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Christian ecumenism is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of the Christian religion, more or less broadly defined. For the purposes of this article, ecumenism in this sense is distinguished from interfaith pluralism, for reasons discussed immediately below.
Distinguished from interfaith pluralism
Because the meanings of "Christianity" are diverse, the description of what is meant by "Christian ecumenism" can take any of several directions.
On the one hand, ecumenism is "interfaith dialogue" between representatives of diverse faiths, not necessarily with the intention of reconciling the professors of other faiths into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations. With some Christian perspectives on ecumenism, there is no other principle of ecumenism than this. They aim only toward the promotion of toleration, mutual respect and cooperation, whether between Christian churches and denominations, or between Christianity and other faiths. Thus, the World Council of Churches is an instrument in both, the Ecumenical Movement and the Interfaith Movement. However, this is not the case for all Christian ecumenical initiatives; and it would be difficult if not impossible to discuss them together, when much of the Christian world makes a definite difference between the two ideas. Therefore, readers are referred to the thorough discussion of ecumenism in the sense of the promotion of mutual appreciation and improvement between diverse religions, under the entry on religious pluralism.
On the other hand, ecumenism means the aim to reconcile all who profess Christian faith, into a single, visible organization, for example, through union with the Roman Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Church. Ecumenism in this sense focuses on the special problem of the relationship between Christian denominations, where Christianity is dogmatically defined.
The promotion of the unity of Christianity dogmatically defined
For a significantly representative part of the Christian world, the highest aim of the Christian faith is the reconciliation of all divided humanity into a full and conscious union with one Christian Church, visibly united in the sense of governmental accountability between all of its parts and the whole. At a minimum, the desire is expressed in many places by official Christendom, that all who profess faith in Christ in sincerity, would be more fully cooperative and mutually correcting of one another.
Christian ecumenism can be described in terms of the three largest divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. While this underemphasizes the complexity of these divisions, it is a useful model.
Ecumenism for the Eastern Orthodox did not begin with the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council. It is the Eastern Orthodox churches' work to embrace estranged communions as (possibly former) beneficiaries of a common gift, and simultaneously to guard against a promiscuous and false union with them. The history of the relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodox churches is a case in point. Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox have been leaders in the Interfaith movement, and some Orthodox patriarchs enlisted their communions as charter members of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless, the Orthodox have been official non-participants in any redefinition of the Christian faith toward a reduced, minimal, anti-dogmatic and anti-traditional, christianity-lite. Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox is the Church; and the Church is Orthodoxy -- nothing less, and nothing else. Therefore, while Orthodox ecumenism is "open to dialogue with the devil himself", the goal is to reconcile all non-Orthodox back into Orthodoxy.
One way to observe the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards non-Orthodox is to see how they receive new members from other faiths. Non-Christians, such as Buddhists or atheists, who wish to become Orthodox Christians are accepted through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation. Protestants and Roman Catholics are often received through only chrismation, provided they had received a trinitarian baptism. Also Protestants and Roman Catholics are often referred to as "heterodox", which simply means "other believing", rather than as heretics ("other-choosing"), implying that they did not wilfully reject the Church.
Until the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the relationship between Rome and other Christian traditions was basically in deadlock. The traditional view of Roman Catholicism was that "there is no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church". To be sure, such intransigence works both ways, and as a result, ecumenism prior to this important council was only different by degrees from evangelization. However, Vatican II initiated a new era in the serious pursuit of unity between Rome and other dogmatic traditions. This new initiative of ecumenism embraces religious inclusivism as compatible with the ultimate aim of Catholic ecumenism, and simultaneously distances itself from pluralism as the ideal state of Christian unity. Two major documents outline the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism:
- Unitatis Redintegratio (Restoration of Unity: Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism — November 21, 1964, Pope Paul VI)
- Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one: Papal encyclical on Commitment to Ecumenism — May 25, 1995) Pope John Paul II
The ultimate objective toward which these documents direct the Catholic ecumenical task, is nothing other than a complete, conscious communion of all Christians, indeed, of all mankind, in a single faith and one Christian Church, beginning with a conversion of the Catholic people. Ecumenism is essentially catholic renewal.
- "6. Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity..." (UR)
- "The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. On the eve of his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all those who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion. This is the basis not only of the duty, but also of the responsibility before God and his plan, which falls to those who through Baptism become members of the Body of Christ, a Body in which the fullness of reconciliation and communion must be made present." (UUS)
At the same time, the pursuit of renewal is not compatible with a complacent settling into the very patterns of sin that must be removed before renewal can take place.
- "In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the "other side", of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption." (UUS)
- 7. There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way ... The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us". So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us." (UR)
Therefore, ecumenism expresses a central concern of the whole Christian life.
- "How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been "buried" through Baptism in the Lord's death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division? Division "openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature". (UUS quoting UR)
In the pursuit of this ultimate objective, it is necessary to reverse past patterns of hostility, and place the Church in the service of those who are alienated from it. This service cannot paradoxically aim at the destruction of enemies through a deceitful conquest by flattery, but must sincerely desire their benefit in terms that can be immediately understood as such without first requiring the reconciliation of the enemy. Thus, there is compatibility at least in principle, between religious inclusivism, and the ultimate aim of full agreement in the faith, as long as the principle of inclusivism to which the Church adheres is not a contradiction of fidelity to her own calling, but in fact, an expression of it. Therefore, Catholic ecumenism depicts itself as the attempt of the Catholic church to repair a conflict within itself.
The contemporary ecumenical movement for Protestants likely began in 1910, with the opening of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Led by Methodist layman John R. Mott, the conference marked the largest Protestant gathering to that time, with the express purposes of working across denominational lines for the sake of world missions. Eventually, formal organizations were formed, including the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. Protestants have often been leaders of these and other similar groups.
Since that time, Protestants have been involved in a variety of ecumenical groups, working in some cases toward organic denominational unity and in other cases for cooperative purposes alone. Because of the wide spectrum of Protestant denominations and perspectives, full cooperation has been difficult at times.
Some significant modern developments
Catholic and Orthodox bishops in North America are engaged in an ongoing dialogue. They are meeting together periodically as the "North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation". It has been meeting semiannually since it was founded in 1965 under the auspices of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially joined the Consultation as a sponsor in 1997. The Consultation works in tandem with the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops which has been meeting annually since 1981. Since 1999 the Consultation has been discussing the filioque clause, with the hope of eventually reaching an agreed joint statement.
The original anathemas (excommunications) that mark the "official" Great Schism of 1054 between Catholics and Orthodox were mutually revoked in 1965 by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople. But just as the original schism developed over time rather than erupting overnight, reconciliation is proceeding slowly.
Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and Churches Uniting in Christ continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics.
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