Denis Bradley – Has Religious Ecumenism ‘Run into the Sand?’

imageIn his column in Friday’s Irish News, Denis Bradley proclaims that ‘religious ecumenism has run into the sand.’ He contrasts the failure of religious ecumenism to what he sees as the thriving of so-called ‘political ecumenism’ in Northern Ireland, embodied by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson watching a GAA match together.

I would take  issue with the rather too rosy view of Sinn Fein/DUP-style ‘political ecumenism,’ as described by Bradley, but that’s not my main concern today.

Rather, Bradley’s discussion of religious ecumenism engages with one of the broad questions I discuss regularly on this blog – Does Ecumenism Matter?

Bradley’s answer is (a rather simplistic) no.

Drawing on the final sermon of the dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the Very Rev Robert McCarthy, he reports:

… while [McCarthy] had been happy to welcome the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to preach in the Church of Ireland cathedral, the invitation had never been reciprocated to him to preach in the Catholic cathedral.

The retiring dean said: “I find ecumenism in Dublin to be years behind what I experienced in Kilkenny 25 years ago, where I preached in every church in the city. Ecumenism here seems to be equated to fellowship between the two archbishops. That should merely be the first step.”

I agree with McCarthy and Bradley that ‘fellowship’ should indeed be the first step. I also can appreciate Bradley’s dismissal of ‘hugs and coffee’ ecumenism, which equates ecumenism with clerics (or a select group of middle class laypeople) meeting together to talk about polite topics.

Bradley writes:

Fifty years on [from Vatican II] the coffee and some of the good cheer has survived but at the level where unity of faith might have grown a more authentic theology, nothing has changed and the old divisions are as intact now as they have ever been. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) was first established as long ago as 1971 and has since written copious reports exploring such important issues as ministry and Eucharist. Those reports haven’t had the slightest effect on relationships.

I think Bradley is unnecessarily overstating his case here – it is just not true that ‘nothing has changed’ and ‘the old divisions are as intact now as they have ever been.’

It seems a bit old hat to point this out, but gone are the days when Catholics and Protestants almost uniformly refused to enter each other’s church buildings and when most on both ‘sides’ assumed the ‘other sort’ were going to hell.

The various Christian denominations now recognise each other’s baptisms. There are increasing numbers of ‘mixed marriages.’ And it now seems commonplace to see clerics from different Christian traditions publicly working together on a variety of projects.

This may be a pretty low bar, and it is certainly not enough, but it is not ‘nothing.’

Bradley also writes:

The truth is that ecumenism has petered out to where there is nothing but a few close friendships and chit chat over many cups of coffee. It would be more honest and much healthier to admit that it has run into the sand rather than pretend that anything has changed.

For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2010 (see selection of my posts below), I wrote a series of posts on ecumenism. These posts covered a number of topics and engaged with some of the data from my School’s Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism project. These data confirm that ecumenism on this island could not be called thriving, but that it is not as dead as Bradley thinks.

The Visioning Ecumenism project (2009-2011) has involved surveys of faith leaders and laypeople on the island, as well as in-depth case studies of eight different ‘expressions of faith’ on the island. The case studies are based on in-depth interviews and observations.

Over the last three years, the research team has had a number of workshops discussing the case studies – some of which were selected because they embodied forms of what we like to think of as ‘ecumenism in the real world.’

Admittedly, people are not always eager to call what they are doing ecumenism, let alone to develop an ecumenical theology to explain it. Over the next year I hope to  write up the results from these case studies, expanding on what ecumenism in the real world looks like- and asking:

Is ecumenism really dead, or is it dead in name only?

Posts on Ecumenism from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010:

Maria Power Book Review: From Ecumenism to Community Relations

A Failure of the Ecumenical Imagination?

Is Ecumenism Boring?

Can Ecumenism be Born Again?

Ecumenism for Lent – Giving Out, Not Giving Up, at the Fermanagh Churches Forum

One thought on “Denis Bradley – Has Religious Ecumenism ‘Run into the Sand?’”

  1. Hi Gladys

    Thanks for your thoughtful and challenging post.
    You know, I keep wondering whether we are looking in the wrong place for ecumenism. If we continue to expect to find it in an epicopal space we may continue to be disappointed. Healing the ‘them and us’ dichotomy in an episcopal space is a task that could probably never be completed because the occupiers of that space begin with a set of co-ordinates that are not adequate to the task of releasing a new future. A radical third way that becomes the rupture of the dichotomy is (I think) the only way forward. This requires the work of prophets who may in their own lifetimes not be widely accepted – eg Peter Rollins, John Caputo – who can point us to a space where ‘how we believe’ is at least as important as ‘what we believe’. It may sadly be that the institutional church never sees the future and that it something that must be explored by varieties of rebels who are disavowed by the episcopate.


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