Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenical Tithing

imageIn recent weeks I’ve been examining the late Fr Michael Hurley SJ’s ideas about ecumenism. One idea that I have been most intrigued by is ‘ecumenical tithing.’

His ideas were put forward in his 1998 book, Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? (Dublin: Veritas). I was prompted to take this book off the shelf in the library where I work – the Irish School of Ecumenics (itself one of Hurley’s creations) – after his death earlier this year.

Hurley doesn’t take sole credit for developing the concept of ecumenical tithing. In a chapter of the book titled ‘Ecumenical Tithing,’ Hurley notes that (p. 78):

In 1997 ‘ecumenical tithing’ was the third of three suggestions put forward as an agenda for the Church in Ireland by the Department of Theological Questions of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (cf. Freedom, Justice & Responsibility in Ireland Today, published by Veritas, Dublin, 1997, p. 94).

But what is ecumenical tithing?

After reading Hurley, my very basic definition is:

a commitment for Christians to pledge to spend a significant percentage of their time in worship and service with Christians from a tradition other than their own.

It sounds like a good idea to me, especially since I think that over the years Christians in Ireland have tended to reduce ecumenism to something that the clergy do; or simply attending a service for the Week for Prayer for Christian Unity.

Similarly, Hurley sets his discussion of ecumenical tithing in a context where ecumenism seems to be on the wane, both in Ireland and internationally. He sees the encouragement of ecumenical tithing as a way to start putting some ‘buoyancy’ back into the ‘movement for promoting Christian unity’ (p. 78). So he writes:

‘Why the buoyancy has gone out of the ecumenical movement is of course a complex question to which there can be no single, certainly no simple answer. But one part of the answer must surely be the sad fact that too little attention has been given too late to the need for ecumenical formation.’

Hurley’s fixation on the word ‘formation’ is important. Like other aspects of Christian discipleship and spirituality, he sees ecumenism as something that Christians need to work on and develop.

Ecumenism requires more than a vague commitment to be civil to other Christians in the public sphere.

For Hurley, a commitment to ecumenical tithing is a way to encourage the ‘formation’ of a more fully-rounded Christian character. So he writes (p. 83):

‘Each of us devotes a certain amount of our time, our energies, our resources, our services, our money to our own Church – to its worship and its various other religious activities. The question is: could we withdraw a tenth of that time and energy and money from our own and devote it to another Church? Is it possible that, however we view our responsibilities as Christians, we might exercise them in more than one Church: partly in one, partly in another; mostly in our own, of course, but also, to some extent, to the extent of a tithe, in another? For most of us these responsibilities as Christians include worship, engaging in some form of social work and giving financial support to the Church at home and overseas.’

He goes on to provide specific examples (p. 83-84);

‘But could Presbyterians tithe their Sundays to the Church of Ireland, i.e. go to the Church with the Anglicans rather than with their fellow-Presbyterians some five times a year? Could a member of the Church of Ireland reciprocate this ecumenical gesture or do likewise with the Methodists, worshipping with them on the occasional Sunday and also transferring the tithe of their support for the Church Missionary Society to the Methodist Missionary Society? Could Roman Catholics transfer a tithe of their support for Trócaire to Christian Aid? And sometimes buy and read the Church of Ireland Gazette instead of the Irish Catholic or Catholic Herald? Could Roman Catholic ordinands tithe their theological studies to another Church? In other words, could they study and live with Anglican, Orthodox or Presbyterian ordinands for a part of their course?’

Hurley also addresses the particular concerns of Roman Catholics, who might be concerned about missing mass in their parish on a Sunday (p. 85):

‘There is … no rule obliging Roman Catholics to receive communion every Sunday. Missing communion on certain Sundays would be a great spiritual loss but no breach of rule. Some would be able to see it as the making of a personal sacrifice perfecting in keeping with the ecumenical principle that, so long as no essential of the faith is endangered, the Church must be ready to make every sacrifice to promote Christian unity so that the world may believe.’

Further, Hurley recommends that Christians embarking on a disciplined programme of ecumenical tithing do so in groups and receive appropriate pastoral care from church leaders.

One of the most obvious examples of ecumenical tithing here in Ireland are the Unity Pilgrims of Clonard Monastery, who visit various Protestant churches in and around Belfast to share in their Sunday morning services.

Unfortunately, such initiatives are few and far between, forcing me to ask why – in a society divided along religious lines – the churches have not implemented, or perhaps even considered, ecumenical tithing?

Other posts:

Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenical Theology and Ecumenics

Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenism

Remembering Fr Michael Hurley in Belfast

Michael Hurley – Remembering the Father of Irish Ecumenism

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