With the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople going to Jerusalem this weekend, there is naturally a great deal of conversation and consideration of where Orthodox and Catholic Christians have been and where we might be going. I have discussed some of this elsewhere. Here, however, I want to do something different, following a theological method beloved of many in the Christian East, as well as many Western mystics (St. John of the Cross comes to mind), namely the apophatic or “negative” way. I wish, in other words, to explain what true ecumenism is not.
Let us thus proceed by ruling out seven false forms, or understandings, of Christian unity.
1) Ecumenism is not a Pan-Heresy: Some ignorant and hostile Orthodox bloggers are endlessly recycling the fact-free fantasy of “ecumenism as a pan-heresy.” This ludicrous notion—for which nobody anywhere has ever provided the slightest shred of logical and credible evidence—is used to stir up fear that if Catholics and Orthodox draw closer to one another, it can only mean that one side has destroyed all its truth-claims and given in to the other side. Ecumenism is presented as a zero-sum game; in the words of certain economists: you win, I lose.
If this were, indeed, what the ecumenical task involved, then we could have accomplished it generations, even many centuries, ago: I set a list of demands, and you simply give in to every one completely while, perhaps, scrupling in the mildest possible way about one or two of the least significant—just as the (largely Orthodox) Serbs did before the (largely Catholic) Habsburgs in July 1914.
But the fact that we are still divided should give the lie to this notion: no Catholic or Orthodox hierarch (or theologian) wants to see the other surrendered and lying prostrate before its own side, which is precisely why the search for unity takes so long and is so utterly painstaking. We do not seek the capitulation of the other and the diminution of the truth (the way of the world) but the conversion of ourselves to Christ (the kenotic way), and in so doing we shall discover the unity he demands (about which see #7 below).
2) Ecumenism is not the Pope and Patriarch alone: The last time East and West met in a council of union was in northern Italy in 1438. At Florence, the hierarchs signed agreements and went home thinking that Christian unity had been achieved. Then the people, largely in the East, revolted, and the whole thing collapsed. That should give pause to anyone who believes that those closet Masons, Francis and Bartholomew, will secretly stitch up some sordid scheme to unite Catholicism and Orthodoxy by tea-time on Tuesday. No Christian leader in today’s age of Twitter and Facebook is going to attempt such machinations.
Popes and patriarchs may still, as my 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy demonstrates, have a good deal of power but today they cannot command Christians to believe by appealing only to the authority of their office: they must show good and compelling reasons to be united (about which see #7 below).
3) Ecumenism is not the truth alone but the truth-in-charity: Who among us, convinced of our own self-righteousness, has not (especially in online “discussions”), reacted with swift sarcasm and sneering about the speck in our opponent’s eye while ignoring the massive log in our own? Whom does this convince? Whom does this help? If I insist that my Church alone has the fullness of truth, while yours is but a sect of self-deluded heretics and papists, all equally without grace and all equally damned to hell, can I realistically expect that any human being on the planet will respond by exclaiming, “Of course! I see at once the errors of my ways, and will repent and convert before sunset, so moved am I by your graciously Christ-like countenance and charity.”
You may well have all the arguments on your side, and be utterly convinced of the truth you are defending, but would it kill you to defend it with even a modicum of humility, mercy, charity? A failure to do so guarantees your failure. Put another way, why do you think the Westboro Baptists have a whopping membership of six inter-bred members?
4) Ecumenism is not hectoring and hostile: Every semester I begin my classes with the same story about my maternal grandfather growing up in a small “gospel tabernacle” in inter-war Scotland. Each Sunday evening (for everyone went to churchboth morning and evening!) on his way out of divine service, a crotchety old man accosted my grandfather by the lapels and snarled, “Ay, sonny, ‘ave you been saved?” My grandfather, very young at the time, tolerated this for about two weeks and then turned to his father and told him in no uncertain terms that if this man ever accosted him again, he would get a punch in the face and my grandfather would never again set foot in church. My great-grandfather evidently had a word with the “old bugger” (as my grandfather called him in recounting this to me) and the accosting ended.
I recount this to my students to say that my task is not to hector them with hostility and demand, on peril of failing the course, to think exactly like I do. Hostile hectoring and disdainful demands for sycophantic discipleship ultimately convince nobody, and in fact, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, act like an inoculation against the real truth. Instead, we must all be gentle, tranquil, and charitable: as the beloved Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov reportedly said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
5) Ecumenism is not primarily universal but local: Though, understandably, in a globalized age, the media is fixated on the visit of the pope and patriarch to Jerusalem, it is not there—nor primarily among popes and patriarchs, nor even among local bishops—that the search for Christian unity will bear fruit. The most important people in this search are not bishops or theologians but you and me. If we do not seek out our Christian neighbors in every hamlet, village, town, and city where we live, then unity will never happen.
This need not be complicated or “professional.” It may be something as simple as visiting a church’s ethnic food festival or Christmas bazaar, or special anniversary liturgy, and getting to know people there, having coffee with them, chatting about the weather, or something that seems equally “mundane.” As my very gracious friend, the Russian Orthodox historian Antoine Arjakovsky, has put it, if the search for unity is not based on an “ecumenism of friendship”, it will falter. Build up local contacts and local communities, and the universal will take care of itself.
6) Ecumenism is not mainly structural but sacramental: In the search for unity, we are not concerned with making sure that there is one global Toilet Paper Purchaser (to negotiate the best discounts, naturally) for every parish in the world. We are not seeking complete structural unity and the “downsizing” of all apparently “duplicate” employees. What is sought, rather, is sacramental unity: the recognition of everyone’s baptism in the name of the Trinity; the ability to go to confession, or get married in front of, this priest or that; and, most important, the ability to celebrate fully in the Eucharist together, giving communion to everybody who, having fasted, confessed, and sought a holy life, approaches the chalice.
We want—we must have—unity around the one table of the Lord.
7) Ecumenism is not optional but dominical: It was, I think, St. Robert Bellarmine of counter-Reformation Catholicism who quipped that the reason the number of sacraments was fixed at seven in the West by the Council of Trent was that no man could possibly remember a list with more than seven items in it.
Let us, in that spirit, conclude on the seventh and most important note: ecumenism is not optional but commanded by the Lord Himself. A failure to be one as Christians makes it unjustifiably difficult for the world to believe in one God. A failure of ecumenical witness is a failure of theological witness in the strict sense: God is one, and so must we be. Ecumenism, in other words, is evangelism, bringing the world to the good news of the God who is one and who ardently desires that every person be one with and in Him.
I was interviewed last week by a reporter from the Catholic Herald of London last week, and he asked me perhaps the most important question. It is a question which I always love getting from my students in any course, even when expressed flippantly: “So what? Who cares about this stuff?” Is there any more important question? My answer always remains the same since I first encountered the question of ecumenism as a high school geek in 1988: it is a dominical imperative—the Lord gives us no choice.
If you have ever bestirred yourself to read John 17, you will find no wiggle room there. In that great high-priestly prayer, Jesus—knowing He is leaving the world and leaving to His disciples the task of bringing the world to the Father—asks four times for His followers to be one:
Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. … Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me (Jn 17:11b-23; emphasis added).