Weathering Ecumenical Winter

Facing “a new sobriety,” where does the movement for Christian unity go from here?

Bruce Myers

There is apparently an old Norwegian saying that goes something like this: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” So when the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran pastor from Norway who is also general secretary of the World Council of Churches, met last autumn with Pope Benedict XVI, among his gifts to the pontiff was a pair of Nordic woolen gloves.

“They say we are experiencing an ‘ecumenical winter’ right now,” explained Dr. Tveit after his audience with the pope. “And I, being Norwegian, ask back, ‘What is so terrible about winter?’ We know that winter can be beautiful, and we know that winter is only one of four seasons. In winter, we have time for reflection, time to think about what we have experienced in the past and what we expect from the future, and, of course, how we can prepare for the future.”1

Dr. Tveit’s seasonable thoughts find resonance in questions recently posed by another key figure in the ecumenical movement, Cardinal Walter Kasper. Reflecting on global ecumenism’s present state of affairs, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity asks, “Where are we? What has been achieved? What has still to be done? Where can we, and where should we, move ahead?”2

While Cardinal Kasper stops short of definitively declaring winter’s descent on worldwide ecumenism, he does acknowledge the movement seems to be undergoing a kind of cooling-off period: “The original enthusiasm has given way to a new sobriety; questions about the ecumenical methods and the achievements of past decades, and doubts about the future, are being expressed.”3

This paper will briefly engage the questions Cardinal Kasper raises above in relation to the contemporary ecumenical movement. In doing so, it will touch on past achievements, future expectations, and current possibilities for cooperation among divided Christians.

What has been achieved?

By virtue of his reflections, Cardinal Kasper to some extent answers his own first query, “Where are we?” Whether characterized as an “ecumenical winter” or a phase of “new sobriety,” worldwide ecumenism finds itself in a period of reflection, of which retrospection is an important part. We can therefore proceed to the question of past achievements.

The “original enthusiasm” of which Cardinal Kasper speaks perhaps reached its peak (like so many other enthusiasms) in the 1960s. By that decade the World Council of Churches, established in 1948, included in its growing global membership more than 200 churches—from Pentecostals to Oriental Orthodox—committed “to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”4

At this same time, the Second Vatican Council issued its groundbreaking decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which declared the restoration of Christian unity as one of the Catholic Church’s “principal concerns,” and lamented that Christian division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the gospel to every creature.”5 The decree even went as far as declaring that non-Catholics “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized, are in a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”6

To appreciate the significance of this change in attitude, consider that prior to the reforms of Vatican II, non-Catholic Christians were still being prayed for at Roman Catholic liturgies as “heretics and schismatics.”7 Similarly, only three decades before Pope John XXIII opened the council, his predecessor Pius XI had prohibited Catholics from participating in the ecumenical movement, labeling it “a false Christianity,” and insisting that “the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it […].”8

One almost immediate product of this new and unprecedented openness among the world’s separated churches was the establishment of several formal, theological dialogues. By the 1970s ecumenical springtime was in full blossom, and bilateral dialogues had been initiated at the international level with the participation of Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Old Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed churches.

The degree and rapidity of convergence achieved by some of these dialogues is impressive, especially considering the historically divisive subjects with which they chose to engage. For example, after its first round of bilateral talks, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was able to report “substantial agreement on the doctrine of the eucharist,”9 as well as a consensus on the doctrine of ministry.10 This last is perhaps all the more noteworthy given that fewer than 80 years earlier, Pope Leo XIII had famously and definitively declared Anglican ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void.”11

More remarkable still is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification issued in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, in which the two communions affirm that they “are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”12 The defining theological point of contention of the Reformation—which resulted in mutual condemnations, excommunications, executions, and more than five centuries of formal separation—had been resolved through fewer than three decades of peaceable dialogue. Removed from the polemics and politics of Reformation-era Europe, the Lutheran and Catholic theologians engaged in these conversations were able to recognize that since the sixteenth century, “[d]evelopments have taken place that not only make possible but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and see them in a new light.”13

The outcome of some of these bilateral dialogues has been the formal lifting of centuries-old ecclesiastical censures, as with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “In light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner.”14 Similarly, in 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I issued a joint declaration in which they together “regret the offensive words, the reproaches without foundation, and the reprehensible gestures” which contributed to the Great Schism between the eastern and western churches, culminating in mutual excommunications in 1054. Nine-hundred years later, the pope and the ecumenical patriarch “remove both from memory and from the midst of the church the sentences of excommunication” and “commit [them] to oblivion.”15

Time may not heal all wounds, but as with the Lutheran-Catholic divide over justification, the passage of centuries did afford the patriarchs of east and west an opportunity to take a fresh approach to an ancient problem: “One cannot pretend that these events were not what they were during this very troubled period of history. Today, however, they have been judged more fairly and serenely. Thus it is important to recognize the excesses which accompanied them and later led to consequences which, insofar as we can judge, went much further than their authors had intended and foreseen.”16

A still more ancient division addressed with notable success through bilateral dialogue is that between the Orthodox churches and those of the Oriental Orthodox. A schism dating back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, its theological cause was disagreement over whether in the incarnate Christ there exists one nature or two. The one-person-in-two-natures definition was adopted by the council, though not unanimously, resulting in Christianity’s first large-scale rupture. In the 1960s, these divided eastern churches began looking at the age-old Christological dispute with fresh eyes. By 1990, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox were able to publicly affirm: [W]e have now clearly understood that both families [of churches] have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they may have used Christological terms in different ways.”17 A bitter, fifteen-century-old theological fight had seemingly been resolved to the satisfaction of both sides in a mere quarter of a century.

What still has to be done?

Notwithstanding the level of convergence achieved by these bilateral dialogues, the degree to which these agreed statements have actually been received by the participating churches is often limited. As an example, an appendix to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s agreed statement on ministry goes to some lengths to stipulate that the document “is at present no more than a joint statement of the commission,” adding, “It is not a declaration by the Roman Catholic Church or by the Anglican Communion. It does not authorize any change in existing ecclesiastical discipline.”18 To this day none of ARCIC’s agreed statements has received the formal sanction of the Vatican. On the Anglican side, the Lambeth Conference of bishops variously “recognizes,” “welcomes,” and “commends” much of ARCIC’s work,19 but this body lacks the ability to formally receive or enact it. Such authority instead lies with the Anglican Communion’s individual member provinces.20

Agreed statements, convergence documents, and joint declarations alone cannot heal Christian division—especially Christian division that has been characterized by centuries of rancor and mutual vilification. Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I acknowledged as much when they each lifted the sentences of excommunication issued by their respective predecessors a millennium before: “[We] realize that this gesture of justice and mutual pardon is not sufficient to end both old and more recent differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.”21 Similarly the Lutheran and Catholic framers of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification recognize that “[o]ur consensus in basic truths on the doctrine of justification must come to influence the life and teaching of our churches.”22 Such agreed statements on matters of faith and order are important—even essential—and can point the way toward reconciliation. However, they cannot alone effect it.

Therefore, there must be not only a formal reception of these theological agreements by the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities, but also an actual living out among the faithful of the reconciliation toward which they direct us, something the German ecumenist Harding Meyer calls “the ecumenical imperative.” Accepting as a given that unity belongs to the nature of the church (oneness being one of the church’s four essential, creedal marks), and that this essential unity is presupposed in every effort for unity, then this essential unity must be lived and made visible. Putting an ecumenical spin on Saint Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians (5:25), Harding issues the challenge: “If we are one, then let us live and act in unity.”23

Where can we, and where should we, move ahead?

The question of how the divided churches can and should advance together is as old as the ecumenical movement itself. Different streams of the movement have at various times offered different—and sometimes contradictory—responses.24 We will briefly look at three.

By the turn of the last century, many of the Protestant churches of Europe and North America were realizing that their duplicated (or competing) overseas missionary efforts were compromising the effectiveness of the common gospel they were seeking to proclaim. This acknowledgement, and the desire for a solution, led to the convocation of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. As one of the conference’s commissions lamented, “[T]he divisions within the Christian Church weaken its testimony and confuse the total impression made by Christianity on the minds of the non-Christian peoples.”25 The conference appealed for “comity” among the churches in the mission field, so that the “limited forces of the missionary enterprise should be distributed in such a way as to avoid overlapping or collision.”26 Although in some ways the 1910 conference’s attitudes toward mission may today seem dated, the gathering—especially its exhortation to cooperation across confessional lines—is still considered a seminal moment in the development of the modern ecumenical movement.

Another such moment came in 1925, at the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work held in Stockholm. From the outset, the conference’s conviction was that Christian division could best be overcome by the churches working together to build peace and justice. The result was a gathering that deliberately avoided potentially contentious theological issues, and adhered to the deceptively agreeable mantra, “Doctrine divides while service unites.” Theological arguments proved unavoidable, however, and divisions emerged as the participants’ divergent understandings of the church’s role in the life of the world became evident. Despite this apparent setback, part of the Stockholm conference’s enduring legacy was its insight that “the world is too strong for a divided church.”27

Picking up on this notion some time later, but from another perspective, was another stream of the emerging ecumenical movement. A document issued following the Third World Conference on Faith and Order held in the Swedish city of Lund in 1952 pointedly posed: “Should not our churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?”28 What began as a rhetorical question addressed to divided Christians has subsequently become a guiding imperative—the “Lund Principle”—intended to be applied to the day-to-day life of the churches. The woeful extent to which the world’s Christians remain divided stands as an attestation to the limited degree to which the principle has, in reality, been applied.

However, there are indications of a renewed willingness among some churches to attempt to incarnate the ideal expressed in the Lund Principle. A recent example comes from the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), a episcopal body charged with offering “practical examples of the kind of joint action in mission that we believe our shared faith now invites us to pursue and which would deepen the communion we share.”29 IARCCUM celebrates the significant degree of convergence reached through bilateral theological dialogue, but also laments the minimal extent to which these agreements have infused the lives of their churches:

[W]e, the bishops of IARCCUM, recognize that the extent of [our] common faith […] compels us to live and witness together more fully here and now. Agreement in faith must go beyond mere affirmation. Discerning a common faith challenges our churches to recognize that elements of sanctification and truth exist in each other’s ecclesial lives, and to develop those channels and practical expressions of co-operation by which a common life and mission may be generated and sustained.30

Implicit here is the suggestion that formal theological dialogue has, for the moment, reached the limit of its usefulness. While IARCCUM at no point suggests that such bilateral conversations should cease altogether,31 the bishops do conclude that more effort needs to be expended on giving tangible expression to the forty years’ worth of existing theological agreements between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, agreements that in large part lie dormant on the shelves of well-meaning ecumenists.

The IARCCUM bishops enumerate more than twenty practical suggestions on how local church communities can begin to live out and give expression to the theological agreements reached at the international level. They include: joint baptismal preparation and issuing a common baptismal certificate, more frequent common worship (outside the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity), publicly praying for each other’s bishops, joint Bible studies and catechesis, speaking with one voice on advocacy issues, cooperating in mission and evangelism, working more closely when relating with other faiths, and even collaborating in training for lay ministries and in the formation of clergy.32

Where are we going?

The practical joint initiatives IARCCUM proposes remain largely in the realm of hopeful suggestions. Though specifically addressed to Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Christians of most persuasions could in good conscience consider many of the proposals.33 In this respect, IARCCUM provides one answer to the question of where we can and should move ahead on the ecumenical journey. However, another bilateral relationship can provide some clues as to where ecumenism is already headed.

The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) have been in full communion since 2001, a relationship in which each church “maintains its own autonomy while recognizing the catholicity and apostolicity of the other, and believing the other to hold the essentials of the Christian faith.” 34 In practical terms, this translates into the mutual recognition of ministries and sacraments. At the level of local churches, this mutual recognition has resulted in Anglican priests serving Lutheran congregations (and vice-versa) and the establishment of joint Anglican-Lutheran congregations.

Nationally, there are plans for the ACC’s General Synod and the ELCIC’s National Convention to have a single, “fully integrated” gathering in Ottawa in 2013, including joint worship, Bible studies, and keynote speakers. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the ACC’s primate, echoes the Lund Principle when he speaks of that forthcoming meeting: “We hope to be doing most things together, and only doing those things apart which our constitutions absolutely require.” There have also been discussions around the two churches sharing the same national office.35

As Anglicans and Lutherans in Canada prepare to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their closer ecclesial relationship later this year, the churches’ respective leadership is encouraging congregations to discern how they can further live out full communion locally. Many of the suggestions resemble those offered by IARCCUM to Anglicans and Roman Catholics: more shared study, more common worship, more joint outreach.36

Where is full communion going? When the Waterloo Declaration was approved by both churches in 2001, formally enacting the new relationship, its framers were deliberately ambiguous about its ultimate goal: “Full communion between Lutherans and Anglicans in Canada marks but one step towards the eventual visible unity of the whole church Catholic. We have entered a new stage on our journey together; there may yet be stages that we can only imagine dimly at this point.”37 For some, full communion represents a prelude to a full, organic merger.38

That is not necessarily so for the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, who as the Anglican Church of Canada’s erstwhile ecumenical officer, was intimately involved in all of the negotiations leading up to the 2001 accord with the Lutherans: “I see Waterloo as basically permissive for people to do what they feel comfortable with, what they feel called to, what they can imagine, whereas the organic [union] scheme says, ‘This is how it’s going to be everywhere for everybody.’”39 Others are watching with interest to see how the full communion relationship in Canada evolves, such that it may become a model for ecumenical agreements elsewhere.

“One in the Spirit

The full, visible unity of Christ’s church remains the ecumenical movement’s stated objective. Divergent views remain on what precisely that is to look like, and how it is to be achieved. However, the experience of the past four decades suggests that agreement in matters of faith is, on its own, insufficient to reveal the unity presently obscured by the churches’ divisions. Cardinal Kasper himself admits as much: “It must be acknowledged that our ecumenical dialogues cannot of themselves realize the final goal and ultimate hope of the ecumenical movement; that movement is an impulse and work of the Holy Spirit. The process of ecumenical reconciliation and rapprochement is therefore primarily a spiritual process […].”40

This spiritual process can find its expression in the very proposals set forth by the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops of IARCCUM and Canada’s Anglicans and Lutherans. It is through praying together, studying the scriptures together, exploring our common faith together, reaching out in mission together, speaking out against injustice together, and simply spending time together, that divided Christians in their local communities will most tangibly come to recognize that they are, indeed, of “one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4).

At the same time, such “spiritual ecumenism,” as it has become known, must have theological underpinnings. We are of “one body and one Spirit” because we share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). The grounds for our common witness are to be found in the important agreed statements achieved over the past forty years of conversation. These theological dialogues must continue, for it is through such encounters that we are reminded that in matters of faith, “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”41 In being so reminded, we also receive added impetus to overcome those matters that do still separate us.

However, these theological dialogues must always be complemented by incarnational expressions of local, spiritual ecumenism. Were the author of the epistle of James an ecumenist, he might have written, “Agreement on faith without consonant works is dead.”

As the general secretary of the World Council of Churches suggested by his gift of gloves to Pope Benedict, one way to weather the apparent ecumenical winter is to dress warmly and hunker down until the spring thaw. As most Canadians (or, one supposes, Norwegians) know, another way to stay warm during wintertime is to be active. In venturing into the cold and attempting to actually live out some of the implications of the extraordinary past forty years of formal, theological agreement, we may find that winter passes quickly, and spring beckons.

Father Bruce Myers is the archdeacon of Quebec and a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada. In 2008 he completed a master of theology degree in ecumenical studies through the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and the University of Geneva.

1 “ÖRK-Chef: „Wir leben im ökumenischen Winter“” Radio Vatican.  5 Dec. 2010. Transcript of radio interview, translated by Christian Schreiner.

2 Walter Kasper, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (London: Continuum, 2009) 3.

3 Kasper, 2.

4 “Constitution and Rules of the World Council of Churches,” §III.

5 “Unitatis Redintegratio,” Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996) §1.

6 Unitatis Redintegratio, §3.

7 The Tridentine rite for Good Friday includes the following petition: “Oremus et pro hæreticis et schismaticis: ut Deus et Dominus noster eruat eos ab erroribus universis; et ad sanctam matrem Ecclesiam Catholicam, atque Apostolicam revocare dignetur.” (“Let us pray also, for heretics and schismatics, that our Lord and God may deliver them from all their errors, and vouchsafe to recall them to their holy Mother, the Catholic and Apostolic Church.”)

8 Mortalium Animos, §§8, 10.

9 “Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine,” Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: The Final Report (London: SPCK, 1982) §12.

10 “Agreed Statement on Ministry and Ordination,” Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: The Final Report (London: SPCK, 1982) 30.

11 Apostolicae Curae, §36.

12 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) §5.

13 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, §7.

14 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, §13.

15 “Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of His Holiness Pope Paul VI and the Eucmenical Patriarch Athenagoras I,” §4.

16 Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration, §3.

17 “Second Agreed Statement and Recommendations to the Churches,” Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1982-1998, Eds. Jeffrey Gros, et. al. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2000) §9.

18 “The Status of the Document,” appendix to the Agreed Statement on Ministry and Ordination.

19 See for example Resolution 33 of the 1978 Lambeth Conference.

20 Although Lambeth Conferences have customarily passed resolutions of various kinds, these motions are not legislatively binding on the participating bishops or member churches. As put by Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson (1883-1896), who summoned the third Lambeth Conference, the assembly is “in no sense a Synod and not adapted, or competent, or within its powers, if it should attempt to make binding decisions on doctrine or discipline […].” (Quoted by Frederick H. Shriver, “Councils, Conferences and Synods,” in The Study of Anglicanism, revised ed., (London: SPCK, 1998) p. 203.)

21 “Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of His Holiness Pope Paul VI and the Eucmenical Patriarch Athenagoras I,” §5.

22 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, §43.

23 Harding Meyer, That All May Be One: Perceptions and Models of Ecumenicity, Trans. William G. Rusch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) 8-12.

24 The three “streams” mentioned below were all precursors of twentieth-century conciliar ecumenism. The Faith and Order movement and the Life and Work movement were the constitutive elements of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The International Missionary Conference, which emerged out of the 1910 Edinburgh Conference, merged with the WCC in 1961.

25 World Missionary Conference, 1910: Report of Commission VIII, Co-Operation and the Promotion of Unity (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier, 1910) 9.

26 Report of Commission VIII, 12.

27 “Life and Work,” A Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2nd ed., Eds. Nicholas Lossky, et. al. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002) 691.

28 “Lund Principle,” A Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2nd ed., Eds. Nicholas Lossky, et. al. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002) 714-5.

29 Growing Together in Unity and Mission: Building on 40 Years of Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (London: SPCK, 2007) §99.

30 Growing Together in Unity and Mission, §96.

31 In fact, the third phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission is set to begin its work later this year. It will focus on understanding the church as communion, and how in communion the local and universal church comes to discern right ethical teaching.

32 Growing Together in Unity and Mission, §§100-125.

33 Cardinal Kasper’s A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2007) offers an even more fulsome variety of practical proposals on how Christians of different denominations can live and work collaboratively so as to grow together in communion and visible unity.

34 A Companion to the Waterloo Declaration: Commentary and Essays on Lutheran-Anglican Relations in Canada, Ed. Richard Leggett. (Toronto: ABC Publishing, 1999) 13. This contrasts to other ecumenical models, such as organic union, which involves a complete and total merger of the participating ecclesial bodies, and of which the United Church of Canada is an example.

35 “Meeting with the Lutherans: General Synod 2013 and ELCIC Convention to be ‘fully integrated,’” Anglican Journal (online edition), 10 June 2010.

36 Pastoral letter to the faithful of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, 21 Nov. 2010.

37 A Companion to the Waterloo Declaration, 28.

38 It is an apparently unwelcome prelude for some, as suggested by this comment to the above (footnote 35) online article concerning a joint Anglican-Lutheran national gathering and the possibility of shared national offices in Ottawa: “It sure looks like we are moving towards amalgamation with the ELiC [sic] but nobody is saying it. Yes, get HQ to Ottawa the center of national power. Side benefit: put an end to the bad politics that happen when national HQ is next door to the biggest diocese, in the city that Canada loves to hate.”

39 Telephone interview with author, 2 April 2003.

40 Kasper, 206.

41 Pope John XXIII, quoted by Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, §20.


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