Developing a Hermeneutic of Ecumenism

The eight-day period each January between the feasts of the Confession of St Peter (the 18th) and the Conversion of St Paul (the 25th) has been observed across various Christian traditions for more than a century as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If you’re readings this after January 25–no worries, ecumenism is important 365 days a year.

The number of distinct “brand names” of Christian bodies is staggering. It numbers in the tens of thousands. Given the manifest will of Jesus in his prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21), this reality ought to be scandalous beyond imagination. Yet, it isn’t. Instead, we have normalized a situation that we don’t see any hope of changing. We speak of the proliferation of denominations as representing healthy diversity, veritably a gift from God.  Each has its market niche of ethnic or cultural or devotional proclivities, and isn’t that wonderful, because then the gospel can reach a wider variety of people? Ecumenism is nice, but not an emergency.

Nearly twenty years ago, the Episcopal Church entered into a “full communion” relationship with the principal Lutheran body in the U.S. We can now swap clergy and members with minimal bureaucratic impedance.  (There is a similar proposal, which we will act on in 2021, that would create the same sort of relationship with United Methodists.) In concept, that’s a good thing. Ability to share the Eucharist and recognize sacramental ministries is the essential mark of church unity. But what comes next in that relationship? It’s as if Called to Common Mission has inoculated us against any urge to take it to the next level. We have blunted the scandal in one small corner of the Christian universe, but we have not removed it. There are no laurels to rest on.

We have blinded ourselves to the scandal, either by rationalizing our divisions, by partial measures like full-commuion agreements, and by severely limiting the section of the playing field that we pay attention to. But the scandal is still there. It still grieves the heart of Christ, and is therefore still an emergency.

A hermeneutic is a fundamental interpretive framework, the default lens through which we mentally process the stream of data on a particular subject. At the close of 2018’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my hope is that I, and anyone whom I might influence, will adopt a hermeneutic of ecumenism in what we say, what we write, and how we pray. This implies a default preference for ecumenism in our thinking and in our ecclesiastical discourse, as we take our share in the councils of the church. It means we train ourselves to unfailingly ask the question, What are the ecumenical implications if we do X or Y? And if doing X or Y will have an adverse ecumenical impact, we probably then decide not to do X or Y, even if, in our own internal life, it seems right and good.

This is what it means to “seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions” (BCP, p. 818). It means no longer rationalizing our “sad divisions” as a blessing. It means laying aside the notion that any part of the community of Christian communities possesses the fullness of ecclesial life, but we are, all of us, profoundly broken and incomplete in our state of broken or impaired communion, and that this state of brokenness is the the single most powerful impediment to the prosecution of the Church’s mission of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ. It means developing the capacity for restraint, bathing in St Paul’s counsel to the Corinthian church that they “wait for one another” (I Corinthians 11:33).

The Church will never die this side of the second coming of Christ. Of that we are well-assured. But that doesn’t mean it won’t die in Europe and North America, even as it died in North Africa and most of the lands that now comprise Turkey. This is one of the “great dangers” arising from our “sad divisions.” When Christianity was the centerpiece of the culture, we could fool ourselves that there was nothing strange about churches of different brand names gracing all four corners of a downtown intersection. We can no longer afford that illusion. Blessed Peter and Paul, pillars of the Church, pray for us.

+Daniel Springfield

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