Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenism

image Last month I promised to share some thoughts based on Fr Michael Hurley’s 1998 book Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? (Veritas). I’d been prompted to check the book out of our library after last month’s remembrance celebration for Fr Hurley, founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics.

The busy-ness of the start of term has meant that I haven’t yet had a chance to blog about the book. But as I’ve dipped in and out of it, I’m struck both by how much and how little has changed since 1998.

Today I want to focus on a chapter in the book titled ‘Ecumenism, Ecumenical Theology and Ecumenics.’

As a staff member of the Irish School of Ecumenics, I am acutely aware that it can’t be taken for granted that people understand what these terms mean or even that they have heard of them – beyond the Fr Ted catchphrase, ‘that would be an ecumenical matter.’

Hurley’s main purpose in the chapter is simply to define these terms. Given his Irish Times epithet as the ‘Father of Irish Ecumenism,’ I think it’s safe to say his definitions continue to deserve a wide reading.

Today I will quote directly from the chapter, in the sections in which Hurley defines ecumenism:

What is Ecumenism?

My approach to this first question is to concentrate on the subject rather than the object and to attempt a description of the ecumenist. It may sound contradictory but in the first place I would see ecumenists as in a very real sense intolerant persons. They will be wholly in favour of pluralism but firmly opposed to a plurality of Churches: they exist to put an end to this plurality. If that sounds paradoxical it is because ecumenism has mistakenly, however understandably, been identified with tolerance (p. 103).

… Ecumenists are intolerant of many Churches for a very particular reason. They are intolerant because they are convinced that the present situation is intolerable. They experience it as something which ‘openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling-block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.’[1] (p. 104)

… Ecumenists, in the second place, are those Christians who have come to realise how much they have in common with the members of other Churches … The remaining differences are not denied but take very much second place. They see the way forward, therefore, as that of theological dialogue in the name of the Spirit, who alone can lead our partially united Churches into the fullness of truth and unity. (p. 104)

… [Ecumenists believe] Christians must ‘do everything together as far as conscience permits’ in the name of the Father, who creates and sustains. The ecumenist sees such co-operation as liberating the Churches from their ancestral prejudices and antipathies, and as deepening and developing their existing unity. … Ecumenists … accept that, in the words of the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches, ‘the achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of Church life as we have known them.’ (p. 105)

… the ecumenist is someone who is painfully wondering whether and to what extent ecumenism is applicable to religions as well as to Christian traditions. … all over the world, although still very tentatively, inter-faith dialogue is now considered to be a necessary part of ecumenism. (p. 106)

Reading Hurley’s descriptions of ecumenists, could you describe yourself as one?

Do you know people who would look like the ecumenists that Hurley describes, but would shun the term ecumenism and shudder to think that they might be called an ecumenist?

In future posts, I’ll consider Hurley’s definitions of ecumenical theology and Ecumenics.


[1] Decree on Ecumenism, Vatican Council II, ed. Austin Flannery OP (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1992), p. 452

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