Return to Theological Thoughts
Return to Ecumenism

One In Christ


My Credentials

Because I am going to write a profoundly critical document, I think it is important to make my credentials clear. I was brought up a Protestant, more specifically: a Methodist. I became a Catholic for intellectual reasons, while an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Through my whole time at Cambridge, I was involved with the "Ecumenical Fellowship Groups" movement: something started by the Methodist Student Society, but supported by Christians of many denominational allegiances (though treated with a certain disdain by undergraduates of classical Evangelical or Calvinist leanings, and with only a smattering of Catholic involvement.) Through my involvement with EFGs, I went on three missions to ecumenically co-operating groups of churches. In one of these, the local Catholic parish was involved. Since that time, I founded and helped run (for at least three years) an ecumenical fellowship and discussion group at my place of work. Most of my close Christian friends are protestants: mainly Anglicans (of various types) and Methodists. I also have a continuing personal interest in Eastern Christianity: Catholic; Byzantine and Coptic. As a gay man, I have been involved with protestant Christians through the LGCM.

As a convert to Catholicism, I am in a strong position to pass judgement on the situation: I have seen it "from both sides of the fence", and still do so. I understand what is important to all parties concerned and what the dynamics of the situation are.

My Commitment

Because of my background and connections, I feel the pain of Christian disunity with a particular keenness. It is something that has and continues to affect my life personally. I can still remember the anguish of looking at a piece of "Mother's Pride loaf" offered to me by a Methodist minister, wondering if it was really the Body of Christ, then rushing off to rescue the leftovers that would otherwise be fed to the birds. Ecumenism is not an issue which is an "add on" to my notion of Catholicism, but at its very heart. It is because of this that I am dismayed by the manner in which ecumenical matters are being pursued.

The Liberal Agenda

In my experience, most people actively involved in ecumenical matters have a liberal agenda. In effect they are co-religionists who happen to belong to different jurisdictions. They largely share the same doctrinal outlook. They largely relate to each other in the same way as do "evangelicals" who happen to belong to differing denominations. The presumption of this liberal elite is (roughly) that if some doctrine is in dispute, then that doctrine cannot be important: simply because it is in dispute! What is held in common is important, what is not held in common can be ignored or down-played. Now in some abstract world, this might be true: in the real world, it simply is not the case. This can easily be seen in the following way. If you take enough versions of Christianity, and work out what they all have in common, you will finish up with very little other than a theological creed along the lines "Jesus was an important man" and a moral code amounting to "be a nice person". Of course, if you exclude Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses, you'll do a bit better; if you exclude the Quakers, Baptists and Salvation Army, better still: but why should these groups be excluded? By choosing to do so, you are simply expressing your own prejudice as to which doctrines are important. You are selecting the data to fit your theory.
The liberal agenda is biased.
The ecumenical-liberals select the basis of the discussion, and who is allowed to engage in it, in accordance with their own views as to what Christianity should be. They are not really interested in engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with them. Instead they tend to dismiss such people as ignorant or reactionary. As a Traditionalist Catholic, I believe that some of the most distinctively Catholic-Orthodox or "un-Protetstant" doctrines are of paramount importance. This belief does not limit my willingness to engage in respectful dialogue with people of very different views, however. Neither does it incline me to treat (even the most extreme) Protestants or their belief systems with derision. I do not look to validate my theology by obtaining agreement with others. For me, the test of truth is the Living Tradition, Contemporary Experience and the Dynamic Magisterium of the Church.
The liberal agenda is dishonest.
The liberal-ecumenical agenda is essentially dishonest. It is directed towards subverting the prevailing theologies of the various sociological groupings involved and replacing them by a single set of anodyne beliefs intended to serve as a basis for common action: though to what end, apart from general works of charity (which are not the exclusive preserve of Christians) it is not clear. Moreover, it involves the use of equivocation and dissimulation. For years the "Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission" went about its task of producing studiously ambiguous documents without challenge. The Anglicans let it be thought that they were able to speak with one voice on doctrinal matters: whereas in fact their Evangelical, Liberal and Catholic wings hardly talk to each other, let alone have any common doctrinal ground! The Catholics let it be thought that certain matters of defined doctrine were up for debate: not interpretation or explanation, but outright rejection. In particular, they let it be thought that "The Catholic Church" was willing to give up its peculiar claim to unique legitimacy and become "The Roman Catholic Denomination", one church among many. Pope John Paul II personally contributed to this expectation by the character of his visit to Canterbury Cathedral (which forms part of an indifferentist and syncretist  pattern of behaviour, along with the Assisi conferences of World Religions, and his visits to Synagogues and Mosques.) The programme has been taken further by the misleading "Catholic Lutheran Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification".
The liberal agenda is uncharitable.
Unsurprisingly to those informed in these matters the Catholic Church isn't about to repudiate its claim to uniqueness, as was made crystal clear in the recent document from Rome "Domine Jesus". The feelings of betrayal and dismay expressed by those Protestants attempting to engage in ecumenical dialogue with Catholics when this document was issued were entirely understandable. To have allowed them to think that Rome would essentially compromise its position was uncharitable. This is not to say that all of the work of the ARCIC was in vain. It did come up with some valid insights, though in my view, the more valid the insights were, the less acceptable they were to the governing bodies of one or both jurisdictions.

Practical Initiatives

A good deal can be done to foster cordial relations and engender mutual respect at the local level. I know this from personal experience when I was a young man in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent: where Methodists and Anglo-Catholics were on very good terms and did quite a lot of things together. Unfortunately, very little is done in this way of things. Typically, the only ecumenical activity in a parish is something along the lines of inter-church Lent groups: an essentially introverted and sterile endeavour. The principal should be that Christians should do together as much as they possibly can do, without compromise. This could easily mean merging their social outreach programmes (e.g. St Vincent de Paul and similar activities) regular Bible study groups (sorry, Catholics don't have such!) non Eucharistic worship (sorry again, Catholics don't have any!) even some evangelistic work (sorry one last time, but Catholics don't do this either!)  I shall not further labour the point that there is much that could be done, even if little is in fact done. Practical Ecumenism should be more about doing ordinary (and so important) things together, not doing specifically ecumenical things which easily become introverted and a distraction from the real business of Christians: proclaiming and implementing the Kingdom of God's Friends!
The blind leading the blind.
I know from first-hand experience that much of what is proposed as grass-roots ecumenism (as in exploring each other's beliefs) is nothing of the kind. This because the people involved often do not have an adequate grasp of what the issues are. They tend to identify their ecclesial affiliations in terms of style and not substance. They are Methodists because they like singing hymns, they are Catholics because they are ethnically Irish and admire the Pope. They are Anglicans because they are attached to choral evensong and propriety. Please excuse my parody.

One can only learn from someone who has something to teach. Too often local ecumenical activity amounts to the blind leading the blind and results in nothing more momentous than the acknowledgement that "them across the road are Christians too, and generally OK people." This level of response to the private tragedy and public scandal of Christian disunity can only be described as pathetic. In Western Christendom, only evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics understand their churchmanship primarily in terms of doctrine, and neither group is generally inclined to engage in ecumenical activity: precisely because they see it as a threat to the purity of their doctrinal stance. The recent publication of the Catholc-Lutheran Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a cause of some hope that this sterility might be overcome.

The other danger inherent in local ecumenical activity is indifferentism. Because most Catholics are woefully ill-formed in the Faith, they are open to influence from others who have clearer views and definite principles to hand. Typically, the local Catholic hierarchy actively encourages them to believe that there isn't much difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Generally, this is exactly what the laity now does believe. Why shouldn't they: it's what "Father says" after all. Moreover, contemporary Catholic liturgy is nowadays not very different in form from a Protestant service, and often inferior in style. The only remedy for these problems is better formation and education of the Catholic laity. However there is no sign of this ever happening. It would be contrary to the interests of the hierarchy to encourage or allow it.

Truth in Charity

I believe that the only way to make progress at the theological level is to accept from the start that there are important differences of view. The reasons for these differences should be identified by discussion and debate. The basis of such a debate can only be mutual respect. Even when one's opponents are entirely mistaken, they may be in good faith and deserve respect for that reason if no other. Moreover, the fact they are wrong, doesn't mean that they have nothing of value to teach. The very reason that they are wrong may be enlightening. Perhaps the only reason that you don't agree with them is that in your blinkered view of the world, you haven't even begun to consider some important issue that they have at least tried to address! They, in their error, may have much to teach you who haven't faced the problem.
"Why?" not "What?"
The most important question is not :"How do we differ?", but rather "Why do we differ?" This in historical terms, but also and primarily in philosophical terms: "What continues to motivate this difference? What is perceived as valuable in each viewpoint by its proponents? What is perceived as dangerous or harmful or wrong in each viewpoint by its opponents?" When these questions are answered, it may become clear that the disagreement is more a misunderstanding, and a common view synthetically arise from the dialogue. This is the approach that the "Joint Declaration" attempted to adopt. It is also possible that one side may suddenly realize, in humility that it is simply mistaken! Certainly, Catholicism has had to come to this realization on a good number of occasions: though it has tended to do so quietly, without any great publicity!
Ecumenism within Catholicism.
I believe that it is also important to acknowledge that these differences do not respect denominational, jurisdictional or confessional boundaries. Within contemporary Catholicism there are very many laity and clergy whose theology and spirituality is indistinguishable from liberal-protestantism. As the late Cardinal Hulme once said to me in private: "The Catholic Church is split from top to bottom on important theological issues". This fact simply has to be recognized, though not approved, by the Catholic hierarchy. The late Cardinal Bernardin attempted to address this matter in what, I believe, was more or less exactly the right way in his "Common Ground Initiative", however this largely went to the grave along with him: while other voices in the Church expressed the opinion that the only "Catholic common ground" that was needed was the Papal diktat.
The present state of the Catholic Church.
It is my view that the contemporary Catholic Church is in a state of near collapse. Its laity is ignorant, lukewarm and diffident. They are like sheep scattering without a shepherd. They do not know what to believe or do because they are given no direction and are discouraged from thinking or acting for themselves. Conformity is the spirit of the age, yet what is to be conformed to is indeterminate. Whereas the authentic spirit of Catholicism is directed towards the creation of community and fellowship (as indeed happens somewhat in "Basic Communities" in South America) in Western Europe practical Catholicism is "family value" oriented, with the result that the parish is segregated into family based cliques. Because there are typically no formal "fellowship"
or "study" or "lay apostolate" groups (and this often justified on the basis that people with families have no time to spare for such activities) these cliques are never broken down. Everywhere I look within Catholicism, I see death and decay or isolated groups struggling against the odds to combat death and decay. Why be a Catholic? The Catholic hierarchy has no grounds for feelings of "triumphalist" superiority in its dealings with Protestant or Orthodox christians!

A Pressing Need for Humility

If the Catholic Church comes to any dialogue with other Christians carrying the chip on Her shoulder that She is the True Church and that they are "just frauds", how can any meaningful and respectful interchange take place and how can any progress towards reconciliation be made? This question can be answered in two ways. On the one hand, the Catholic Church has no choice but to gently insist that She has something unique and precious to offer: namely juridical, sociological and historical continuity with the Apostolic Church. To fail to do so would be dishonest. For others to expect Her to deny Her understanding of Herself is unfair. If She gives this up, She has nothing. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has no choice either but to admit that: In other words, some humility is called for on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. They should stop blowing hot and cold: first betraying the Tradition by calling every Catholic doctrine into question in ecumenical dialogue; and then claiming that their jurisdiction is identical with the "Perfect Society of the One True Catholic, Evangelical and Apostolic Church of the Body of Christ". Instead, they should proclaim the Tradition, but gently: and offer the juridical authenticity (and the magisterial office that comes with it) as a gift to be shared. The problem is that within the Church, authority is too often conceived of in totalitarian terms, rather than as a charism to be used in the service of all.

Equally, other Christians must open themselves to the possibility that they have lost something of Catholicity in their histories. It is not just a matter of legitimate differences and different perspectives (though both are important) but also that "All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God". Only when all Christians are willing to countenance that:

will a basis for full reconciliation be created. Speaking of the Catholic Church, but with a clear ecumenical application, Gaudiem et Spes says that we should seek for:
".... mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, and acknowledge all legitimate diversity; in this way all who constitute the one people of God will be able to engage in ever more fruitful dialogue. For the ties which unite .... are stronger than those which separate: let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything."
In September 2005, Cardinal Kasper laid down five challenges for the Roman and Byzantine Jurisdictions:
  1. purification of  historical memory: admitting sins and seeking forgiveness;
  2. overcoming mutual ignorance, prejudices and lack of understanding;
  3. the mutual exchange of gifts (such as synodality);
  4. strengthening cooperation in order to speak with a single voice to secularised Europe;
  5. recognising that the path to full communion is a spiritual process.

What would the final settlement look like?

The following is a set of notes outlining possible solutions to the main doctrinal and jurisdictional problems that have to be resolved by any Reuniting Churches. The central problem is that of papal authority. I write about this at great length elsewhere. From a Catholic perspective the sticking points are an unequivocal acceptance that the pope of Rome has:
  1. a pre-eminence and authority that is subject to no other person or office
  2. immediate and ordinary jurisdiction throughout the Universal Church
  3. the power to define doctrine in a similar manner to an Oecumenical Council
These points are mitigated and balanced by the following considerations
  1. Papal authority should always be used to build communion and fellowship, not destroy it.
  2. It should therefore be constrained by canons.
  3. In an emergency, the pope of Rome has the right to suspend such canons and act without legal constraint.

  4. “Against this background we can now weigh the possibilities that are open to Christian ecumenism.  The maximum demands on which the search for unity must certainly founder are immediately clear.

    1. On the part of the West, the maximum demand would be that the East recognize the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the full scope of the definition of 1870 and in so doing submit in practice, to a primacy such as has been accepted by the Uniate churches.
    2. On the part of the East, the maximum demand would be that the West declare the 1870 doctrine of primacy erroneous and in so doing submit, in practice, to a primacy such as has been accepted [sic] with the removal of the Filioque from the Creed and including the Marian dogmas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
    3. As regards Protestantism, the maximum demand of the Catholic Church would be that the Protestant ecclesiological ministers be regarded as totally invalid and that Protestants be converted to Catholicism;
    4. the maximum demand of Protestants, on the other hand, would be that the Catholic Church accept, along with the unconditional acknowledgement of all Protestant ministries, the Protestant concept of ministry and their understanding of the Church and thus, in practice, renounce the apostolic and sacramental structure of the Church, which would mean, in practice, the conversion of Catholics to Protestantism and their acceptance of a multiplicity of distinct community structures as the historical form of the Church.
    While the first three maximum demands are today rather unanimously rejected by Christian consciousness, the fourth exercises a kind of fascination for it – as it were, a certain conclusiveness that makes it appear to be the real solution to the problem. This is all the more true since there is joined to it the expectation that a Parliament of Churches, a ‘truly ecumenical council’, could then harmonize this pluralism and promote a Christian unity of action.
      That no real union would result from this, but that its very impossibility would become a single common dogma, should convince anyone who examines the suggestion closely that such a way would not bring Church unity but only a final renunciation of it.
    As a result, none of the maximum solutions offers any real hope of unity.”
    [Cardinal Ratzinger: "Principles of Catholic Theology" (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1982), pp. 197-198]
Regarding the Union of the Roman Jurisdiction with those of Moscow, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria:
  1. Christology and Trinitarianism
  2. The Interpretation of the teachings of Oecumenical Councils
  3. The status of various Councils
  4. Juridical Issues
  5. Papal Authority
  6. Open Theological Questions
Regarding the Union of Evangelical and Reformed Jurisdictions with the Catholic and Orthodox Church:
All the above are to be affirmed and accepted. In addition:
  1. Regarding the loss of Apostolic Succession:
  2. Regarding theological disputes: An Oecumenical Council is to be convened at which the following Constitutions will be drawn up and ratified by all wishing to enter this Union.
  3. Regarding jurisdictional arrangements within the Patriarchate of Rome

 Back to top
Hosted by