Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010: Can Ecumenism Be Born Again?

‘Born Again,’ is a term that is used derisively in Ireland to denote conservative evangelical Christians. Outsiders sometimes refer to them collectively as ‘the born agains,’ with either a smirk or a sigh, signalling their disagreement with their religion and most likely their politics.

It saddens me that ‘born again’ has become such a by-word. After all, at a metaphorical level the idea of being born again is compellingly powerful. The phrase captures the great transformative potential available to human beings who are willing to open their minds to new ideas and experiences and set off on a path that can change them so completely that their lives seem entirely new.

January 25th is the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and traditionally the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There is of course symbolic significance in this, reminding Christians of the need for a fresh conversion to the ideals of the ecumenical movement.

It is calling Christians, so long trapped behind the walls of their denominational ghettos, to be ‘born again’ to a broader and deeper conception of Christianity that cherishes the faith in all its richness and diversity.

Now, that is most likely not the kind of conversion that conservative evangelicals have in mind when they print tracts and put up signs throughout Northern Ireland, urging us that ‘ye must be born again.’ But that doesn’t mean that conservative evangelicals should have a monopoly on one of the best slogans!

In the January 2010 edition of the journal Doctrine and Life, Fr. Michael Hurley, founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, offers some ‘Thoughts for Unity Week.’ Hurley notes that the original motto of the ecumenical movement, birthed out of the 1910 missionary conference in Edinburgh, is ‘that the world may believe.’

Fr. Hurley argues that disunity among Christians has contributed in no small part to what might be perceived as Christianity’s increasing irrelevance in the West, writing:

‘If the movement has as its whole object ‘that the world may believe’, if it is true that disunity leads to disbelief what about the damage resulting from our apathy, our lack of participation [in the ecumenical movement]? If we passively accept our disunity as Churches, are we not making ourselves responsible to some extent for the ensuing missionary, evangelistic loss, for the ensuing unfruitfulness of our apostolate, for the resulting climate of unbelief and secularism, for the depression and hopelessness which lead so many of our young people to commit suicide? If we passively accept our Christian disunity are we not making ourselves responsible to some extent for our declining congregations, for the failure to overcome the injustice and violence of our world, to solve the grave social problems that bedevil our country?’

An old-fashioned view of Christian unity (and one still rumbling about in the popular consciousness) is that ecumenism means melting all the various denominations down into a signal church institution. This is something that no contemporary ecumenical theologian advocates. Opponents of ecumenism sometimes trot out the spectre of the ‘one world church’, like a bogeyman, to frighten people who might otherwise be interested in learning more from and working with their fellow Christians. Christian unity need not be institutional, and given the decay and corruption to which religious institutions are so prone, I think it would be quite dangerous if it was.

So what might it mean to be converted or born again to a renewed ecumenism in contemporary Ireland, one that transcends the institutions of our traditional denominational boundaries and does not seek to make everybody believe and practice their faith in the same way?

Fr. Hurley suggests a good place to start:

‘… just as our personal salvation seems to require an experience of inadequacy, as suggested by Paul in the seventh chapter of Romans, so our ecumenical salvation, our commitment to the cause of ecumenism, seems to demand as a prior condition that we experience our inadequacy as Anglicans, as Baptists, as Catholics, as Methodists, as Orthodox, as Presbyterians. We must apparently first come to see and feel and realize and accept that being fully Christian is too much for our own mere denominational resources; that the Christianity which we know and practice in any one of the divided Churches is imperfect and partial, not good enough; that the Churches to be the Church need each other. This indeed, as the disciples once said, “is a hard saying and who can hear it, who can stomach it?”’

2 thoughts on “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010: Can Ecumenism Be Born Again?”

  1. Interesting thoughts on ecumenism in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Gladys. I now have a copy of Andrew Pierce’s paper (thanks to inter-library loans!) and I can certainly see the predicament of the URC, which I discussed in my previous comment, in the “difficulties” which Pierce identifies, particularly points 1 and 3. The idea of an essential unity that Pierce explores – a “communion” found in the recognition of others’ Christianity and the spirit that accompanies loving co-operation – is not a new one: I know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer also dealt with similar themes in his writings. The “communion” of all Christian believers has certainly been forgotten about in recent years of ecumenical undertaking.

    Hilary Wakeman is a retired Church of Ireland priest and convenor of the Open Christianity Network Ireland. In her recently published book “No Ordinary God – Notes from the Far West of Ireland” she also notes the trend away from encouraging institutional unity and writes, “If ecumenism cannot come from the top, let it come from the bottom, from the grassroots” (p145). In order for the grassroots of the Church to work together, there need to be good community relations This is why I feel that the “good community relations” are still necessary to achieving an inner and outward ecumenical unity within the whole Church. Perhaps the churches, in Ireland as well as the UK, have needed to concentrate on this before moving on to the more “imaginative” actions that Pierce believes are required.

    To me, practising ecumenism from its spiritual core demands that we seek to include members of non-creedal movements such as the Quakers, Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, and Unitarians (the latter of which I belong to). These movements do not hold common beliefs as a collective (although I doubt that any other church does, either) but include members identifying themselves as Christian, who may or may not be comfortable with orthodox Christian concepts of Trinty, Incarnation, or the necessity of baptism.

    Perhaps Andrew Pierce’s idea of holding infant baptisms in rotating venues wouldn’t work (as he admits), because re-imagining ecumenism means re-imagining where Christian unity actually lies, even peeling back the layers from notions of common baptism or Trinity. Pierce’s proposal, however, is an example of the imagination that the Church needs, in order to work together and live out its essential unity in ways not previously imagined.

    Fr Michael Hurley is quoted thus: “We must apparently first[…] realize and accept that being fully Christian is too much for our own mere denominational resources; that the Christianity which we know and practice in any one of the divided Churches is imperfect and partial, […] that the Churches to be the Church need each other.” In relationto this, Hilary Wakeman recounts her personal experience of a growing phenomenon which might indicate one way that ecumenism is being re-imagined and lived out at the present time:

    “Increasingly, as I get older, I am impatient with the barriers between the churches, especially on a personal level. Why should we only go to the church services of the church we ‘belong’ to? Why shouldn’t we be Catholic AND Protestant, or Anglican AND Quaker, or Methodist AND Catholic?” (No Ordinary God p144, emphasis altered)

  2. I knew there’d be something! As a correction, I ought to point out that Hilary Wakeman’s book is actually entitled
    “The Ordinary God: Notes from the Far West of Ireland”,
    and is published by The Liffey Press (Dublin, 2009)

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