Martin Browne OSB examines the meaning of ecumenism
I seem to rely more and more on Twitter for news these days. There can be a lot of biased and crazy stuff there, and hate-mongering too, but, if one follows the right people, it can also be very useful. Earlier this month, I read a tweet by a journalist which said, “Inclined to think Archbishop Eamon Martin is right: ecumenism should be about friendship”, and my curiosity was piqued at once.
I should mention that the ‘tweeter’ in question was the Editor of this newspaper. While the word “only” was not included in the tweet, one could easily infer that he was suggesting that ecumenism is pretty much only about good relations between the Churches, rather than unity in any other sense. One of the responses to the tweet in question asked bitterly if ecumenism had ever been about anything deeper, especially in the last twenty years. I believe that ecumenism is about a lot more than friendship. It would have taken a lot more than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter for me to explain why though…
First, a word about the context: Archbishop Eamon Martin was speaking to the Ballymena Borough Church Members’ Forum, along with the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Dr Heather Morris. It was a brilliant address – thoughtful, generous and sensitive, but strong and forthright too. He pointed out that peace-building requires effort not just from politicians, but from schools, voluntary organisations and Churches too. It was in this context that Archbishop Martin raised the possibility of a ‘covenant of friendship’ between the Churches at national level, in the hope that similar local covenants could be developed too. “Making a solemn Christian commitment to friendship and good relations, to treat each other with dignity, respect, understanding, tolerance and friendship compromises no doctrinal principle”, he said.
True. It is an interesting proposal. Such a covenant would be a good addition to what is already happening through structures such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches (now styled ‘Churches in Ireland’) and other ecumenical fellowships at more local levels. However, powerful as such a solemn form of covenant between the Churches might be, particularly in this Decade of Centenaries in Ireland, ecumenism cannot be reduced to being about friendship only.
In fairness to the archbishop, he didn’t claim that it should be; subsequent commentary did that. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring what ecumenism should actually be about. The Second Vatican Council was clear that working to overcome Christian disunity is no optional extra for faithful Christian disciples. Christian division, it bluntly taught, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalises the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.” Ecumenism is serious business and is about a lot more than simply being nice to one another!
The kind of friendship which Archbishop Martin was suggesting could certainly be an important and fruitful element to the ecumenical endeavour. After all, it is easier to work towards becoming one when we have grown to know and love each other. But it’s not just about being friends. Another important dimension is praying together. There can sometimes be a touch of the tokenistic or formulaic about ecumenical services. This is a pity, because it is only in prayer together that divided Christians can truly discern their unity in Christ. And it is only in a context of prayer that God – whose Church it is after all – can lead us into the unity he wills for us. The late Cardinal Yves Congar memorably wrote, “When the purpose of dialogue is not simply to exchange information and to reach theoretical conclusions, but to build up our unity in Christ, discussion alone is not enough; we must also pray together”.
Ecumenism is also about witnessing together – doing together everything that we aren’t obliged to do separately. It is about serving the common good together. It is also about learning from each other. And such receptive learning can lead in turn to repentance. As the fathers of Vatican II taught, “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart”.
I’m not so naïve as to not be aware of the roadblocks – the widening gaps between different Churches’ teachings on human sexuality, on ordained ministry and on authority being among the most obvious. They are huge and progress is painfully slow. But giving up hope, or throwing up our arms and settling for the lowest common denominator – polite friendship – is not an option. As Pope Francis said at the close of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “Christ, dear friends, cannot be divided! This conviction must sustain and encourage us to persevere with humility and trust on the way to the restoration of full visible unity among all believers in Christ”.
I’ll try to fit my conclusion into a tweet-sized sentence: Ecumenism is the search for full visible unity among Christians, in God’s time and according to his will. #Ecumenism #MorethanFriendship
*Martin Browne is headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School and on Twitter @MartinBrowneOSB