When I was growing up my father worked for the National Conference of Christians and Jews for fourteen years (technically interfaith, I know, but with strong ecumenical bonds). From my early nurture in the Episcopal Church I was taught that all Christians are Catholic since catholicity is one of the marks of the church named in the creed (“One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”) I learned that the divisions in the church were the result of human sin, and that we were to work for overcoming them and finding our God-given unity. We prayed (from the Book of Common Prayer) for God to overcome “our unholy divisions.”
I remember the excitement generated when Pope John the 23rd promoted “aggiornamento” that was a feature of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council. The “windows came open for awhile” a Jesuit friend once said to me.
I recall a sermon in the late nineteen-sixties when our rector enthusiastically reported a historic service in San Francisco where Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike propose a process leading to the eventual union of the Mainline churches(which became the Consultation on Church Union: COCU.)
As a young adult I joined the United Church of Christ in part because of their great history of ecumenism, and their commitment to be a uniting church. I was ordained by the UCC and served for a dozen years as their representative on the Massachusetts Commission for Christian Unity (MCCU). There, I met wonderful, faithful men and women representing the whole spectrum of Christian communions. One highlight was I got to meet and talk with Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, one of the the great Roman Catholic ecumenists.
I studied the World Council of Churches Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry(BEM) document carefully, and used it in both my local ministry, and in my A Course in Basic Christianity.
So I was dismayed this week to read the reports about Pope Benedict offering “traditional” Anglicans the opportunity to come into the Roman Catholic Church with the promise of “Anglican Rite” status. My first response was sadness. The Vatican is basically telling the Anglican Communion that they are not really a church. I thought of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, someone I truly admire, having to sit there in a press conference and pretend he and his church weren’t getting disrespected.
The whole incident represents a giant set-back for a multi-generational ecumenical dream shared by many Christians from all communions, rooted in Christ’s own prayer to God the Father “that we may all be one.” That dream won’t die, of course, because the unity of the church is God-given, and in God’s own time and way it will be fulfilled. But silly me for thinking I might see more manifestations of it in my lifetime.
And how sad for those who will have to leave their church home. How will it all play out? The priests get to keep their wives but leave their parishes? And which Anglican rites will they be allowed to use? The Eucharistic theology in the various Books of Common Prayer is decisively Reformed in character, and has indigestible nuggets of anti-Roman polemic in it. My former Episcopal colleague Father J. Michael Povey writes astutely about this on his blog with the post Which Rites?
Whenever the church of Jesus Christ splits, it is a scandal. It weakens the church’s witness to the world. And when people leave their communion for another, it diminishes the diversity within that communion. The worst thing for a church is to be a bunch of like-minded people. I have often had to swim against the stream of my own denomination, but as my friend Gabe Fackre has always reminded me, “there are no safe harbors.” That is, there are no ecclesial utopias this side of the kingdom of God.
Here in Massachusetts many of the new members in Protestant churches are former Roman Catholics who come for one reason or another. We welcome them and extend them hospitality in our congregations as we should, because they are our Christian brothers and sisters. But to me it has always been bittersweet to see someone leave their church home, and it is a breach of ecumenical etiquette to bad mouth other communions.
I am guessing that the Vatican believes they are holding out an olive branch to the disaffected Anglicans. But the way it was done signals that any real Roman Catholic/Anglican dialogue based on mutual respect is finished for the foreseeable future. And if even they who share so much can’t work for common ground, what chance is there for us “separated brethren?”
So it is a sad time for ecumenism.