Four Basic Principles of Ecumenism

 — Feb. 8, 20118 févr. 2011

When I moved to Saskatoon sixteen years ago, I was surprised by the ecumenical interest that I encountered in the churches. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Saskatoon has the only ecumenical centre in Canada which focuses on parish ecumenism. This diocese has a history of ecumenical cooperation and experimentation that goes back to our earliest settlements. Over the years I have discovered that at the core of the prairie ecumenical experience there are some basic principles that provide guidance and insight to the search for Christian unity here, just as they do throughout the church. These principles are found in our own experience, but they are rooted in our biblical and doctrinal convictions about Christian faith and life. I think we experience these in a particularly unique way in Saskatchewan.

The church is already one

In scripture we find our first principle that the church is one. There is one faith, one, Lord, one baptism (Eph. 4). In Christ there is no division, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man (Gal. 3). Despite divisions that have arisen between our churches, the church of Christ is undivided. For some Christians this means that behind our visible divisions there is an invisible unity, a true church that is undivided. Catholics will want to avoid sharp distinctions between a visible and invisible church out of our conviction that Christ is present in the world and is experienced in the life and mission of the church, in the sacraments, and in the life of prayer. Unity is not a spiritual bond between warring factions but a visible expression in this world of the unity of the Triune God: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21). Since the church is already one, our ecumenical task is not to make unity in the church community. The unity is already there. Our task is to allow God to act in and through the Christian churches to express the unity for which Christ prayed.

The unity of the church is not our work, it is Christ’s work

A scripture text that I find particularly helpful is from Ephesians 2. Unlike the other apostles, Paul’s mission was to the gentiles. He above all others is responsible for the mission to convert the Greeks to Christianity. Yet he insists that it is not his work but Christ’s. Christ has broken down dividing walls between Jew and gentile, he creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two, reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross (Eph 2). Throughout Paul’s letters we read of Paul’s reluctance to take credit for any of the work that he does, it is all Christ’s work in and through him. Catholics have always understood our mission is to be Christ’s hands and feet, to give our service as an offering to God in fulfillment of Christ’s mission to sanctify and redeem the world. The ecumenical task of the church then is not to build unity in our own image, but to discover the ways in which Christ is already manifesting or incarnating the unity of the church.

Christian unity requires conversion

Pope John Paul II described ecumenical commitment as a conversion, a true change not only of heart and mind but within our souls, a change such that we desire what Christ desires. Christ’s desire for unity among his disciples is integral to Christ’s vision of the church that is his body. Ecumenism cannot therefore be an appendix, an added task to an already busy mission as Christians. An ecumenical vision must infuse all aspects of Christian life and mission.

The Groupe des Dombes is a group of Catholic and Reformed theologians, clergy, monks, and lay people in France. Their reflection on ecumenical conversion points to an important aspect of the pope’s teaching. Ecumenical conversion is not simply a matter of personal experience. Just as the faith and holiness of the church are expressed in both personal and communal dimensions, so too, ecumenical conversion must reach into the depths of our community. The Groupe des Dombes refers to this as the “conversion of the churches.” They do not mean that the churches should all change to become the same, but that the churches must all turn towards the one who is the author of our unity. It is in Christ that the churches together find unity and become the body of Christ in the world.

The heart of the ecumenical movement is prayer

An ecumenical pioneer, Cardinal Mercier of Malines, Belgium is famous for his testament: “In order to unite with one another, we must love one another. In order to love one another, we must know one another. In order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”

As we consider the ecumenical task before us, we might be inspired to recognize that this is not a journey in which we are alone. We are together as churches on this journey, but we walk together with Christ, as on the road to Emmaus. This is a pilgrimage in which we will recognize Christ in one another in mission and ministry to the world. In pilgrimage we are guided by the Spirit as we walk together. Like any pilgrimage we discover ourselves and our fellow pilgrims in sharing life and conversation, but most profoundly by sharing together in prayer.

Prayer for Christian Unity takes many forms. Most visibly, we pray together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, normally in January each year. However, the resources developed for this week may be used at any time of the year and may be adapted to local needs. Other ways that you might work for Christian unity include:

Posted: Feb. 8, 2011 • Permanent link:
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