Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 13-14.
Ecumenism—or at least ecumenism rightly understood (definition supplied below)—is not an optional matter for Christians. It is a necessary obedience to the will of Christ that his followers might all be one. But I have to confess to a good deal of confusion as to how precisely we are called to work out that mandate in practice.
On January 25 I participated, as I normally do, in my Manhattan neighborhood’s annual ecumenical service in observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is an occasion I generally look forward to not quite with dread, but not with eager anticipation, either. It’s more like grim duty—you will love your brothers and sisters in Christ. The congregations that participate are an odd lot—Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Quaker, and Mennonite—and the services are typically the incoherent hodgepodge you would expect when negotiating among traditions ranging from Rome to the left wing of the Reformation. Most of the time I leave those services less committed to ecumenism than when I walked in.
As it happens, this year was mostly an exception. There were, to be sure, jarring moments. The entrance procession featured a nun—the service was at a Catholic parish—carrying the altar candle while performing a silly, strained liturgical dance that was at once laughable and offensive. There were two terrible hymns, the one unsingable, the other inane. (Where do Catholics get their song books?) But, unlike some years, there were a number of grace notes. We confessed our sins, not our failures to be sufficiently leftward in our politics, and the prayers were prayers, not harangues directed less to God than to ourselves for not being . . . sufficiently leftward in our politics.
Then there was the sermon. At ecumenical gatherings of this sort there can, of course, be no eucharist, and so the service focuses on the homily. In previous years, one was grateful if one endured only banality, not heresy. This year, by the luck of the draw, my Lutheran pastor delivered the sermon. Her message exemplified what ecumenism, rightly understood, consists of: not a trafficking in neo–Unitarian generalities, but an affirmation, across denominational boundaries, of the central truths of the Great Tradition. She did not hide her Lutheran particularities, but she wove them into themes no orthodox Christian would deny. I left the service genuinely uplifted, but aware that next year, come sermon time, I may well again be forced into cringe mode.
But ecumenism presents quandaries not only when it attempts to find common ground among the broadest range of communions that might plausibly claim Christian patrimony. Even within the Great Tradition, apparently insuperable obstacles arise.
In Rome, Pope John Paul II also presided at a January 25 observance of commitment to Christian unity. His homily on the occasion—before a con gregation that included representatives of the Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist communions—acknowledged that separations between Christians are “contrary to the will of Christ”; those separations, he went on, “are scandalous and weaken the voice of the gospel.” At the same time, he said, “we cannot and should not diminish the differences that still exist between us. True ecumenical commitment does not seek compromises and makes no concessions on truth.” In a similar vein, my colleague RJN in a piece in this month’s Public Square suggests that “the only unity . . . that can be pleasing to God is unity in the fullness of the truth that Christ intends for his Church.”
Where does that leave us? Authoritative voices insist that our divisions are scandalous violations of God’s will. But they also insist that unity can come only when there is full agreement not only in doctrine but also, as RJN says, “in ordered ministry.” Which is to say, I can only infer, that Christian unity is an eschatological project.
I intend no disrespect to my Catholic friends when I say that their solution to the problem of division among Christians is, despite their protests to the contrary, that all the rest of us should come home to Rome. Indeed, as best Ican see, they have to say that to be faithful to their church’s self–understanding. Nor is that a solution that non–Catholic orthodox Christians can dismiss out of hand. Catholicism, after all, has imposing claims: Western Christians who are serious about the continuity of the Church through time require plausible reasons not to accept the supremacy of Rome. Heirs of the Reformation cannot continue their separation simply out of habit.
I understand and respect the decision of a number of my former fellow Lutherans to follow their catholicity to Catholicism. But that path is not open to all of us. I cling to my Lutheran identity for reasons that, I trust, go beyond habit. I have outlined those reasons in these pages before, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that the more closely I meditate on the matter, the more I conclude that between Lutherans and Catholics there exist, for all our common adherence to the Great Tradition, significant differences in doctrine and piety. Significant to what extent? Not so significant, I conclude, that I could not commune at a Catholic altar—should I be admitted, as I am not—but significant enough that to forsake my Lutheranism for Catholicism would be an exercise in bad faith.
There’s my problem—and there, of course, is far more than my problem, or it would not be worth talking about. A great number of us believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and yet believe—it is the only way we can make sense of Christian history—that that one Church has many manifes tations in time.
Under such circumstances, how does one fulfill the ecumenical mandate? Among other things, by contin uing to insist, inside and outside our denominational boundaries, that there is indeed a Great Tradition—C. S. Lewis’ “mere Christianity”—that we are all called to witness to and uphold. That tradition encompasses all who, to put it simply, can recite the Nicene Creed without entering endless mental reservations. More immediate exercises in ecumenism include the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative—worth support even from those of us who are neither evan gelical Protestants nor Catholics, and thus can only offer encour agement from outside.
But note that all such activities are but quasi–ecumenical. None of them meets the problem of the lack of “a common eucharistic life” that Bruce D. Marshall so eloquently engages in “Who Really Cares About Christian Unity?” (FT, January). (Mainstream Protestantism is awash in eucharistic fellowship, but it is a fellowship that appears quite insouciant as to the substance of what in fact transpires in the eucharist.) And, given Rome’s firm position on the issue—a position I at once understand and wish could be relaxed—it is difficult to imagine any possible circumstances in which, among adherents of the Great Tradition, eucharistic fellowship might be achieved.
It is that tragic circumstance—and I am not being histrionic here—that we are
confronted with. I am regularly moved to despair over the fact that I cannot
share the sacrament with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I feel the
deepest involvement. But, for the life of me, I know no way to make that wrong