Alyson Barnett-Cowan

July 15, 2008

These are not very encouraging times for ecumenists. Many churches, which developed strong relationships with each other over the past century, are now finding, those relationships strained, and churches are themselves increasingly divided internally. The beloved Anglican Communion makes screaming headlines week after week with news of its demise, division or deconstruction. I fear that my grandchildren will be another generation of ecumenists burdened with putting Anglican churches back together.

Yet the ecumenical movement has learned some profound lessons, and it would be well worthwhile for Anglicans to pay attention to them. The Archbishop of Canterbury would like the upcoming Lambeth Conference to be a place of meeting and dialogue, and it is precisely the meeting together in a mode of listening and prayer that has propelled ecumenism.

Some have said that ecumenism is nothing but tea parties – everyone having polite conversation but never engaging. Even tea parties beat religious wars every time as a way of human interaction. But what begins with conversation can in fact go deeper, toward true encounter and transformational change.

The Pope encourages “spiritual ecumenism,” and it is this above all that may provide a way onwards for Anglicans. Spiritual ecumenism means meeting in the presence of Christ, seeking Christ’s heart together, and being found as friends in him.

For the church is not a mere political institution where power is brokered. The church is above all the Body of Christ, into which all are baptized by the initiative of God the Holy Spirit. No one of us can dismiss another from that Body. Like it or not, we are compelled to be with others because Christ loves them too.

An American Catholic initiative for dialogue within its own ecclesial community has articulated some principles of dialogue that are foundational for caring conversation among Christians: [1]

  1. We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth.
  2. We should not envision ourselves or any one part of the church a saving remnant.
  3. We should test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on living individuals as well as for their theological truth.
  4. We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.
  5. We should put the best possible construction on differing positions, addressing their strongest points rather than seizing upon the most vulnerable aspects in order to discredit them.
  6. We should be cautious in ascribing motives.
  7. We should bring the church to engage the realities of contemporary culture by acknowledging both our culture’s valid achievements and real dangers.

I particularly like number 4: “We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.” If we can start our conversations with each other in this way, we might all learn something. We might be converted to one another.

Recently I imagined what would happen if Jesus showed up in person at the Lambeth Conference. I suspect that he might say “Stop – you’re all wrong!” But I think that he would also look at everyone sadly and say “Little children – love one another.” Ecumenical dialogue is exactly learning to love one another, in peace and in truth. May Anglicans learn to do that with each other, starting now.

‘O listen now, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.’

The Rev. Canon Dr. Alyson Barnett-Cowan is Director of Faith Worship and Ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada and will be providing staff assistance to ecumenical participants in the Lambeth Conference.

[1] Catholic Common Ground Initiative: Principles of Dialogue. As cited by Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP at