The impulse toward mutual recognition, at the heart of the Dialogue, occurs in a different context than did the discussions of “church union” in the 1960s and ’70s. Calling on her experience of ecumenical discussion within the Roman Catholic Church, Dr. Cathy Clifford, an ecclesiologist from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, helped the Dialogue to consider the current state of ecumenism. The current “new phase” in ecumenism is marked not only by shared questioning and self-critique on the part of an increasing number of denominations, but also by previously unforeseen agreement cutting across denominational lines. For example, the Catholic Church increasingly finds public support for some of its moral positions from conservative evangelical churches.
The Dialogue has noted that, for many lay people, the apparent differences between Anglican and United Churches have either greatly diminished or are of less importance than may previously have been the case. This is perhaps partly due to the shared focus on social justice and mission within our denominations, and partly the result of the discussion of similar topics, such as issues of sexuality, which have at different times arisen within our churches. The shared use of the Revised Common Lectionary, as well as musical and other liturgical resources, has also contributed to a greater sense of kinship in weekly worship traditions among denominations.
To some, the trend toward commonality suggests that the goal of greater theological consensus has largely failed, resulting in an ecumenism that rests upon the lowest common denominator. This response to ecumenism can occasion stronger and less helpful assertions of denominational identities, and the loss of ground in ecumenical discussion. For others, because reconciliation is at the centre of Christian faith, theological consensus must be the basis of all ecumenical dialogue. The diversity of spirituality and expression celebrated within the Catholic Church, for instance, has increased since the Second Vatican Council. For Dr. Clifford, this suggests a vision for ecumenism in the wider sense as the affirmation of diversity. The danger here lies in the assumption that diversity must fall within the bounds of one communion in order to be honoured. Different Christian confessions, however, need not to be subsumed within a single Christian identity, nor be replaced by perilously vague statements. Rather, statements of consensus can best function as statements of responsibility, on the part of all denominations, to embody the Christian call to reconciliation.
To promote the best possible ecumenical discussion, Dr. Clifford drew a distinction between ecumenism as envisioned within denominational Christianity, and the even wider context of interfaith dialogue. She cautioned that the goal of relationship with non-Christian traditions should not eclipse the goal of full visible unity among Christian churches. Citing Walter Kasper, she suggested that there is a difference between secular ecumenism, of which relativism and lack of consensus are symptomatic, and fundamental ecumenism, which seeks the reconciliation of Christian denominations through common witness.
There are some stumbling blocks on the road of ecumenical discussion today. First, there is a suspicion, by some, that ecumenical statements mean to replace denominational confessions. Second, the mutual recognition of ministry is the major fault line within discussions of full visible unity, while issues of common scriptures, creeds and confessions, and sacraments are continued topics of discussion.
Very different churches, such as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have, in limited ways been able to “recognize” each other. However, Dr. Clifford noted that the Second Vatican Council statement that “churches in the proper sense of the word” have “ecclesial elements present within them” is not a position assiduously adhered to since that Council, nor is it a statement encouraging to ecumenical dialogue. Yet, this also suggests that all Christian denominations still have much to discuss with and learn from each other.
Ecumenism in the wider context shares the same central premise as the Anglican-United Church Dialogue: members of the Body of Christ are called to the continual work of reconciliation.
- That the Dialogue continue to place our learning in the wider context of ecumenism by discussing our denominational responses to the WCC document “The Nature and Mission of the Church.”
“Remember the vision; don’t waver from it, but gather others around it as you go.”
— GORDON JENSEN