Page 8, 19th March 1999

19th March 1999
Page 8
Page 8, 19th March 1999 — Is this a post-ecumenical age

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Is this a post-ecumenical age

A"n RECENT Herald editorial entitled The New Ecu enism" (26 February) suggested that we are moving into a new era of ecumenical relations, in which it is frankly recognised that "some divisions are real and fundamental and not to be simply removed by optimism and good will". Instead, argues the writer, we should concentrate on "a unity of a different kind, one which consists not so much in seeking to remove what makes us distinctive as in building on what always united us at the deepest levels of faith".

How persuasive is this analysis? I think there is no doubt that we are entering into a very different kind of situation from those early days of ecumenical euphoria, in which a lot of Catholics seemed to imagine that our differences were just thought up by theologians and had nothing to do with real life. Incidentally, what an anodyne insult that was to the martyrs of the sixteenth century who gave up their lives for the Mass and the papacy!

"To live is to change," said Newman: that applies to ecumenism too. One important thing ecumenists forgot after the Council was that the ecclesial communities described in the Decree on Ecumenism were not just going to stand still — any more than the Catholic Church was.

This explains the huge shock felt when the Church of England proceeded to the ordination of women— hardly surprising when it had already taken place in other parts of the Anglican Communion. The idea that a Church should cease to develop or change according to its own inner dynamic in deference to a preset ecumenical agenda was not very realistic. Just as we look at the world rather differently from those overly optimistic days of Gaudium et Spes, so our perspective on separated Christendom is likely to be different from that of the Council.

The Decree on Ecumenism assumes that dialogue will be between the recognised historical Churches. But the most vibrant form of Protes tantism is Evangelicalism, which has a very low ecclesiology and therefore comparatively little sense of belonging to a particular Church. Evangelicals worldwide are to be found in new groupings or existing in an uneasy relationship with their parent Church. The paradox is that it is these Christians often to be found in the Church of England — who stand together with Catholics over basic doctrinal and moral issues like abortion, while their fellow Anglicans or Protestants, especially their leaders, are remarkably nuanced over such issues compared with their forthright views on social questions.

All too often, the official ecumenical dialogue relationship marginalises those very Christians with whom we may have most in common but who are not in the "mainstream" of their own Churches although their churches will be far the best attended and supported. The rise of the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement — a phenomenon unknown to the drafters of the Decree on Ecumenism — has led to many fruitful interactions with Evangelicals. It is particularly striking that in the United States — a much more Protestant country than this a number of Evangelicals have converted to Catholicism, including some high-profile names. In the past the odd Evangelical may have been converted against all probabilities — but today we are seeing Evangelicals coming "home" to Rome. That would not have been possible before the Second Vatican Council.

ecumenistss after Vatican didn't think very much about was the effect of developments within the Catholic Church on the ecumenical movement. I am not referring now to the various official "implementations" of the Conciliar degrees, but about the charisms which the Holy Spirit has been giving to members of the People of God, that is, baptised Christians.

This work of the Spirit makes perfectly good sense when seen against the background of the first two chapters of the most important of all the Council documents, Lumen Gentium, the Constitution of the Church. I regard those two profoundly Scriptural and Patristic chapters on the essential nature of the Church as the radical blue-print for Pope John VUII's vision of a new Pentecost in the Church, which may be beginning to take place before our eyes in the astonishing emergence of the new movements certainly the present Pope seems to think so and his powers of discernment have been well tested.

As a result of these new movements, we can foresee two potentially enormously fruitful changes in the way Catholicism will exist and be perceived in the next millennium. The first is that — without any diminution of the Catholic priesthood, which is already being revived from these new sources of life the old Catholic clerical-lay Church is likely to give way to a Church which will certainly be Apostolic but which will also be charismatic (with a small 'c').

And the second big change is that the Catholic Church, which has in the past put great effort into missions both abroad among the unbaptised and at home in the parishes to bring back the lapsed, will now be seen more clearly as a genuinely evangelical Church, preaching the gospel to a postChristian, secular society. Both these developments, I suggest, are likely to have a profound and far-reaching effect on the way in which Protestant Evangelicals will see us.

Is post-ecumenism really just a matter of conversion? Yes, like Christianity. But conversion on both sides. When Rome is seen to be home by Christians whose ancestors tragically became, separated from the Westentj patriarchate, then they will come home — as so many Anglicans have in recent times in this country. Is there any future for corporate reunion with any of the Reformation Churches? The Decree on Ecumenism spoke as if these Churches were the same Churches as had come into existence in the sixteenth century. But, of course, the truth is very different. The irony is that probably the vast majority of orthodox Christians who belong to those bodies would be horrified if Rome were to forge some kind of union with their liberal ecclesiastical establishments.

The only Church with which we can genuinely hope and pray and work for corporate reunion is the Eastern Orthodox Church.

But, again, that will never take place without a good deal of conversion on both sides.

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