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Issue Date:  January 27, 2006

Between hope, despair at ecumenical meeting

Durham, England

Two moments captured the mood swings at a five-day summit on the future of efforts to promote Christian unity, which brought together some of the best ecumenical minds in the English-speaking world on the grounds of a picturesque 19th-century Catholic seminary in Durham, England, Jan. 12-16.

First, at a Jan. 12 Anglican service that opened the conference, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, lined up during the distribution of Communion to receive a blessing from Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright. The simple gesture spoke volumes, in the minds of those who witnessed it, about the mutual respect Anglicans and Catholics today share.

The exchange was hardly revolutionary, since it is standard practice in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues; and, truth be told, after a few moments of patience as the Communion line stalled, Kasper “pulled rank” and moved directly to Wright for his blessing. Nevertheless, the fraternal symbolism packed drama, especially in light of the crisis in Anglican-Catholic relations over the ordination of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in the United States and the approval of a rite for blessing same-sex unions by an Anglican province in Canada.

Wright later said it will be a “treasured memory.”

In the same spirit, Catholic Bishop Kevin Dunn of Hexham and Newcastle, England, invited Wright to preach the homily at a Jan. 14 Catholic Mass, and prayed with Wright before the distribution of Communion.

The second defining moment came toward the end of the conference on Jan. 16, when Dominican Fr. Fergus Kerr, editor of the noted theological journal New Blackfriars, flatly asserted that the Catholic church is so badly divided that “we can’t risk much more ecumenical reception at the present time.” His blunt assessment sobered the audience.

That polarity between hope and despair seemed to hover over much of the Durham gathering, reflecting the troubled recent history of the ecumenical movement.

If the effort to reunite Christians started out as a sprint -- overcoming centuries of prejudice in what seemed the blink of an eye following Vatican II -- it has since evolved into a marathon. Debates over women’s ordination and homosexuality in the West, and the problem of papal primacy with the East, have made the goal of full, visible unity appear at best an eschatological objective.

Moreover, given the strong impulse within Roman Catholicism toward a robust expression of Catholic identity -- what Kasper calls “the rediscovery of the specifically Catholic” -- some Catholics today are ambivalent about the very idea of ecumenism, wondering if it exacts too high a cost in terms of blurring what makes them distinct.

This invitation-only gathering of 140 Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox and a handful of representatives of other traditions sought to answer these challenges. The meeting’s recondite title, “Explorations in Receptive Ecumenism,” expressed a rather simple idea -- that even in the absence of full unity, ecumenism enriches everyone through a mutual exchange of gifts.

Anglicans such as Wright said the title itself, implying that Catholics have something to learn from dialogue, was a relief from the “triumphalism” that many non-Catholics associate with Rome.

Several Catholic bishops took part, including Kasper and Dunn; Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, Scotland; Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville, Australia, co-chair of the international dialogue between Catholics and Methodists; Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia; and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Williams of Liverpool.

How tough a sales pitch an “exchange of gifts” might be became clear on the opening day, when Kasper received an honorary doctorate from Durham University. (The degree was conferred, ironically enough, by the popular American writer Bill Bryson, recently installed as the university’s chancellor. Durham has a history of picking celebrity chancellors; actor Peter Ustinov, for example, held the post from 1992-2004. Bryson spent part of his speech making jokes at the expense of U.S. President George Bush.)

Kasper offered a realistic appraisal of the status quo, acknowledging that differences over women’s ordination and homosexuality have threatened ecumenical relations with Anglicans and Protestants.

“The dividing lines, which have unfortunately become evident on ethical issues since the latter half of the last century, are not secondary or irrelevant for an understanding of the nature of the church,” Kasper said.

“In touching on holiness, they touch on the essential nature of the church itself,” he said.

One sign of the delicacy of Anglican-Catholic relations was the news that a document currently in the works from the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, at one stage envisioned as an official “Common Statement” of faith between the two sides, will instead be distributed simply as an informal “working paper.”

Yet Kasper was hopeful, adding that it is not yet clear if the new divisions are questions of pastoral approach or of doctrine.

While efforts were made to invite experts across a range of disciplines and perspectives to Durham, the center of gravity was clearly on the left, and several participants lamented what they see as an unhealthy concentration of power in Rome, a culture of clericalism, and what former Jesuit Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University in Connecticut called an “infantalized” laity.

Frustration was often palpable.

“I am deeply convinced that the big issue upon which the future of the church depends is collegiality,” Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Örsy of Georgetown University said at one point. “It’s the only way to break through this excessive centralization.”

Dominican Sr. Geraldine Smyth of the Irish School of Ecumenics warned of a trend towards a “hardened canopy of identity.”

Several participants expressed dissatisfaction, and even personal pain, over the inability of Catholics and Protestants to share the Eucharist. John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet, called it “intolerable.”

Others complained about what they saw as abuses of ecclesiastical authority.

One, a female scripture scholar in Ireland, said she had been blocked from a teaching appointment in her own country because she’s a woman. She also said a colleague had been denied permission for a teaching appointment after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith flagged one of his essays, which pointed out that Mary Magdalene was called the “apostle to the apostles” because, in John 20, she was the first to announce the resurrection of Christ. That was enough, the scholar said, for the Vatican to fear her colleague was soft on the ban on women’s ordination.

Fr. Patrick Connolly of the University of Limerick, Ireland, spoke on accountability for bishops.

“Catholics have beautiful language about the church, but there’s a gap between the rhetoric and reality,” Connolly said, citing the sexual abuse crisis in particular.

Many participants argued that ecumenical progress is dependent upon Catholic reforms, especially concerning the Vatican and the papacy.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, former editor of America magazine, said that the Catholic church needs ecumenism in order to reform itself, since it’s often easier for Protestants to talk to the Vatican than for some Catholic theologians.

Yet alongside the umbrage were streaks of optimism.

“Changing a culture [inside the church] is a difficult exercise, but it is changing,” Conti said. “Look at the degree to which we can associate and cooperate. We’re pushing in a direction the church is already going.”

Fr. Paul McPartlan, an English priest and visiting professor at The Catholic University of America, offered as an example of fruitful exchange the “Eucharistic ecclesiology” that Vatican II developed, in part out of contact with Orthodoxy. He said this focus on the Eucharist also opens up a cosmological perspective potentially helpful in light of the ecological crisis.

James Sweeney, a Catholic sociologist at Cambridge, argued that dialogue with other traditions such as Methodism could help Catholics cope with the current tendency towards congregationalism, meaning a strong emphasis on the local church, since those traditions have “centuries of experience with the pitfalls of congregationalism, and have built in safeguards against it.”

Putney said that the Australian Catholic bishops learned from other Christian churches in their response to the sexual abuse crisis. In his diocese, he said, when a complaint arises, people from other Christian bodies are often brought in to help respond.

Fr. Donald Bolen, an official of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that the experience of 40 years of dialogue between churches is itself a “foretaste” of full communion.

“We meet together, eat together, pray together and recreate together,” he said. “We become a stable and trusting group of Christian friends.”

One unresolved issue was that of theological method in ecumenical exchange.

Basically, the question is whether denominations such as the Catholic church can legitimately use their own doctrinal formula, such as those found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to evaluate the results of dialogue, or whether all participants have to find a new language to articulate common statements of faith.

Mary Tanner, an Anglican laywoman and a pioneer of ecumenical work, described the ecumenical method as a joint return to the sources of the faith, especially scripture, with the parties then expressing their shared faith in new terms.

“Neither party can expect to find its own internal language,” she said.

Yet, Tanner argued, when Anglicans and Catholics began in the 1980s to evaluate the first round of dialogue, they generally did so through the lens of their traditional formulae -- in a sense, she said, missing the point.

Bolen observed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said that it is not in principle opposed to the use of new language, but the language must be free of ambiguity to make it clear that the same faith is being expressed.

In the end, the general determination in Durham seemed to be to press ahead.

Perhaps the most hopeful note was struck by Kasper, who said he was confident God will bring the ecumenical movement to fruition, albeit in God’s own manner and time.

“The ecumenical movement and its theology are something like the building site of the future structure of the church,” Kasper said, “where the one undivided church of the first millennium and the divided church of the second millennium are to be become the one reconciled unity of the third millennium.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 2006

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