Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010: Is Ecumenism Boring?

image Ecumenism is boring. In the same journal article I discussed in yesterday’s post, Dr Andrew Pierce quotes Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, who called ecumenism the ‘great yawn of our time,’ and H.A. Williams, who dismissed ecumenism as the ‘last refuge of the ecclesiastical bore.’

My husband, a marketer by trade, reckons that ecumenism is in desperate need of ‘re-branding.’

My School’s recent surveys of faith in Ireland revealed a range of opinions about ecumenism, ranging from boredom to confusion, from enthusiasm to hostility.

Indeed, some people who responded to the surveys said they didn’t really know what ecumenism is, or that they only time they had heard it referred to was in the Father Ted catchphrase – ‘That would be an ecumenical matter!’

Perhaps in Northern Ireland, ecumenism is less boring than in other places, its controversial character kept alive by Free Presbyterian protests at ecumenical services and events.

That said, most anti-ecumenism protests no longer make big news. A woman active locally in ecumenism has told me that when ignored, the anti-ecumenists go away a lot quicker than they used to, and that they don’t have the oxygen of media attention that they once had.

Our surveys also found that in the Republic of Ireland 70% of laypeople had positive conceptions of ecumenism, while in Northern Ireland 58% had positive conceptions. Just 8% in the Republic and 14% in Northern Ireland had negative conceptions of ecumenism.

While there was likely some skewing in our survey responses towards people who ‘like’ ecumenism, I think ecumenists can take some heart from these results. In my marketing husband’s terms, ecumenism has had some good ‘PR.’

But on the other hand, people’s positive conceptions could be a result of Irish ecumenism’s non-threatening ‘community relations’-type character. One person survey said that ecumenism is ‘politically correct.’ Yes, we can all agree that we should be nice to one another, and those strange ecumenists somewhere far away seem to be doing that. So why wouldn’t we think well of them, if we bother to think about them at all?

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Tim Moore observed that ecumenism has been orientated towards church institutions. Dr Pierce also makes this point, identifying routinised and bureaucratised institutions as one of six factors contributing to ecumenism’s boring image:

  • it is dull – its charism has become routinised and bureaucratised;
  • it is a cumbersome movement, difficult to understand or to participate in; 
  • it has bred professional ecumenists who like that sort of thing and who can keep the show on the road without disturbing the rest of us unduly;
  • it lacks academic, theological teeth; and
  • it is part of a now-passé modernist project with which we post-moderns need not concern ourselves (unless, of course, we are historians of quaint modern religious projects).

Despite this, our surveys revealed that 25% of laypeople thought that faith communities should devote 11-25% of their time (as a percentage per year) to ecumenical activities. This is quite a significant commitment. It contrasts to the clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders, who were more likely to say that less than 10% of their time should be spent on ecumenical matters.

Further, laypeople are less likely than clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders to say they are actually involved in ecumenical activities, but they are more likely to say that they think faith communities should spend more time on ecumenism.

Laypeople are also more likely than clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders to say that they are unsure how much time faith communities should devote to ecumenical activities, or what those activities should be.

Dr Pierce writes that: “the question ‘what more can we do?’ is one that we hear a good deal” [from laypeople]. That’s a question, I suspect, that has many possible answers. If pursued by devoted laypeople and leaders alike, figuring it out might even infuse ecumenism with some excitement.

(Photo from bouave, flickr photo-sharing)

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