship of Christ, or in some cases adherence to a confession.

    In other Catholic settings, on the other hand, while there may be anguish over the separation of Christians and a sense of an ecumenical imperative to build relationships, there is also an understanding that the oneness of the Church is already readily available. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not talk about a divided Church. They talk about “The Church,” meaning their own. To be sure, there is a strong acknowledgment, especially post Vatican II, that the Church needs the “separated brethren,” but the oneness of the Church already exists.

    Anglicans, and particularly Catholic Anglicans, are the only ones who really have an ecclesiology that can sustain the idea that the Church is divided while also recognizing that the Church is visible, tangible, historical, and that the division as it stands is unconscionable. But if only Anglicans can hold this idea (and not all Anglicans at that), then just how ecumenical can it really be?

    2) I am very curious to learn more about what you mean by the idea of a “center” and “outposts.” Having established that there are “no true churches,” you go on to say this:

    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.)

    I am puzzled by this, as it sounds as if you are saying that we may choose our own “true church” and that having done that then our work is to stay tethered to it even though we are not a part of it. Moreover, the center church/tradition itself ought to be reaching out to us to keep us tethered.

    I feel like that cannot possibly be what you mean, but every time I read this through that is what it sounds like. If that is accurate, I have a boatload of other questions, not the least of which being why the “center” should care that we claim it since we have already dismissed its claim to be “true.” But perhaps I am completely off in my reading.

  5. You raise an interesting question about Anglicanism, Jonathan.

    It is true that modern Anglicanism, at any rate, has had a unique place in thinking ecumenically, and it’s worth asking why. As a coherent institution it took the lead in the early 20th century, when ecumenical thinking came into its own. The 1920 Lambeth “Appeal” remains one of the most striking and challenging statements coming from a single Christian tradition on record, and one of the first to lay out the “communion” oriented character of the Church. Anglicans have – at least in the past – taken the lead in many ecumenical projects and discussions, from Brent and Temple to Ramsey. They were hardly alone: the Motts and Oldhams were vigorous before them, and even the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch sent his encyclical “Unto all the Churches of Christ Everywhere” before the Lambeth Appeal (I think). Along the way and until the present, some Methodists, Lutherans especially, and other Protestants, along with Roman Catholics (and we must consider Vatican II as a high water mark) and Eastern Orthodox have been been willing to see the Church as divided and to act accordingly in response – even if their views do not represent the mainstream of their traditions. And in our day, I believe that this diversity has expanded – again, on an individual basis certainly. The private notes I have received about this piece all come from non-Anglicans!

    I won’t reflect on the past openness and perhaps even intrinsic compulsion of Anglicanism towards ecumenical self-identity; as I said, it deserves some serious attention. I will say, alas, that Anglicanism has begun to lose this identity, as it has descended into its self-regarding internal conflicts of the past decade or so. Cause and effect in this case is confused. The dynamics of this past General Convention represent a nadir of sorts (up to this point, anyway!).

    Your second question is a fair one, and arises, I think, out of my own lack of clarity. By “center” and “outpost”, I did not meant to suggest that the “center” was the “true church”, but simply that, as we order our lives locally and inevitably (as I insisted), we are rightly oriented toward other churches in ways that must make us their servants. We must be a servant to someone; we cannot be so to everyone, even if this might be a prayer. This goes for our ecclesial lives as well. I meant simply to say that my own personal history – localized life – has placed my servanthood under Catholicism. But it might be otherwise for others. Would that (ecumenical) Catholics would place themselves as servants in outpost for Methodists or Lutherans or Baptists! Or, if they must maintain some sense of their more “central” character, let them be servants to their Protestant outposts. But no Christian and Christian church, however large or small, is free from this fundamentally evangelical calling; at least if they consider themselves ecumenical in the sense I have been engaging.

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