Ecumenical flight still far from home

January 24, 2011
Orthodox Metropolitan John of Pergamon speaks as Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury looks on during a recent dialogue at the Vatican.


Orthodox Metropolitan John of Pergamon speaks as Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury looks on during a recent dialogue at the Vatican.


For years, Christian leaders have recognized a waning enthusiasm for ecumenism, but now they are warning that too many Christians assume their divisions and differences just don't matter.

Whether a divided Christianity is an anomaly, as an eminent Orthodox theologian said, or the result of sin, as a cardinal said, the ecumenical dialogues involving the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are signs that the Catholic Church and other mainline churches are not going to settle for anything less than full unity in faith.

The pontifical council held its 50th anniversary celebration recently at the Vatican.

The celebration featured talks by Cardinal Kurt Koch, council president; Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury; Orthodox Metropolitan John of Pergamon; and Cardinal Walter Kasper, retired council president.

Koch used a metaphor to describe 50 years of Vatican ecumenical activity. He said it is like a plane trip - there is much activity and excitement in preparing for the trip, everyone feels something happening during take-off, but when cruising altitude is reached, no one notices how fast the plane is moving, and passengers start to fidget and wonder if they ever are going to arrive.

Ecumenical activity may have appeared to level off, he said, but it still is moving forward, and people must trust that it will reach its destination, he said.

Koch did not mention the recent turbulence experienced on the ecumenical flight because of serious differences, including over the ordination of women, blessing homosexual unions and dealing with abortion and other life issues.


Kasper said the sins of Christians throughout the centuries have fractured the body of Christ.

"The great danger is that we get use to this situation of division, taking it simply as a fact," he said. "The existence of confessional churches, one alongside the other, is a reality that contradicts the will of the Lord and is the fruit of sin."

Christians cannot take shortcuts to unity or gloss over differences that, in fact, may reveal they are not united in faith, he said.

In fact, both Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, and Metropolitan John, Orthodox co-chairman of the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue, expressed caution about a new trend in ecumenism — "reconciled diversity."

They warned that unity cannot be the result of believing differences are not important or too difficult to tackle, so that churches simply skip ahead to mutual recognition of ministers and full sacramental sharing.

The Orthodox churches, like the Catholic Church, have longer and more-detailed lists of the differences that they consider necessary to resolve before unity can be restored.

But Williams said the Anglican and many mainline Protestant churches also have trouble seeing how "reconciled diversity" can respond to each dimension of the "biblical foundation for a theology of Christian unity."

Williams said the New Testament calls for the unity of Christians in Jesus Christ, unity with one another and unity with the witness of the apostles and apostolic teaching.


The central place where Christians stand in unity with Christ is in the Eucharist, he said, because it is "the place where the prayer of Christ becomes our prayer."

However, he said, increasingly the Eucharist is not the central action of many Christian communities, including in some parts of the Anglican Communion, and the archbishop called for a renewed effort to develop an ecumenical theology of the Eucharist.

While almost all Christians would agree they need to maintain the faith handed on by the apostles, their ideas on how that is guaranteed vary widely. They range from the Catholic vision that it is the pope who guarantees unity and apostolic continuity to an evangelical vision in which individual Christians read the Bible and basically decide for themselves.

Metropolitan John, a top theologian and representative of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, said a real challenge to ecumenism today is that not all Christians agree on what unity means and entails.

For the Orthodox, he said, "unity cannot avoid the question of truth," of what is an orthodox theological position and what is heresy.