Friday, October 05, 2012

The wake of ecumenism

My preceding post about Episcopalian vs Catholic in San Francisco got me thinking about "ecumenism", a word coming from the Greek oikomene, meaning "the known and inhabited world."

Back in the heady 60's and even 70's, the "ecumenical movement" was full of hope that somehow the divisions among the various Christian bodies could be overcome. Almost overnight, as a result of Vatican II, people who had been classed as "heretics and schismatics" became merely "separated brethren"...a phrase that itself became antique rather fast.

Well, fast forward to 50 years later and, with the exception of the Orthodox, I see the only "movement" in Christian bodies as more generally polite in tone, with a few theoretical achievements, but with no more prospect of full communion than was true in 1955. Far less, in fact.

The Apostolic Churches...the bodies that trace their corporate origins, without rupture, to the beginnings...constitute about 2/3 of Christians in the world: the Catholics and the Orthodox, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian. For all these groups, however much they differ in style and government, even a few doctrines, what they share is a rock-bottom sense of The Church as a dogmatic-sacramental-hierarchical whole. Fundamental beliefs are not up for discussion, the sacraments --the Eucharist especially-- are primary, and all of them claim a continuing sacramental priesthood of bishops, priests and deacons going back to the Apostles.

Among these groups there has been some amazing theological convergences, principally the acceptance by the Roman Pope and the Byzantine Patriarch that the non-Chalcedonians' beliefs about Christ are --despite language and cultural differences-- essentially the same as the Chalcedonians. And although at the leadership level there has been a good deal of friendliness, on the popular level, which includes a lot of priests and monks, emotional distance --resentment and suspicion-- remains high.

The Reformation Churches constitute another 1/3 of the Christian world: those bodies that originated in decisive breaks with Rome in the 16th century, and their numerous descendants all over the world now, as a result of the missionary activity that was part of the European empires. All these bodies broke the chain of the priesthood --on a sacramental, hierarchical and dogmatic level-- by replacing its authority with the Bible: sola scriptura. The Catholic position remains clear (and I know of no Orthodox who contest it), that without priests, there is no Eucharist and therefore no actual Church, simply groups of baptized Christians or "ecclesial bodies" but not The Church.

The Anglicans once had some claim to being a bridge group: essentially Catholic but Reformed. English Dominican Aidan Nichols claims that the Church of England was always really three churches: a kind of continuing but reformed Catholic one, a clearly Protestant one, and a marginally Christian Liberal one. In its current state, with female and gay bishops, no Apostolic Church would ever recognize it as a complete Church with actual priests and a valid Eucharist. And its real, as opposed to paper, belief is pretty well being reduced to the very recent and secular ideal (or idol) of "radical inclusion.": the outward trappings of Catholicism and an inner faith of Liberalism. It is far too internally fragmented to make any kinds of agreements. What Ex Cathedra calls Unitarianism in drag.

In the egalitarian trances of the last half century, it's been fun for Christians to focus on what's common, but when you try to grapple with what's real, the differences remain and they are non-trivial. So "ecumenism" seems to me largely a matter of diplomatic nicety and public relations, hardly a serious enterprise anymore. Its only justified continuance is among the Apostolic Churches: Rome and the East.

The spat between the Episcopal bishop of SF and the new Roman archbishop of SF shows the tense realities underneath the usual public post-60's style. As does the papal creation of the Anglican ordinariates.

Ecumenism, at least in Europe and America, was infected with Sixtyishness, the fuzzy belief that it is more important to be pleasant than to deal with reality.
It continues now with stupid Christian "inter-faith dialogue" with Islam, a self-confident and unapologetic religion that was never infected with Nice.

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