Ecumenism (from the Greek οἰκουμένη meaning "the inhabited world") refers to initiatives aimed at greater religious co-operation, among different groups, especially and primarily within the Christian faith. The "Ecumenical Movement" came to prominence in the twentieth century as a coalition of like-minded groups seeking to restore religious fellowship that had been lost with the fragmentation of the Church into different groups.
Historically, the term "ecumenical" was originally used in the context of large ecumenical councils that were organized under the auspices of Roman Emperors to clarify matters of Christian theology and doctrine. These "Ecumenical Councils" brought together bishops from around the inhabited world (such as, οἰκουμένη) as they knew it at the time. There were a total of seven ecumenical councils accepted by both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism held before the Great Schism. Thus, the modern meaning of the world "ecumenical" and "ecumenism" derives from this pre-modern sense of Christian unity, and the impulse to recreate this unity again.
Today, the word "Ecumenism" can be used in three different ways:
The term "Ecumenism" mostly refers to the narrow sense, that of greater co-operation among Christian groups without aiming for unity. Christian ecumenism is distinguished from theological pluralism, which does not necessarily search for common ground.
Christian ecumenism is an outgrowth of Jesus' commandments to love one's neighbor as oneself, and to make both love and unity the first and foremost principles in Christian practice. Predicated on proactively responding to Jesus' admonition to be "One in Him," (John 17; also Philippians 2), Christians are encouraged to reach out to estranged members of faith in other churches.
According to Edmund Schlink, most important in Christian ecumenism is that people focus primarily on Christ, not on separate church organizations. In his book, Ökumenische Dogmatik (1983), he says Christians who see the risen Christ at work in the lives of various Christians and in diverse churches, realize that the unity of Christ's church has never been lost, but has instead been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences and by spiritual myopia. Both are overcome in renewed faith in Christ.
For a significant part of the Christian world, the highest aim of the Christian faith is the reconciliation of all humanity into a full and conscious union as one Christian Church, visibly united with mutual accountability between the parts and the whole. The desire is expressed by many denominations of Christendom, that all who profess faith in Christ in sincerity, would be more fully cooperative and supportive of one another.
However, this raised an often parroted misunderstanding about ecumenism in the global context among world religions. Interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one anothe,r but simply seeks to promote better relations. It promotes toleration, mutual respect, and cooperation, whether among Christian denominations, or between Christianity and other faiths.
Like the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church has always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow Christians, and at the same time to reject any promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to, or glossing over, the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the main stress was laid on this second aspect, as exemplified in canon 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law:
The 1983 Code of Canon Law has no corresponding canon. It absolutely forbids Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (canon 908), but allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. And the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102 states: "Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state."
Pope John XXIII, who convoked the Council that brought this change of emphasis about, said that the Council's aim was to seek renewal of the Church itself, which would serve, for those separated from the See of Rome, as a "gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father."
Some elements of the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism are illustrated in the following quotations from the Council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio of November 21, 1964, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint of May 25, 1995.
Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity … There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble. gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. … The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us.
The commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord's disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today.
In ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.
The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? …Even so, doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it.
While some Eastern Orthodox Churches commonly baptize converts from the Catholic Church, thereby refusing to recognize the baptism that the converts have previously received, the Catholic Church has always accepted the validity of all the sacraments administered by the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
For some Catholics, ecumenism may have the goal of reconciling all who profess Christian faith to bring them into a single, visible organization; such as through union with the Roman Catholic Church, whereas for many Protestants spiritual unity suffices.
Both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church work to embrace estranged communions as (possibly former) beneficiaries of a common gift, and simultaneously to guard against a promiscuous and false union with them. The Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches, whose divisions date back to the fifth century, have in recent years moved towards theological agreement, though short of full communion. Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox have been leaders in the Interfaith movement, with students active in the World Student Christian Federation since the late nineteenth century and some Orthodox patriarchs enlisting their communions as charter members of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless, the Orthodox have not been willing to participate in any redefinition of the Christian faith toward a reduced, minimal, anti-dogmatic, and anti-traditional Christianity. Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox is the Church; and the Church is Orthodoxy—nothing less. Therefore, while Orthodox ecumenism is "open to dialogue with the devil himself," the goal is to reconcile all non-Orthodox back into Orthodoxy.
One way to observe the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards non-Orthodox is to see how they receive new members from other faiths. Non-Christians, such as Buddhists or atheists, who wish to become Orthodox Christians are accepted through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation. Protestants and Roman Catholics are sometimes received through Chrismation only, provided they had received a trinitarian baptism. Also, Protestants and Roman Catholics are often referred to as "heterodox," which simply means "other believing," rather than as heretics ("other-choosing"), implying that they did not willfully reject the Church.
The contemporary ecumenical movement for Protestants is often said to have started with the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. However, this conference would not have been possible without the pioneering ecumenical work of the Christian youth movements: The Young Men's Christian Association (founded 1844), the Young Women's Christian Association (founded 1855) and the World Student Christian Federation (founded 1895). Led by Methodist layman John R. Mott (former YMCA staff and in 1910, the General Secretary of WSCF), the World Mission conference marked the largest Protestant gathering to that time, with the express purposes of working across denominational lines for the sake of world missions. After the First World War further developments were the "Faith and Order" movement led by Charles Henry Brent, and the "Life and Work" movement led by Nathan Soderblom.
Eventually, formal organizations were formed, including the World Council of Churches in 1948, the National Council of Churches in the USA in 1950, and Churches Uniting in Christ in 2002. These groups are moderate to liberal, theologically speaking, as Protestants are generally more liberal and less traditional than Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.
Protestants are now involved in a variety of ecumenical groups, working, in some cases, toward organic denominational unity and in other cases for cooperative purposes alone. Because of the wide spectrum of Protestant denominations and perspectives, full cooperation has been difficult at times. Edmund Schlink's Ökumenische Dogmatik proposes a way through these problems to mutual recognition and renewed church unity.
In 1999, the representatives of Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, resolving the conflict over the nature of Justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation, although some conservative Lutherans did not agree to this resolution. On July 18, 2006, the Delegates to the World Methodist Conference voted unanimously to adopt the Joint Declaration.
The original anathemas (excommunications) that mark the "official" Great Schism of 1054, between Catholics and Orthodox, were mutually revoked in 1965, by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The year 2006 saw a resumption of the series of meetings for theological dialogue between representatives of the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, suspended because of failure to reach agreement on the question of the Eastern Catholic Churches, a question exacerbated by disputes over churches and other property that the Communist authorities once assigned to the Orthodox Church but whose restoration these Churches have not obtained from the present authorities.
Catholic and Orthodox bishops in North America are engaged in an ongoing dialogue. They are meeting together periodically as the "North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation." It has been meeting semi-annually since it was founded in 1965, under the auspices of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially joined the Consultation as a sponsor in 1997. The Consultation works in tandem with the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops which has been meeting annually since 1981. Since 1999, the Consultation has been discussing the Filioque clause, with the hope of eventually reaching an agreed joint statement.
Similar dialogues at both international and national level continue between, for instance, Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Influenced by the ecumenical movement, the "scandal of separation" and local developments, a number of United and Uniting churches have formed; there are also a range of mutual recognition strategies being practiced where formal union is not feasible. An increasing trend has been the sharing of church buildings by two or more denominations, either holding separate services or a single service with elements of all traditions.
Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches USA, Churches Uniting in Christ, and Christian Churches Together continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics. There are universities, such as the University of Bonn in Germany, that offer degree courses in Ecumenical Studies, in which theologians of various denominations teach their respective traditions and, at the same time, seek for common ground between these traditions.
A sizable minority of Christians oppose ecumenism. They tend to be from churches of fundamentalist or charismatic backgrounds and strongly conservative sections of mainline Protestant churches. Greek Old Calendarists claim that the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils forbid changing the church calendar through abandonment of the Julian calendar. They regard ecumenism as compromising essential doctrinal stands in order to accommodate other Christians, and object to the emphasis on dialogue leading to intercommunion rather than conversion on the part of participants in ecumenical initiatives. The Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece, organized a meeting in September 2004, entitled, "The Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference 'Ecumenism: Origins—Expectations—Disenchantment.'" Traditional Catholics also see ecumenism as aiming at a false pan-Christian religious unity which does not require non-Catholics to convert to the Catholic faith. Traditional Catholics see this as a contradiction to Catholic interpretations of the Bible, Pope Pius XI's Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XII's Humani Generis, and other documents. Some evangelical and many charismatic Christians view ecumenism as a sign of end times apostasy before Jesus Christ's return as prophesied in the Bible, and see substantial similarities between the doctrinal stance of end-times false teachers, as described in 2 Peter 2:1-2, and the theological pronouncements of certain leaders of ecumenical movements.
A majority of Evangelical churches, including most Baptists, Seventh-day adventists, non-denominational Christians, and Evangelical Christian denominations like the Christian and Missionary Alliance church, do not participate in the ecumenical movements. The doctrine of separation is adopted by some Evangelical churches towards churches and denominations that have joined ecumenical activities. Many Pentecostals, such as Assemblies of God, shun ecumenism, but some organizations, including some Pentecostal churches, do participate in ecumenism. Some of the more conservative Evangelicals and Pentecostals view interdenominational activities or organizations in more conservative circles such as the National Association of Evangelicals or Promise Keepers as a softer form of ecumenism and shun them while others do not. Other American conservative Protestant Churches, such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Presbyterian Church in America, and Free Methodist Church, often view ecumenism in ways similar to their evangelical counterparts. Many Baptists in the United States have notoriously opposed ecumenism and even cooperation with other Baptists, as illustrated by the recent example of the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance. The Baptist World Alliance, while seeking cooperation among Baptists, is not specifically a staunch ecumenical body, and yet conservative fundamentalist elements within the Southern Baptist Convention have forced that denomination to withdraw from even that small effort to ecumenical cooperation.
In 2001, a group of Pentecostals broke from traditional opposition to ecumenical movements and formed the International Circle of Faith.
The minority Catholic opposition to ecumenism centers on Traditionalist Catholics and associations such as the Society of St. Pius X. In fact, opposition to ecumenism is closely associated with antagonism, in the case of Traditionalist Catholics, to abandonment of Latin in the celebration of Mass, and, in the case of Greek Old Calendarists (who speak of "the arch-heresy of ecumenism"), to abandonment of the Julian calendar.
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