Recent global events have highlighted the ongoing challenge of ethnic and tribal divisions. Americans have also been reminded by events in Ferguson that divisions along race and ethnic lines are just down the street. These ongoing divisions forcefully highlight the need for greater efforts at ecumenism. Christians must reassert their common identity as members of the City of God and find ways of working together in light of that identity. The communication of the gospel to the world involves the call to be a new nation and race because Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and non-Jew.

When most Christians think of ecumenism, visible unity immediately comes to mind. Most of the effort to realize this goal has been between those occupying liturgical and sacramental traditions. The first steps were to try and move beyond anathemas of the past, and this has had some success. The fractures within Protestantism, coupled with other developments such as the move to allow women bishops in the Church of England, however, suggest that the movement toward visible unity is in stasis. While it remains an important goal, it seems farther removed than ever.

It may be that the Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church can move closer to visible unity, but there are many variables that must be overcome to get there. The most important is the ongoing question of the reformation of the twelfth century and its establishment of the office of the papacy as a universally juridical office. Yet, even if agreement over that reformation can be reached, there remains the status of the Oriental Orthodox churches and how to bring them into a common synodal framework.

A second aspect of ecumenism has been efforts to move toward common witness through dialogues that promote mutual understanding and cooperation. This is an extension of the efforts to remove older anathemas except that most second and third generation Protestant churches have never formally condemned any historic ecclesial body. The dialogues between Pentecostals and the Catholic Church, for example, have always focused on the mutual understanding of friendship. This form of ecumenism remains vibrant and has a solid chance of making significant progress.

Common witness represents a genuine form of visible unity. Grounded in a common baptism and spirituality, such a witness is an extension of the good news that the triune God invites humanity to experience divine love and friendship with God and one another. All ecclesial traditions currently hold that the Christian life is about a transformational journey. From the dawning of grace in the soul to final union with God, this journey always occurs as members of the people of God who sojourn together toward glory.

All ecclesial traditions further hold that baptism marks the entrance into the people of God who are called to be a God’s new race in the world. Christian existence is the common mission to proclaim the Incarnate Son in the power of the Spirit who extend their shared life with the Father to a world mired in the disease of sin. The communion of saints who make up the City of God is a genuine visible fellowship that becomes the extension of triune life in the world. Just because this “mere” fellowship is not yet a complete realization of visible unity does not mean that there is no communion.

Beyond the formal dialogues and the surprising moves of Pope Francis to increase friendship, more efforts should be made at the local level to forge a common witness to the gospel. In this way, the churches can build upon the partial communion they already share. More importantly, this is the historical moment when the engagement in common mission and witness to friendship is absolutely necessary. In the face of ongoing racial and ethnic division and the way in which divisions among parts of Islam have led to war, the churches should work together to extend the call of Christ to love God and neighbor. This is the time to move out of enclaves of ethnic and denominational Christianity that reinforce tribalism and embrace one another.

How could this happen? The priests who serve as ecumenical officers in each Catholic diocese need to act at the local level in concert with their bishops to find ways to address the needs of the community. I realize that there remains a shortage of Catholic priests in many US dioceses, which means that most priests work extremely hard and bishops are reticent to give them additional tasks. One path forward is to work with Catholic deacons and laity to take these steps. This is where the strength of lay ecclesial movements can bear fruit in the Catholic Church.

On the Protestant side, denominations need to urge their ordained clergy to forge greater connections to one another and to Catholic and Orthodox parishes. These connections should center on celebrating the diversity of the City of God and facilitating greater lay participation in conversations and common projects. In the past local clergy meetings have met with degrees of success, but greater lay participation is how people of diverse ethnic and ecclesial backgrounds will over come their misconceptions and mistrust.

Finally, all Christians should work toward a common Christian culture. The church calendar provides the skeletal outline of this approach insofar as it reminds Christians of a heritage composed of many saints and martyrs from the full diversity of the City of God. It also provides a common space to celebrate historic Christianity in a way that calls all Christians to draw from the riches of the churches. Imagine for a moment a world in which Christians celebrated one another and worked together at the local level. Such a witness might just be the prophetic word needed for this time. 

More on: ecumenism

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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