Seeking the Fruits of Ecumenism: A Letter from Rome

In Rome last week the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity brought together a group of ecumenical consultants to take stock of the work of dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and its Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran and Methodist partners.

These dialogues began in the late 1960s, stimulated by the decree Unitatis Redintegratio (1964) of the Second Vatican Council. This year also marks the centenary of the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, often seem as forerunner of the formal ecumenical movement that later became the World Council of Churches.

The Symposium in Rome focussed on the recently-published book Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (Continuum, 2009), itself a synthesis of those formal bilateral dialogues by Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council.

The Symposium was in part an attempt to remind the participants in these dialogues of their achievements. These include the agreement in 1999 between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of Justification, which was at the heart of the disputes of the Reformation. Anglicans and Roman Catholics have likewise been able to make progress on divisive issues such as the Eucharist and ordained ministry.

Yet it is fair to ask though whether ‘fruition’ or ‘harvest’ are actually convincing or appropriate metaphors for ecumenical achievement in the present.

Indeed many have come to view the current time not as about harvest but as a sort of ‘ecumenical winter’, in which past progress on mutual understanding and convergence in doctrinal and sacramental issues have been overshadowed by the emergence of newer points of difference over issues such as women’s ordination and human sexuality.

Yet the challenge goes beyond those current hot-button issues. The Symposium itself acknowledged that, even leaving aside new difficulties, churchgoers and even church leaders often do not really understand or act on the formal positions that have been adopted on their behalf in ecumenical dialogues. Although issues have been examined, and progress deemed to have taken place, fundamental questions of ‘reception’ remain even on the matters of relative success or convergence.

The ‘Harvest’ language, while an understandable attempt to claim and encourage progress in convergence, implicitly privileges a pattern of conversation, drafting and publication, which tends to give the necessary processes of reception second place.

Further ecumenical conversations could involve deeper reflection on how the inspiring and surprising experiences of dedicated ecumenists in these dialogues actually conspire with failures of ‘reception’.

Dialogue participants may be inclined to think and say that an issue on which they found new understandings in dialogue has been addressed, when to those not present it has, for other intents and purposes, simply turned into an obscure publication. In fact other members of the relevant Churches may hold anything from strong disagreement to complete ignorance of the issues. Protestations that the Churches should receive these processes and documents more seriously are not without moral force, but no more effective for that.

Theologian George Lindbeck made reflection on this ‘disconnect’ between ecumenical dialogue and ongoing Church doctrine the starting point for his influential book The Nature of Doctrine in 1984. Suggesting theology could be viewed in ‘cultural-linguistic’ terms, arising from specific historical experiences and shaped by context, Lindbeck (who was a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council) argued for the possibility of affirming simultaneously doctrines which belong to a particular tradition and experience, which function as ‘rules’ for that community, as well as reconciling them with opposing ones in the context of ecumenical dialogue.

If Lindbeck is right, either ecumenical dialogue is viewed as a separate ‘language game’ which is defensible but remains at a distance from its respective partners and traditions otherwise, or else convergence and reception actually require reshaping context and experience, not merely the construction of agreed statements.

And in fact many Christians find their most powerful and transformative experiences of ecumenism in experience, in shared prayer and mission. Real progress depends on making new connections between specifically theological and intellectual forms of practice such as the formal dialogues, and other more practical and pastoral experiences. These are the conditions of bearing fruit, and the fruit itself.


  1. Charles Sherlock7:18 pm

    Thanks, Andrew - would love to follow this up more in person at some stage: how did your experience at the Vatican affect your own response to ecumenical challenges, as an Anglican theologian?

    I agree of course that, without reception, Agreed Statements are of little use (beyond filling library shelves)! And yes, the 'harvest / fruits' language has its assumptions and drawbacks (cf the review of the book in One in Christ).

    Three brief responses, however:

    a) My ARCIC experience of being involved in three such Statements includes the many opportunities which such work opens up for discussion at 'local' levels - though I acknowledge that this can be limited to those already interested.

    b) And yes, Lindbeck's approach has merit, though (as he acknowledged) if taken to an extreme, the processes of actual communication can disappear in a cloud of parallel but non-engaging post-modern language games!

    c) Further, my experience of local reflection on ecumenical engagements has not been all that encouraging - they tend to move fairly quickly to spawning desire for effectively a new 'denomination' (oh horrible non-theological term of muddled ecclesiology!).

    So my question - one I'd love to have more ideas about - is:

    What sort of 'new connections' do you envisage between the 'formal dialogues' and 'more practical and pastoral experiences'? And what sort of outcomes might they spawn?


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