Ecumenically, Who is ‘We’?

By: Andrew Pierce

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

At Bologna in 2018, our lamented colleague and friend Gerard Mannion chaired a panel addressing “The Future of Ecumenism” at the annual meeting of the European Academy of Religion. The brief for panelists—one clearly indebted to Mannion’s analysis—noted how, even to many among its keenest supporters, the ecumenical movement currently appears to be stuck in the doldrums, where it exhibits a loss of excitement, energy, and focus in its traditional activities. Speakers were invited both to diagnose the current malaise and to prescribe an appropriate course of treatment. Changing the church was ever high on the Mannion agenda.

The Possibilities and Limitations of Change

Such change as this is not to be understood purely or primarily as a matter of structural re-organization. Change is an interestingly elusive theological topos, and the churches have enjoyed highly ambivalent relationships with the very notion of change. On the one hand—and viewed positively—the language of “conversion” and “repentance” speaks to the possibility of a real change in direction: turning away from what proves deeply unwise and harmful, and either turning or returning to that which is most real and most desired. But on the other hand, and despite these plaudits for change on the part of sinners, the prospect of change elsewhere in the scheme of things has often inspired sanctified resistance on the part of church leadership. If providence has made us semper eadem, then those commending an alternative course of action—reforming the church, for example—open themselves to charges of betraying a sacred tradition that is to be preserved undefiled. 

To this day, and in all Christian denominations, to negotiate these variously thematized relationships—those between continuity and change, tradition and experience, resistance and transformatively acknowledged loss—remains an extraordinarily visceral experience in ecclesial life. And while this dialectical interplay between tradition and experience is a constant in ecclesial experience, no less constant is the inherently imbalanced structure of power. Tradition and traditions are incarnated in authoritative practices, habits, and structures that transcend specific places and times, providing us thereby with the boundaries of our habitations—the endurance of which change disrupts. Proposals for change may not be rewarded with magisterial applause.

Is a narrative of becalmed ecumenicity correct? And if so, is this something that actually requires a theological explanation—might it not be explained simply as an ecumenical manifestation of the inevitable routinization of charism? Ecumenism has certainly undergone change: In 1942, Archbishop William Temple famously called the ecumenical movement “the great new fact of our era.” Yet, by the end of the twentieth century, the no-less prophetic archbishop, Trevor Huddleston, called ecumenism “the great yawn of our time.” In a world where inter- and intra-religious relations remain potent resources of meaning for understanding and resolving intractable conflicts, the option of yawning is seriously premature. Appropriately resourced intercultural theological dialogue—in which participants are prepared to learn about both themselves and their partners—may prove to be the great new need of our era. Yet a prescription of “dialogue” may appear unduly abstract as an enterprise and Olympian in the presumed detachment of this work on the part of specialists. Perhaps other dimensions of dialogue—theologically and ecclesiologically more potent ones—need to be discerned in the currently frustrated vision of an ecumenical movement struggling to move? 

Appropriately resourced intercultural theological dialogue—in which participants are prepared to learn about both themselves and their partners—may prove to be the great new need of our era.

The question arises: Who does ecumenism? The standard answer to this question is that churches are the principal agents in the ecumenical movement. There are important historically descriptive and theologically normative reasons why this should be so. But perhaps there is also room to challenge the extent to which the affirmation of ecclesial agency effectively occludes other legitimate exercise of ecumenical agency. Put bluntly and ungrammatically, if we are being ecumenical, then who is we? 

Ecumenical Agency

One way of accounting for much current ecumenical fatigue may be the way in which agency in the ecumenical movement is attributed to, and exercised solely by, “the churches.” Arguably, the key ecumenical activity lies in the vulnerable and liminal arena of dialogue, in which partners encounter the reality of one another and learn to challenge—together—self-interested misrepresentations of both identity and otherness that have become habitual and ingrained, in some cases over centuries.

One way of accounting for much current ecumenical fatigue may be the way in which agency in the ecumenical movement is attributed to, and exercised solely by, 'the churches.'

There is a certain inevitability to the prominence of ecclesial agency in both ecumenical dialogue and its reception: Defining disagreements addressed by the ecumenical movement are those that breach communion between churches, and it is precisely as inter-ecclesial issues that they are addressed in order to qualify as ecumenical. The insistence that ecclesial agency belongs primarily—perhaps, even, uniquely—to the churches, is not without difficulties. All churches operate, both explicitly and implicitly, according to their own distinctive, traditioned, hermeneutical filters, which can curtail as much as encourage more liminal paths of discipleship.

The exercise of ecclesial agency is a complex and multi-layered reality, and, like all expressions of life in community, this reality includes tension between institution and charism. Excessive focus on ecclesial ecumenical agency tends to favor the institutional structures of both the churches and of an emerging ecumenical culture, with the result that it may prove more difficult to recognize if or when more liminal undertakings are articulating the matters on which today’s churches stand and/or fall. 

Perhaps the inevitable preferential option for institutional agency helps create a climate in which ecumenical excitement, energy, and focus struggle to be recognized as meaningful paths in ecumenical discipleship? One aspect of modernity is its pluralizing of choice and its associated emphasis on the human person as an individual with rights and responsibilities in her/his exercise of choice, which includes both a choice to belong and the extent to which to belong. Against a theological and ecclesiological background in which the language of communion—communio and koinonia—appears to have transitioned successfully from an ecclesial model to the ecumenical paradigm, important questions concerning the subsidiarity of agency now arise.

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