DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Ecumenism

F
or many decades, some Christians have struggled valiantly to bring unity to the fractured body of the faithful. After much effort, their successes have been few and far between.  Rick and Mick, despite their very different perceptions of the world, agree substantially that much of what goes for ecumenical dialogue today is largely a waste of time. They think that practical ecumenism might be the way ahead.
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Rick
The term ecumenism derives from the Greek oikoumene, meaning the inhabited world. At the time of its original use, that world referred to the Roman Empire. Today the term usually refers to the various Christian denominations and their efforts to find unity and ultimately return to one Christian Church. 

Ecumenism has recently been extended by some clergy to include all faiths including Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, Hindus and even Druids and neo-pagan witches as was the case in the interfaith prayer service held in Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Even atheists might be included by some since they have faith there is no God. 

For any religious organization to aspire to ecumenism it seems to me they must have some common beliefs. Since monotheism and Jesus Christ are the pivots of belief within the Christian Church it is logical for these Churches to attempt finding common ground on which to ultimately unify. For the purposes of this discussion I suggest that ecumenism be restricted to the Christian Church lest we go off into a very complicated and convoluted path of universalism. 

I don�t want to dismiss the possible positive contributions that ecumenism could have vis-a-vis the other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam) but, as I intimated, that could be a numbing detour. 

The first question I would pose is why unification is either desirable or necessary for the Churches to carry out their respective missions? 

In his Decree on Ecumenism (Unitas Redintegratio) Pope Paul VI said: 

The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature. 

Thus Pope Paul VI framed the issue. Ecumenism satisfies the will of Jesus Christ. These are strong and authoritative words, Mick. How do you view them? 

Mick
As far as I�m concerned the Pope�s words, apparently wise and accepting of others, are reduced to near nonsense by the facts. 

First, whatever else he says, the Pope declares that only those who unreservedly embrace Catholic doctrine (as stated in the Catechism, for example) can be �at one� with him. That is, the scandal he refers to is perpetuated by the Pope and his subordinates (who will themselves be swiftly expelled if they depart from the official line, for an entire Vatican department is devoted to smelling out doctrinal dissidents). This extremism goes back to the early centuries of Christianity when the official Church, claiming a hotline to God, ruthlessly wiped out rival gospels. 

Second, all those who claim that Christian unity is the perfect state also claim for themselves the right to say what is the nature of that state. If they did not, there would be no reason for disunity. 

Third, the history of the Church is one of constant schism. We can�t return to one Christian Church because there never has been such a thing. Even when the Catholic Church was at the height of its power, stubborn Christians who had reformed their interpretations of Jesus were a constant menace to so-called unity. Catholicism has always been an unattainable goal. There will always be those who choose to live by their own interpretations of Jesus. Luther, that irascible, constipated, Jew-hating, inspired visionary is a good example. Melanchthon�s Augsburg Confession of 1530 remains a doctrinal norm to this day - a sort of Pope in print. Similarly, Anglicans may return to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 as a potential source of doctrinal trump cards. Presbyterians still study Calvin�s writings. Many Orthodox Christians maintain that any doctrine later than the 11th century is heresy. 

I think that ecumenism as we now know it is generally a waste of time and energy. It consists in discussions about the impossible (doctrinal agreement) by those who have the most to lose personally from unity (Church leaders). 

What then �satisfies the will of Christ� to which Pope John refers above? I suggest that only thoroughgoing acceptance of other Christians as they are - no matter how imperfect - can be called ecumenical. We may choose to worship with like-minded folk; but we must live and work with any brand of Christian. 

Rick
I accept much of what you say. I too think ecumenism is a utopian concept. However, to use an old clich�, let�s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think the world needs the tempering influence of the Church as I have previously argued. It has special relevance to the maintenance of civil society. 

To suggest all we need is to have everyone accept everyone no matter what their imperfections may be every bit as utopian as ecumenism. Perhaps we should simply strive toward comity among the various Christian entities and be realistic about our goals. 

Doctrines are slow to change and there may yet be hope of accommodation if we be but patient. Despite what you may say, there are nuggets of wisdom in ancient Church doctrines. I for one find Philip Malanchthon�s theological writings (particularly the Augsburg Confession) to be relevant to my faith. But let�s not open that wound. 

I see much good in continuing dialog among the various Church bodies. Certainly isolation from each other does no good. Moreover, parallel charitable activities can be amplified by mutual cooperation and understanding. 

Thus, I urge some slowness and common sense in approaching the matter. Perhaps our exchange is a model of civility to be copied. We often agree to disagree but I don�t think we have lost our cool or unnecessarily raised our voices. 

Mick
Like you, I think that na�ve ecumenism is impossibly idealistic. It takes little or no account of the nature of traditional doctrines as incontrovertible answers to questions about the meaning of life. But if that�s the case, what are we to do - those of us who nevertheless think that we could get even closer to other Christians? 

I suggest that we could all try a slightly different tack, one which might just have the merit of putting fewer on the defensive. What about calling for �Practical Ecumenism�? 

Perhaps, as a staunch Lutheran, you will be able to give me a useful reaction. 

Practical Ecumenism would have two main components: 

  1. The local leaders of all denominations would agree on a number of practical priorities into which they could pool some of their assets and income. These might be largely incontrovertible aspects of Christianity like assisting the poor, comforting prisoners, and guarding civil liberties. This would be done at a local level first where there may be less resistance because, in turn, needs will be clearer and leadership defensiveness lower. (I�m not sure about the latter, but it�s worth a shot. At any rate, here in the UK this is the level at which a good deal of ecumenical endeavour is already bearing fruit - even while church leaders potter around issuing carefully-worded accords.)
  2. An essential component of any such movement would be an agreement to disagree about doctrine on one hand, and on the other to positively assert that no doctrine will get in the way of practical actions. At a more theoretical level, those who think more carefully about such matters might have to acknowledge that this requires them to accept that their teachings, while valid and highly valued, may not necessarily be absolute and final answers to life�s puzzles and predicaments.

What say you? Perhaps your local church already does this sort of thing. Or is it practically too difficult and doctrinally too challenging? 

Rick
I absolutely agree with you. I can report that your number one component is already in place in my community. My church cooperates with others in, for instance, using our facilities to provide shelter and food for homeless families. 

There is a Rochester Ministerial Association composed of clergy from Judaism, Islam and Bahai and of course Christianity. They meet regularly to discuss ways to cooperate in charitable missions. 

In the US, Eboo Patel, an American of Indian descent, has founded the Interfaith Youth Core that has programs to promote tolerance and understanding among the various faiths particularly on college campuses. 

Charity in the US is alive and well. Over 300 billion dollars were given in 2009 of which a large proportion was supplied by various faith-based organizations. My church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, has given 30 million dollars in aid to Haiti disaster relief. 

I have not been keen on ecumenism as conventionally defined. We have already cited reasons for this lack of enthusiasm. While tension exists between various faiths, for the most part there is huge co-operation between faith-based groups in my country in charitable efforts. I think we should take some solace in this fact and understand that  doctrinal capitulation or dominance is  unnecessary for cooperation. Practical ecumenism is a good concept. 

Mick
We agree that something like the practical ecumenism above is the best way forward. We will always find people who can�t move away from their safe doctrinal formulas and who are therefore unwilling to enter into any significant degree of closeness to other, different Christians. We must, I suppose, keep them always in mind and refuse to write them off as hopeless conservatives. 

Having said this, I�d like to finish by suggesting that practical ecumenism, while a useful concept for Christians, might well be extended somewhat further. 

What I mean is that it may well be rightly extended to focus on the issues and the work around the issues, rather than on who works together with us as Christians. So, for example, it may well be that Christians should not tackle environmental matters as Christians. Rather, they should work on ecology, as a matter of principle, with anyone who wishes to work with them. The same principle of ecumenism could be extended to any practical matter - even something like politics. 

To close: I think that Christianity, if it is to be true to its roots, must be prepared to sit at table with Scribes, Pharisees, tax collectors, loose women - and even Samaritans.

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