Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010: A failure of the ecumenical imagination?

image My colleague Dr Andrew Pierce has identified a failure of the ecumenical imagination in an article, ‘Re-imagining Irish Ecumenism: Enlarging a Sense of the Possible,’ in the journal Doctrine and Life (2008). It seems that ecumenism, both in Ireland and internationally, is floundering and people who are involved with the ecumenical movement or are sympathetic to it are unsure about its purpose.

Dr Pierce notes that Maria Power’s book, From Ecumenism to Community Relations, could focus the thoughts of ecumenically-minded people on the island to address a certain failure of imagination. He writes:

‘Good community relations may either help, or hinder, ecumenism: but it is something different to ecumenism. Power’s analysis of the past two and a half decades of inter-church relationships in Northern Ireland suggests that ecumenism – as a contentious term – has been deliberately sidelined in favour of the eminently desirable project of securing good community relations.

Amongst the questions that we face, therefore – given ecumenism’s reputation elsewhere as yawn-inducing – is one of whether ecumenism (and its potential to raise contentious issues of identity and truth-claims) is something that we need to recover in Ireland and elsewhere.’

Dr Pierce’s answer to this question is ‘yes,’ but he admits that people in both Ireland and Northern Ireland seem to have trouble imagining ecumenism as something more than good community relations, or as the clerics of the various denominations talking to each other somewhere far away.

Our School’s 2009 surveys of faith on the island of Ireland have borne this lack of imagination out. Both laypeople and faith leaders (clergy, pastors, ministers, leaders of other faiths) were presented with a choice of options about what ‘ecumenism’ includes. The table below ranks them according to the most popular options chosen.

Lay People

Faith Leaders

Interchurch Dialogue, Catholic/Protestant

Interchurch Dialogue, Catholic/Protestant

Shared Social Action, Catholic/Protestant

Good Civic Relations, Catholic/Protestant

Good Civic Relations, Catholic/Protestant

Shared Social Action, Catholic/Protestant

Good Civic Relations, Other Religions

Interchurch Prayer, Catholic/Protestant

Interfaith Dialogue, Other Religions

Good Civic Relations, Other Religions

Shared Social Action, Other Religions

Interchurch worship, Catholic/Protestant

Interchurch Prayer, Catholic/Protestant

Interfaith Dialogue, Other Religions

Interchurch worship, Catholic/Protestant

Shared Social Action, Other Religions

Shared Missionary, Catholic/Protestant

Shared Missionary, Catholic/Protestant

Interfaith Prayer, Other Religions

Interfaith Prayer, Other Religions

Interchurch Communion/Eucharist, Catholic/Protestant

Interchurch Communion/Eucharist, Catholic/Protestant

Interfaith worship, Other Religions

Interfaith worship, Other Religions

Shared Missionary, Other Religions

Shared Missionary, Other Religions

A quick glance at the data from the whole island reveals that perceptions of ecumenism are indeed orientated towards inter-church dialogue, good community relations, and social action among Christian denominations. I am not saying that these things are not important, but this data could indicate that Irish ecumenism is indeed ‘stuck’ in these modes of perception and interaction.

More ‘radical’ acts like praying and worshipping together – though these will be happening this week in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – do not seem so important, nor does engagement with ‘non-Christian’ faiths. (Interestingly, laypeople seem more inclined than faith leaders to include non-Christian faiths in ecumenism.) Shared communion or Eucharist is also not high on the agenda.

Throughout this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I’ll be exploring in more depth some of the issues raised by this lack of an ecumenical imagination …

2 Responses to Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010: A failure of the ecumenical imagination?

  1. george January 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    I really like this article. i think it is the clarion call we need. i am currently working on similar periphery subjects and book. but to be sure, the ‘church’ as an institution is slowly decaying under the auspices of reinvention. but i think we need a clean cut, like the phoenix, we need death and rebirth, this is why the conference in Ireland with Rollins intrigues me because it invites people to re-look and reinvent a lot of things for centuries we were told we couldn’t. it is freeing an allows for the imagination you two are talking about. a much needed imagination. check out some of the stuff i am up to and maybe there are ways we can partner…

  2. Tim Moore January 18, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    I think Andrew Pierce’s point that good community relations should not be seen as the same as “ecumenism” is a subtle yet provocative one. I think that effective interchurch work has to involve fostering good community relations, but Dr Pierce’s arguments make for a good starting point in examining whether ecumenism means more than that.

    The survey above and Maria Power’s book, as reviewed in this blog, indicates not only of how “ecumenism” is currently defined differently across communities, but within them as well. The meaning of ecumenism has changed within the last decade or two as well, moving from being a desire for institutional unity among the churches to the “good community relations” explored by Pierce and others. The establishment of the United Reformed Church in Britain 1972, from the English Congregational and Presbyterian churches (with two smaller movements joining later), was based on the hope for institutional unity, yet because of this the URC never sought its own distinct identity and now struggles with its current role in a Christendom where the relevance and viability of the institutional church is questioned within mainstream discourse, helped along by the many and sometimes tragic scandals and conflicts which have affected and continue to affect most of the mainstream denominations in Britain and Ireland. Bizarrely, more recent attempts at institutional unity have stalled through clashes on governance rather than doctrine or ecclesiastical authority, such as between the Church of England and Methodist church during the 1990s.

    The Emerging Church movement, referred to by George above, is to me one of the products of the ecumenical movement that has allowed Christians to share worship together locally, but failed in uniting structures nationally. I am not uncritical of the Emerging Church movement, but many “alternative” or emerging churches not only disregard denominational boundaries, but have been enthusiastically taken up by both evangelical and liberal Christians.

    Interesting from the survey is the inclusion of interreligious dialogue. I think this is a good example of how the ecumenical movement has developed. I would strongly doubt that interfaith work would have been a priority for most Christian communities a decade ago. Interfaith dialogue is borne out of the need for good community relations, but is indicative of how ecumenism has moved beyond simply looking for commonality between groups, but also challenging prejudices and exploring difference respectfully, in order to appreciate their value.

Leave a Reply