I have been observing and participating in the ecumenical movement since the mid-1950’s. It is still alive but struggling. This all-important movement towards unification of Christian churches has seen a number of ups and downs.
There really wasn’t much of an ecumenical movement prior to the Second Vatican Council. The Protestant churches frequently talked to each other in an unstructured way under the title of Councils of Churches where the pastors of the various Protestant churches would meet monthly over barbecue and listen to a speaker from the local Rotary Club. It was not a surging mass of theological and pastoral movement.
The Catholics, of course, were all back on the Roman ranch and they didn’t talk or mix with anyone other than themselves. Then came the Second Vatican Council and the Catholics, peering through the circled wagons, saw that this large group of people outside were a major religious group known precisely as non-Catholics. While they were circling our wagons, they were not attacking. Maybe we should talk to them.
Then began what might be called a cozy, warm-up period. We began to go to each other’s meetings, we formed some ecumenical structures, intending to do some work together where there was no conflict with the faith traditions of the individual churches. This was not a period of real accomplishment but it was a period of progress and greater openness.
Meanwhile, on the back burner, the Vatican and the World Council of Churches launched a series of worldwide meetings bringing together the best theologians from both traditions. With that real progress began to be made. It was quiet progress, yes, behind the scenes, yes, but, nevertheless, real and measurable progress. Throughout that half century, theological documents on profound issues, such as baptism, the Eucharist, faith and salvation were undertaken. These documents have all been published and are available from both the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches in New York City. Regretfully, there has been very little follow-up.
Doing ecumenical theology is hard work. You have to know as much as possible about your own faith tradition and its history and nuances. At the same time, you have to give great attention and study to the basic positions that mark the faith of others. I am sorry to say that virtually none of that is going on at the present time to my knowledge. This is a tragedy.
Christians are a minority in the world. We must not only defend ourselves and our theological positions that we share together, but use our combined resources to expand our holy faith across this battered planet. Are we beginning to forget the last message from our Lord on that Holy Thursday night?
“That they all shall be one, just as you, my Father, are in me, and I am in you, so that they also shall be one in us.” (John 17:21)
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