My School’s recent surveys of faith leaders and lay people on the island of Ireland asked a series of questions about ecumenism. While most people claim to have positive conceptions of ecumenism, others say it is elitist, irrelevant, or boring, or that they simply don’t know what it is. One survey respondent referred rather disparagingly to those involved in ecumenism as ‘ecu-maniacs.’
In a lecture last night at Trinity College Dublin, John Gibaut, Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, raised the question of whether or not ecumenism is the preserve of the dedicated and perhaps rather eccentric few, or if there is indeed a discernible ecumenical culture that has something to contribute to the Christian churches.
Gibaut’s lecture, ‘Eucharist and Liturgy: Creating an Ecumenical Culture,’ was part of a wider symposium organised by the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, and the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, on ‘The Eucharist in Ecumenical Perspective.’ The symposium is part of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ research project, ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism.’
This question of an ecumenical culture is an interesting one in the Irish and Northern Irish contexts, where ecumenism has often been reduced to ‘community relations.’ For example, Maria Power’s 2007 book about ecumenism in Northern Ireland, From Ecumenism to Community Relations, argues that while understandable, the reduction of ecumenism to community relations is not ideal. Indeed, it may have discouraged deeper theological work and the birth of an ecumenical spirituality.
This must all be considered alongside the relative lack of interest in ecumenism, in Ireland and internationally. There is a sense that while ecumenism might have once been new and fresh, it’s just not all that exciting to Christians anymore.
But what Gibaut said made me stop and think that this isn’t the full story.
Gibaut identified an ‘ecumenical culture’ in the liturgy and prayer of the various Christian churches. He noted that over the past generation there has been a remarkable convergence in liturgical practices among the Christian churches, though we mightn’t always recognise this.
For instance, the use of a common lectionary among Christian denominations, a renewed emphasis on biblical preaching based on the liturgical calendar, and the tendency for churches to borrow liturgical practices and hymns from one another, has become increasingly normal for Christians from a range of denominations.
Gibaut argued that rituals are absolutely vital when it comes to creating identities and cultures, and said that in these first signs of liturgical convergence we can discern the birth of an ecumenical culture.
I would add that the people in the pews mightn’t see or call this an ecumenical culture, but what’s important is that they are increasingly seeing Christians from other denominations as ‘real’ Christians who also have gifts to bring to the wider body of Christ.
Gibaut noted that in some cases liturgical convergence has been a catalyst in pushing ecumenical progress more quickly than denominational leaders would expect.
For example, many Christians in Ireland today are ready for and want to participate in Eucharistic sharing or inter-church communion, but are officially forbidden to do so.
But their relationships with Christians from other denominations mean that they experience this lack of communion as a source of sorrow or anger, rather than as inevitable or desirable – which might have been the case a generation ago.
Gibaut added that another challenge is to recognise that liturgical sharing and convergence is more than a consumerist, mix-and-match Christianity. He said that people are experiencing this sharing in a deep way and that this is something that should be named and reflected on.
Could it be called an ecumenical culture, or the spirit of God moving among the churches?
I will post more reflections on the symposium in the coming days.
(Photo of John Gibaut at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin)