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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Nicholas Sagovsky - The Tablet - Mon, Jan 17th 2022

Ecumenical progress - an audit

Ecumenical progress - an audit

Geoffrey Wainwright, left, and Paul McPartlan, editors of the Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies

A recent survey of ecumenical progress over the past 100 years shows that many gifts have been exchanged between previously divided Christian traditions. But how far have the fruits of dialogue been taken to heart by leaders and members of the participating Churches?

After more than a century of ecumenical engagement, people often ask: what has really been achieved? One way to begin an answer is by reflecting on the history of the divisions between Christian Churches. A history of these divisions would have to reach back at least to the tensions in the early Christian communities (still unresolved) over the date of Easter. It would need to cover the non-reception of the third ecumenical council (431) by the Assyrian Church of the East, now a member of the World Council of Churches. It would need to examine the non-reception of the Council of Chalcedon (451) by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, also now members of the WCC. It would have to cover the developing schism between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, sealed in 1054 with mutual anathemas, which were joyfully lifted in 1965. It would need to cover the fragmentation of the Western Church at the Reformation, with the emergence of Lutheran, Anabaptist and Reformed Churches, and then the Methodist Movement, plus the further splintering that came with the growth of independent and Pentecostal post-colonial Churches, and so on ... It would need to cover two millennia of Christian history.

An important recent book, The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan, charts the progress made towards unity in a little over 100 years. Wainwright died in March 2020 after teaching at Duke Divinity School for almost three decades; McPartlan is a priest of the Diocese of Westminster and Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at the Catholic University of America. Both served on the international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue, as well as being veterans of several other ecumenical conversations. In 48 articles, covering 660 pages, their volume explores the astonishing progress of ecumenism since the agenda-­setting Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. It charts the growth of the Faith and Order and Life and Work Movements and the emergence in 1948 of the World Council of Churches. It shows how at the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church changed its attitude from “an ecumenism of return” to recognising and sharing dialogue with other Christian Churches. Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical Ut Unim Sint (1995) speaks of an “exchange of gifts” between previously divided Christian traditions. The Oxford Handbook looks in detail at a whole range of reconciling statements from bilateral dialogues and at the two convergence statements published by the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC – of which Wainwright was a member between 1976 and 1991 – Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) and The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2015). One of the major questions discussed in detail is, of course, what kind of unity do we actually seek? Clearly, one beyond the unity we have rediscovered in the last 100 years, during which the Churches have come to recognise that all Christians share one baptism, and should work together and pray together – but do not yet share the Eucharist.


One of the key articles in the Handbook, by Donald Bolen, the Canadian archbishop who served under Cardinal Walter Kasper on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, focuses on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has been at the heart of the twentieth-century ecumenical ­renaissance. Bolen explores the part played by Paul Couturier, who gave it the shape we know today – lasting from the former Feast of the Chair of St Peter (18 January) to that of the Conversion of St Paul (25 January). If one had suggested in 1910 that within 60 years the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity would be working with the World Council of Churches to produce ­material for a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it would have seemed impossible. Wainwright and McPartlan’s Handbook ­several times makes reference to key ideas of Couturier which show how and why things have changed.

The first is that “the walls of separation do not reach as high as Heaven”. Couturier, a French Catholic priest who was much impressed by the Orthodox faith of the ­impoverished Russian refugees he met in his home city of Lyons in the 1920s, first heard this saying from Metropolitan Eulogius, founder of the Academy of St Sergius in Paris. Eulogius wrote to Couturier about the way in which “men like St Seraphim, St Francis of Assisi and many others have accomplished in their own lives the union of the Churches … On the heights of their spiritual lives have they not passed beyond the walls that separate us, ‘walls which’, according to the grand saying of Metropolitan Platon of Kiev, ‘do not mount up as far as Heaven’?”

Notions of unity before the twentieth century had been largely backward-looking. They were about looking back to Christian origins, often through the selective lens of tradition, to see where other Christians had gone wrong. The perspective of Heaven is the perspective of the communion of the saints in which Christians by their baptism are invited to share. If we share that heavenly communion, how can we not delight in sharing with those of other Churches every aspect of communion possible on earth?

The second is a cluster of ideas around “spiritual ecumenism” – which is said in the decree on ecumenism from Vatican II to be “the soul of the whole ecumenical movement”. Couturier refocused the Week of Prayer on the “unity willed by the Lord according to the means the Lord desires”. There was to be no proselytism – no “ecumenism of return”; rather, a Spirit-led ecumenism of convergence on the presence of the Lord wherever that is to be discerned. Hence the importance for Couturier of liturgy, and an alertness to what is nourishing in the liturgy of other Christian traditions – something he learnt from Lambert Beauduin, founder of the Benedictine monks of unity whose monastery is now at Chevetogne in Belgium. Couturier spoke of a “spiritual monastery”: a ­communion in disciplined prayer for unity that spanned the world, and by its alertness to “the wind of the Spirit” broke down barriers. He was drawn to the community at Chevetogne because he found there a visible realisation of the spiritual ideal he had in mind.
All of this accords with the practice of “receptive ecumenism”, which is much quoted in the Handbook. A truly “spiritual ecumenism” will be open to a mutual sharing of the gifts given to different Christian traditions by the Holy Spirit. In a readiness to receive spiritual gifts from the other lies an implicit recognition of the other as a fellow participant in the generosity of the Triune God. In this way, we rise above “the walls of separation”. To be open to receive such gifts from the other is to be open to being truly changed. A ­“receptive ecumenism” is a transformative ecumenism.
The Handbook serves as an audit of astonishing ecumenical progress. It says little about new divisions over questions of sexuality, ­gender, the beginning and end of life, or the underlying questions of authority and how to interpret Scripture, or growing institutional ennui. There can be no going back on the overall commitment of the Churches to the path of ecumenism. But what form will that ecumenism take? In the final essay John Jillions, writing from an Orthodox perspective, discusses the possibility of a “kenotic ecumenism”: an ecumenism that enters into the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Christ who took “the form of a slave” for the sake of lost humanity (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Jillions quotes John Zizioulas, that “in the ascetic experience, based on kenotic Christology, one loves precisely what is debased and ugly” in the other. Could the ascetic practice whereby we learn to find Christ precisely in what is “debased and ugly” in the other be the key to the next steps along the road to unity?
Jillions also raises a question which merits more discussion than it receives in the Handbook. It is that of the non-reception of the fruits of ecumenical dialogue by the authorities and members of the participating Churches. Only through a process of education and study can such statements be understood and affirmed. To what extent, then, is ­painstaking engagement with such a process of education an obligation of Christian ­discipleship?
Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan have assembled a massively informative collection of essays, a rich resource for further study, and a testament to the extraordinary growth in unity which, in just 100 years, has transformed the life of the Churches. It charts the abundance of the answers to many, many prayers. What it does not do is voice the ­continuing cost of Christian disunity. The prayer of Jesus was that “they may be one … so that the world may believe”. When so many in the world dismiss or reject belief, to what extent is that because they still, with some justification, see Christians as hopelessly divided? An essay on the “liminal situations” in which Christians perforce have had to work and worship together – in war zones or ­disaster areas, in prison and hospital ministry, among refugees or under oppressive regimes – would have been a useful addition to this magisterial, but largely untroubled, ecumenical vade mecum.

Nicholas Sagovsky is an Anglican priest and a candidate for the Oblature of the Monastery of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Chevetogne. He is a former member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan, is published by Oxford University Press at £110 (Tablet price £99).

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