Six signs of an ecumenical springtime
by Nicholas Jesson
When Wiarton Willie or his furry cousins poke their heads out to see if spring has come, there is just one sign that counts. Does he see his shadow? Of course, it’s all just fun; there is no causal relationship between a cloudy sky on February 2nd and an early spring. It is a lot more complicated when it comes to the signs of an ecumenical springtime, but there is much more cause for hope.
Since the mid-1980s, it has become commonplace to forecast an ecumenical winter in contrast to the enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s. After the early achievements of post-Vatican II ecumenism, with key agreements on the Eucharist, ministry, authority, and various other controverted questions, progress slowed as ecumenists took up questions of ecclesiology, authority, and ethics. Yet after every winter comes spring. This blog post will explore six signs of an ecumenical springtime.
1. The nature and mission of the Church
Vatican II spoke about elements of sanctification and truth preserved in the various Christian traditions which give access to salvation and compel us towards unity. Recognizing these elements, not the least of which is our common baptism, the Council proclaimed that the communion between Christians is real even though the divisions of history obscure it. The foundation of Catholic ecumenism is a recognition of the Christian character of other churches and communities and the consequent call to heal these wounds within the body of Christ.
The early ecumenical dialogues focused on the doctrinal divisions originating in the 16th-century Reformation but intentionally set aside questions about the nature of the church. Only after the dialogues had reached a certain maturity and trust was it possible to see how the differing ecclesiological understandings of the churches were at the root of many of the other divisions. The 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops
declared that an ecclesiology of communion was at the heart of Vatican II’s teaching, particularly on the church and ecumenism. Similarly, the 1991 World Council of Churches’ Canberra Statement
identified the unity of the church as a koinonia,
“given and expressed in the common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognized and reconciled; and a common mission witnessing to all people to the gospel of God’s grace and serving the whole of creation.” (2.1)
By the turn of the century, ecumenical dialogues at the international and national levels had taken up the challenge of koinonia
, leading to numerous agreed statements on various aspects of ecclesiology and a growing consensus on the nature of the church. The next stage of development on this ecclesiological path was to connect the nature of the church with its mission. The classical division between “Faith & Order” and “Life & Work” is at least partly resolved in the 2013 statement The Church: Towards a Common Vision
2. Receptive ecumenism
Once again, rooted in the Vatican II reflections on the church, ecumenists found the notion of ecumenical gifts to be a helpful way of describing the fruits of dialogue. The late Canadian ecumenist Margaret O’Gara introduced us to the ecumenical gift exchange as an outcome of the dialogue encounter. As we grow to know our partners and their ways of thought, prayer, and action, we begin to recognize in them the elements of sanctification and truth of which Vatican II had spoken. These elements are truly gifts of the Holy Spirit given for building up the church of Christ. As we discover these gifts in new ways in the life of our partners, we begin to renew and rediscover these within our own Christian tradition. The ecumenical gift exchange entered widespread ecumenical discourse when Pope John Paul II made it a central part of his 1995 encyclical on commitment to ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint
Further development occurred with the notion of “receptive ecumenism” in the work of Paul Murray, a Catholic professor at Durham University in England. Murray’s added dimension to the gift exchange is his focus on the woundedness of the church. The gifts of the Spirit to the church of Christ have been formed and moulded by the peculiar history and theology of the churches. In the midst of their woundedness, the churches have developed ways of life and ministry that are impaired because of the separation from other churches. Like fine china that is cracked and chipped by a lifetime of use, our ecclesial gifts show the signs of wear. We do not come to dialogue with our finest china but instead with the cracks and chips of our daily use. When we approach ecumenical encounter with an attitude of receptivity to the Spirit, we discover in each other the gifts given by the Spirit, and our wounds begin to heal.
3. Recognition of ministry
On the basis of our common baptism and other gifts of the Spirit given to the church of Christ, Vatican II was able to acknowledge the Christian character of other churches and thus declare that these Christians are not heretics and schismatics but brothers and sisters. The language of a “real but imperfect communion” noted above was a conscious shift of paradigm from an exclusive model in which the divisions between the churches lead to ineradicable separation to a new model in which our wounds result in imperfections but our communion is real.
A similar language adjustment is needed to describe an emerging shift in paradigm regarding the reality of ministry within the churches separated from Rome during the Reformation or in the years since. In our common baptism, there is a priesthood of all the faithful. Catholic theology distinguishes particular ministries among the people of God that belong to the three orders of deacon, priest, and bishop. Various medieval disputes led the church to identify the form and matter of the sacrament of orders. With these dogmatic principles, Catholics have been unable to recognize the ministry of clergy in churches that have not retained apostolic succession. Yet it has been evident since Vatican II that the church has a pragmatic acknowledgement of the ministry of other clergy, particularly bishops. For what other reason would successive popes since Pope Paul VI give gifts that symbolize a sharing in ministry to Archbishops of Canterbury and other ecumenical visitors?
Since 1966, Anglican visitors to Rome have been given rings, stoles, croziers, chalice and paten, and numerous other gifts. Other Christian leaders have received similar gifts. An important part of the ordination rites in the Catholic Church is the gift of a symbol of the ministry conferred. In similar ways, gifts to ecumenical partners reflect a recognition of ministry that is not yet articulated in theological terms.
There is also a profound acknowledgement of these ministries in the meetings and work of neighbourhood ministerials and among diocesan leaders. Many Catholic bishops instinctively work better with bishops from other churches than with the leaders of churches with other polities. Without formally recognizing the episcopacy exercised by these leaders, there is an ecumenical college of bishops in practical terms. This is a sign of an ecumenical spring for which we do not yet have appropriate language.
Last December, an independent dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics issued a call for reevaluating the 1896 condemnation of Anglican Orders as “absolutely null and utterly void
”. The Malines Conversations Group
has met regularly since 2013 but has its roots in earlier conversations between 1921 and 1927 at Malines, Belgium. Their recent document Sorores in Spe — Sisters in Hope of the Resurrection: A Fresh Response to the Condemnation of Anglican Orders
offers a start on this reevaluation, but what is really needed is a commitment at the highest levels to find a way forward. Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
, told Catholic News Service
“From the Catholic point of view, it is a question of finding the theological and canonical language that would better reflect what we do in practice, which is to acknowledge a genuine ministry in other churches.”
4. New perspectives on real presence in the Eucharist
A classic dispute dating back to the Counter-Reformation is mistakenly understood as a distinction between the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist and the so-called Protestant view that Christ is only symbolically present. The details of this dispute are well-rehearsed in polemical tracts on both sides. Yet the major Reformers, Luther and Calvin, and their followers would not have used these terms. A variety of Protestant views developed about the nature of the sacramental presence, yet all of the Reformers would have affirmed the reality of Christ’s presence and action in the sacraments. Catholic theologians, for their part, though emphasizing the reality of Christ’s presence, would never deny the sign value of the sacraments. From a sacramental perspective, physical signs point to a reality beyond human perception.
The pivotal ecumenical dialogue on the Eucharist is the World Council of Churches’ 1982 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry
, which offers a consensus on Eucharistic doctrine that crosses through the major disputes of the past. BEM outlines the meaning of the Eucharist under five key themes: thanksgiving to the Father; anamnesis, or memorial, of Christ; invocation of the Spirit; communion of the faithful; and meal of the kingdom. Individually, these five themes represent the main areas of dispute, but collectively they offer a way forward. Within the consensus provided by BEM, most churches can see their historical concerns and emphases within a richer and more dynamic understanding of the Christological and Trinitarian dimensions of sacramental life.
BEM was not able to resolve the questions about sacramental presence, but it does point to convergence:
“Christ’s mode of presence in the eucharist is unique. Jesus said over the bread and wine of the eucharist: ‘This is my body ... this is my blood ...’ What Christ declared is true, and this truth is fulfilled every time the eucharist is celebrated. The Church confesses Christ’s real, living and active presence in the eucharist. While Christ’s real presence in the eucharist does not depend on the faith of the individual, all agree that to discern the body and blood of Christ, faith is required.” (para. E13)
In the forty years since BEM was published, the broad consensus on the meaning of the sacrament has been incorporated into catechesis in many churches. Catholics have reached ecumenical agreements on the doctrine of the Eucharist with numerous churches, including Anglicans, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, and Reformed. According to a formal assessment by Vatican officials, the dialogue with Anglicans has achieved sufficient agreement. No further dialogue is required at this time. Other dialogues have not yet reached this level, but considerable consensus has been found consistent with the BEM agreement. In many dialogue texts, theologians have noted that differences regarding the real presence can be accounted for by the different philosophical and scientific paradigms within which these doctrines developed. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, based on the Aristotelian concepts of substance and accidents, need not be seen as excluding doctrines that developed under the influence of the Enlightenment.
5. Pastoral support of interchurch families
Although canon law still requires that a Catholic get permission from their bishop for a “mixed marriage”, this has become more a pro forma
process in recent decades. In most dioceses, the bishop or chancellor issues permission based on a priest’s recommendation that the marriage is unlikely to lead the Catholic spouse to abandon the faith. Mixed marriage is a term that includes every imaginable pattern, but a more precise term is used for those marriages between two Christians who remain within their own churches and participate to some extent in their spouse’s church. In the past, this was seen as a pastoral problem. Many pastors expected that doctrinal and other differences would lead to conflict in the home, eating away at the marriage.
Successive changes to Catholic canon law and ecumenical practice have eased the restrictions on these couples. With the support of understanding pastors from many churches, interchurch families have navigated the challenges imposed by the strictures of the churches. Frequently, these couples have become prominent leaders in ecumenical work and dialogue. Like canaries in a coal mine used to signal danger, these couples are extremely sensitive to ecumenical opportunities and so provide a gauge of the health of local ecumenism.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Interchurch Families International Network held a world gathering near Rome and issued a statement, Interchurch Families and Christian Unity
, in which they insisted that they are “a visible sign
of unity to their churches”. The sacramental echo here is intentional. Interchurch families are conscious that they share together in two sacraments, baptism and marriage, which are sacraments of both unity and vocation. United in these two sacraments, they insist that their vocation is to bring their churches closer together. These couples ask that the churches learn to see the ecumenical potential in these couples. Far from being pastoral problems, these couples offer themselves in ecumenical service.
“If interchurch couples are received in each other’s churches with an understanding welcome, their interchurch character and commitment can become a gift and visible sign of hope for their churches on their path to unity.” (D1)
6. Sacramental sharing
My final sign of an ecumenical springtime is more hopeful than some would expect. Ecumenical documents distinguish between “sacramental sharing”, which is when an individual receives the Eucharist, reconciliation, or anointing of the sick in a church other than their own, and “intercommunion”, a formal agreement between two churches that permits a full exchange of sacramental life. Intercommunion is established at the highest levels and is generally marked by the inclusion of the other church’s leaders in the Eucharistic prayer and by welcoming the members of each church to Eucharistic communion. Catholic ecumenical principles hold that receiving the sacrament is both a sign of communion which bears “witness to the unity of the Church” and a “sharing of the means of grace” (see Unitatis Redintegratio
, 8). For this reason, reception of the sacrament is customarily limited “to those who share its oneness in faith, worship and ecclesial life”. Since the sacraments are “sources of the unity of the Christian community and of spiritual life, and are means for building them up”, “access to these sacraments may be permitted, or even commended” as an exception to the general norm. Sacramental sharing is only possible for a Catholic in those churches where the sacrament is known to be valid. (You can read more about this in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism
Provisions have been made in the Ecumenical Directory since 1967 for other Christians to receive the Eucharist, reconciliation, and anointing of the sick from a Catholic minister under certain circumstances. Expanding upon the 1983 revisions to the Code of Canon Law
, the latest version of the norms is found in the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism
. The criteria described in the Directory include general norms that apply to all communicants: to be baptized, to have a proper disposition, and to seek the sacrament on one’s own initiative. In addition, the person requesting the sacrament should not have recourse to a minister of their own church and should manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament (no. 131).
Even when these conditions exist, sacramental sharing is still understood as an exception to the general norm. The Directory indicates that bishops should establish norms to identify “situations of grave and pressing need” (no. 130), but this is interpreted differently across Canada. For some bishops, “grave and pressing need” is understood as danger of death, and thus the conditions for sacramental sharing are presumed to be rare. Other bishops understand this as “a serious spiritual need or longing”. These bishops have identified specific occasions when a serious spiritual need might exist, such as the funeral of a spouse, the first Communion or confirmation of a child, or a wedding anniversary.
Now almost 30 years since the revised Directory was published, these norms need revision, particularly in light of pastoral practice. It is increasingly clear that many of these criteria are matters that only a person seeking the sacrament can assess. A conversation with a priest can help a person understand these norms, but it is not the role or competency of priests to judge the interior disposition of others. To free priests from an overtly judicial function and allow a pastoral relationship to form, it must be understood that the decision about when these criteria apply is a matter for the communicant themselves to judge. In light of the broad consensus on Eucharistic doctrine identified in numerous ecumenical dialogues, some consideration must also be given to what is meant by manifesting a “Catholic faith” in these sacraments.
* * *
As I point to signs of an ecumenical springtime, it is clear that some of these have not yet reached a full maturity that will allow them to break through the soil and burst into flower. As signs, they are hopeful indications of a future ripe with possibility. Other signs, however, are indications that something is happening deep in the roots of Catholic thought. Together, they reveal the Holy Spirit at work calling the whole church to new ecumenical self-awareness, a new sense of our catholicity in communion with all the baptized. Every winter ends when spring replaces the cold of winter with new life.
Nicholas Jesson is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Regina, former ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Saskatoon, and former executive director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. He is a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, editor of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogues Collection, and editor of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue archive IARCCUM.org.