Whether I agree or disagree with him, Fr. Stephen Freeman’s writing is always brilliant. His recent posts under the label “Un-Ecumenism” are no exception (found here, here, and here). Freeman argues that one of the effects of modernity is a watering down of classical Christian ecclesiology. He makes a number of valid points about the rise of the nation state as a replacement for the Church and the absurdity of the notion of an invisible Church in which people who are bound through no tangible, sacramental union are still supposed to pretend that an abstract union based on good sentiment exists. Nonetheless, Freeman’s analysis begins to fall flat when he adds ecumenism into the mix.
The main thrust of Freeman’s critique seems to be that ecumenism by its very nature assumes an equivocation about where the boundaries of the Church are to be found. The closest he comes to a direct description of this problem is when he describes what he believes to be Roman Catholicism’s moment of surrender to modernity:
The pressure of ecumenism (which is not about unity but about diminishing the ecclesiology of the faith) has been felt deeply within Roman Catholicism. The document Lumen Gentium in Vatican II, declares that the Mystical Body of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church, thus no longer saying that the two are one and the same. It seemed a gesture of generosity, but it was a capitulation to the centuries-old demands of modernity.
I will return to Lumen Gentium in a moment, but first it is necessary to ask whether Freeman’s basic description of ecumenism is correct. Is it true that ecumenism exists to promote a false unity at the expense of a genuine ecclesiology?
Orthodoxy and Ecumenism
“The success of modernity has been to reduce The Church into an idea, a concept,” says Freeman. He cites as examples everything from the general drift of denominationalism to the movement towards things like the misleadingly named “open Communion.” I would not deny for a second that such things are outgrowths of a long post-enlightenment drift towards more and more individualism mixed with less and less of a sense that tradition has a voice worth hearing. In many ways, what Freeman criticizes here is not much different from what I have criticized elsewhere as the distinctly American (and post-enlightenment) development of generic Protestantism, an idea that would have flummoxed even the Protestant Reformers.
Still, it seems a stretch to say that ecumenism is identical with all of this drift. Freeman writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, yet he does not acknowledge just how deeply indebted to the contributions of Orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the Roman Catholic Church has never been an official member of the World Council of Churches, for instance, most of the Orthodox Churches have been members right from the organization’s founding in 1948. The most immediate predecessor to the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, was at one time a delegate to the WCC and a member of the organization’s Central Committee. Likewise, many people attribute the 1920 Encyclical “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere” by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as being the starting point for the Ecumenical Movement’s development.
Anglicans and Orthodox
We can see the contributions to ecumenism by the Orthodox far earlier by examining the relationship between Anglicans and Orthodox. While there had been exchanges with the Orthodox going back even to the Non-Jurors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic revival in nineteenth century Anglicanism became a major catalyst for the development of relationships between Anglicans and the Orthodox. The great ritualist John Mason Neale revered Orthodoxy. He wrote a history of the Orthodox Churches that remains influential even today and he traveled to Russia to establish some of the first ecumenical ties. In 1864, the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association was founded to encourage mutual dialog. Later, through the efforts and friendship of Episcopal Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton and Russian Orthodox Bishop (and later Patriarch and canonized saint) Tikhon, the groundwork was laid for a flourishing relationship.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, many Orthodox found themselves as refugees living in the west where they encountered other forms of Christianity for the first time. In 1927, a young Russian refugee in England named Nicolas Zernov helped to found a series of conferences in which Orthodox and Anglicans were able to learn more about one another. It was through these conferences that the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius was born. From the beginning, the goal of the Fellowship was not merely education but sobornost, a Russian word meaning a deep spiritual cooperation between peoples in which individualism is given up and a striving for common faith is carried out. The goal of the Fellowship, in other words, was communion, not through some facile ignoring of differences, but through the hard work of sacrifice and love out of which true unity is born. That this communion has yet to be fully realized does not invalidate the work that has been done towards its end.
Ecumenism as Death to Self
This is where the heart of ecumenism lies and where it differs dramatically from what Freeman describes. True ecumenism acknowledges the differences that divide us, but it also names that division for the sin that it is. True ecumenism does not begin with me saying to you, “What will you do to be worthy of me,” but rather begins with each of us saying, “Let us understand one another better, in order that we may learn to serve each other more fully.”
In his most recent post in the series, Freeman takes a fair number of pot shots at Anglicanism, complaining that Thomas Cranmer was more “political” than “spiritual” and that the Book of Common Prayer helped to enshrine a Protestant sense that the unity of the Church need not lie in concrete realities:
But with Cranmer, and the other reformers, something new was set forth. There simply was no longer an expectation of the One Church. There were no particular efforts to form a single Protestant or Reformed Church. Something fundamentally new came into the world.
In addition to being uncharitable, there are a blistering number of historical inaccuracies in just these few lines. First, the Church of England understood herself as the same church after the Reformation as before, the Catholic Church of the English nation, reformed but not destroyed and rebuilt. Second, Cranmer and others did seek out ties of unity within the One Church, an effort that did not meet with immediate success but which bore fruit in later centuries as I have shown above. Third, there were many efforts amongst Protestant churches to find unity with one another for the sake of the one Church, all of which have been well documented. That Freeman would not know these things, especially as a former Episcopalian himself, is baffling, but it only serves to underline the need for more ecumenism rather than its abolition. We cannot even begin to sacrifice for each other if we do not know each other, including knowing each other’s history, and in recent years there has been a tendency amongst Christians of many traditions for us to crawl back into our holes and defend our turf rather than to remain in difficult and sometimes painful relationships for the sake of the Gospel.
Us and Them
The difficulty for Orthodox Christians is in squaring the circle of how to make sense of Christian gifts of grace existing outside of the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church. Many centuries of persecution, division, and the lack of any means of communication made it possible for the Orthodox not to have to deal with the question of what to do with the rest of us, but now that the world has become smaller and more interconnected than ever, it is something that Orthodoxy must face, just as we all must.
Freeman regards Lumen Gentium as the Catholic Church giving up on the notion that she is the One Church, but in fact Lumen Gentium is a bold and brilliant attempt to deal with this reality of God’s abounding, lavish gifts of grace. In the document’s own words, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Church’s] visible structure” and “these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” The approach of Vatican II is to no longer ignore the graces that God is granting to other Christian communities, but instead to say that the signs of vibrant Christian faith and life seen outside of the Church have been given by God for the benefit of the Church herself, which is why the Church must always be striving to bring into communion those who have become separated. The compelling reason for engaging in ecumenism is not only for those who are not yet a part of the Church, but also for the enriching of the Church herself.
Of course, Anglicans will balk at pieces of that definition, but the point is that it is possible to engage deeply with what God is doing in the life of other Christian communities without losing the essential claims of your own tradition. Lumen Gentium may not be perfect, but it opened a door that has allowed for a moving closer among Christians in the last half century, a casting off of old prejudices and a willingness for us to find our way to the union that God calls us into in the One Church. What Lumen Gentium has shown is that it is possible to acknowledge the need for ecumenism without either letting go of the claim of the oneness of the Church or the visible, tangible reality of the Church. The only way to find fault with that is if we believe that there are no graces at all being given to Christians different from ourselves, which seems a claim so self-evidently false as to be unworthy of reply.
It requires neither a capitulation to modernity nor a degree in biblical theology to say that Our Lord would rather that all those who call upon His name be united in the One Church and that all the gifts that He gives are for the benefit of that Church. Ecumenism is not a call to individualism and abstraction. It is a call to the hard work of sacrifice in which we give ourselves for each other, to each other, for the sake of each other. It is the call for us to look away from ourselves and towards Our Lord who set the example for us by carrying the cross. He offers us that same cross, not as a burden but as a gift, that we might learn to share with each other what we share already in Him, forgiveness and a washing clean so that we may be presented as a spotless bride.