Michael Hurley Book Review: Christian Unity – An Ecumenical Second Spring?

imageOver the last several weeks, I’ve reflected on some insights from Fr Michael Hurley SJ’s 1998 book, Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? (Dublin: Veritas). Hurley, a founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, passed away earlier in the year and this inspired me to delve into this book.

This is my final post on the book, intended as a general review of the book. It’s my hope that the review will prompt others to revisit – or to consider for the first time – some of Hurley’s ideas. I’d encourage people to try and get their hands on a copy of the book and read it for themselves.

I work at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and I am often greeted with a blank stare when I tell people where I work. I know that it can’t be taken for granted that people actually know what Ecumenics is. So, it’s helpful that significant chapters in the book are taken up with definitions, which I have explored in earlier posts on this blog:

Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenical Tithing

Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenical Theology and Ecumenics

Fr Michael Hurley on Ecumenism

Although published more than a decade ago, the concern that motivated Hurley to write the book is strikingly contemporary – the sense that the ecumenical movement is in the doldrums.

The words Hurley writes in the introduction (p. 1) could have been written today:

‘But despite some remarkable success … ecumenical efforts have not only failed to achieve their goal but the whole movement has, it would seem, failed to maintain its momentum. It has lost its drive, its nerve, its sense of direction. It is now like a ship becalmed needing the mighty wind of the Spirit to get under way again.’

Indeed, last year I reflected on a 2008 article in Doctrine and Life by my Irish School of Ecumenics colleague Andrew Pierce, in which he argued that ecumenism in Ireland remained uninspired and uninspiring.

There are also several chapters that bemoan the shortcomings in the Irish churches’ contributions to peace on this island, and aspects of these read as if they could be written today.

A chapter called ‘The Church of Ireland: Challenges for the Future’ considers the difficulties posed by its relationship with the Orange Order, difficulties that have not yet gone away. Other chapters deal with the challenges of churches caught up in Ireland’s sectarian system can meaningfully promote. forgiveness and reconciliation.

Given this diagnosis, much of the rest of the book could be understood as Hurley’s plea to get people excited about ecumenism and, in the Irish context, reconciliation. This is done through an eclectic mix of chapters, organised into three sections:

Ecumenical Vision

Ecumenical Issues

Ecumenical Initiatives

The section on ecumenical initiatives offers fascinating insights into the history of the churches in Ireland. Chapter topics ranged from the Milltown Park Public Lecture Series 1960-1969, the publication of the book Irish Anglicanism 1869-1969, and the formation of the Irish School of Ecumenics and the now-defunct Columbanus Community of Reconciliation (which was housed in the building now occupied by the Belfast campus of the Irish School of Ecumenics).

Reading the chapters on the Milltown Park Lectures and Irish Anglicanism was like stepping back in time. The socio-religious world Hurley described seems alien in contrast to the Ireland of today.

Can you imagine a church service to celebrate the launch of a book on Anglicanism being broadcast live during prime time on RTE today? Or can you imagine 700 people turning up at Milltown Park on a winter’s evening to hear talks on ‘drugs, brainwashing and the self’ and ‘psychiatry, the moralist and sin’, both delivered by Catholic priests (p. 243)?

Hurley also writes that Eamon DeValera attended several of the Milltown Park lectures, which made me wonder to what extent this founding father of the Irish state realised that the Ireland that he ‘dreamed of’ was fading away?

The historical chapters also provided some perspective on the challenges faced by ecumenists of that generation. While the challenges for Christians committed to Christian unity today might be different, the qualities of patience and perseverance needed then are also surely needed now.

In the other sections, Hurley considers themes of both general ecumenical interest, and others specific to the Irish context. He offers suggestions on how to make baptism and Eucharist more ecumenically meaningful. But again, today, it seems that the practice of both remain as divided as ever in our churches.

Other chapters are Hurley’s own reflections on how the wider church can honour the contributions of Christians of other traditions. So as a Catholic, he praises the insights of Presbyterian John Calvin (in a chapter called ‘Catholicity: The Witness of Calvin’s Institutes’), Methodist John Wesley (in a chapter called ‘Wesley Today and Evangelisation Today’), and Anglican George Otto Simms (in a chapter called ‘George Otto Simms: Ecumenical Examplar 1910-1991’).

I think these reflections can be understood as part of Hurley’s own process of ecumenical formation – really delving into the thought and the spiritual life of Christians of other traditions, and finding there real insight and common ground.

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