Receptive Ecumenism

Fr Gerard Kelly, Catholic Institute of Sydney

1. People have been talking about receptive ecumenism for around six years now. Its origins can be traced to a conference organised by Prof Paul Murray at the University of Durham in January 2006.

2. At the outset we should note that we are talking of an ecumenical methodology. In part, we will understand receptive ecumenism as we compare it with other ecumenical methodologies.

3. It is generally agreed that the following ecumenical methodologies have been operating during the twentieth century ecumenical movement: the comparative methodology; the joint study of the sources; and the application of the Lund Principle (churches should "act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately"). While we can identify particular time frames when these have been at their peak, they all continue to operate at different levels in our churches and in ecumenical relations. Each of them has been responsible for remarkable achievements and advances.

4. Paul Murray argues that these methodologies have run out of steam. They have not been able to deal with some of the new issues that keep the churches divided (e.g. issues around human sexuality). Further, churches themselves are facing internal challenges that have the potential to keep them focused on their own identity and to isolate them from the community of churches and Christian denominations.

5. In this situation a new methodology is needed to foster vitality in the ecumenical movement. Paul Murray has proposed "receptive ecumenism" as offering a new way of being ecumenical. He proposes it as a model of ecclesial learning. We will need to focus on what he means by ecclesial learning.

6. We can better appreciate this new methodology if we recall what was going on in each of the traditional methodologies.

i)  For the comparative methodology, the focus was on learning about the other church, its distinctive characteristics and its teaching.

ii)  For the joint study of the sources, the focus was on learning about the faith in a way that was not dependent on a particular church's expression of it. This method often took the churches beyond their own confessional statements and focused on the ancient Christian tradition.

iii)  For the Lund Principle, churches acted together wherever possible. This was ecumenism at the practical level; it did much to build ecumenical relationships.

7. The strategies of these methodologies worked because they clarified issues. Receptive ecumenism is somewhat different to each of these earlier methodologies, while sharing some common elements. Its purpose is to offer a strategy that promotes in each church, change, growth and conversion to a deeper Christian life. The word "receptive" brings out the essential difference from other methodologies: rather than learning about the other, it is learning from the other.

8. The word "receptive" also explains the basic characteristic of receptive ecumenism, especially if we are aware of the distinction between "reception" and "receptive".

- In speaking of ecumenical reception we are dealing with a noun. The focus is on something to be received: a new insight into another church; better understanding of the doctrines that have divided us; the possibility of working together on a particular project, etc.

- In speaking of receptive ecumenism we are dealing with an adjective. The focus is on a particular quality of the church, namely its receptivity. In the methodology of receptive ecumenism each church is called to be receptive.

9. This is what Paul Murray means when he speaks of ecclesial learning. The methodology of receptive ecumenism opens the way for each church to learn. The difference with previous methodologies is that each church will primarily be learning about itself from the other. Earlier methodologies, on the other hand, were focused on learning about the other either directly (the comparative method) or indirectly (the joint study of the sources). Further, in comparison with the application of the Lund Principle, in receptive ecumenism there is less focus on churches acting together. This is not to say, however, that they are necessarily acting independently of each other.

10.  As an ecumenical methodology, this may seem counter-intuitive. Rather than get the churches to focus on obvious strategies for agreement and unity, it seems to send each church back into itself. However, this is not to happen in isolation from its ecumenical partners.

11.  We must appreciate the importance of what is happening here. There is another ecumenical principle at work, namely that the unity of the church is a gift of God and that its visibility is the result of a continual process of renewal and reform. Receptive ecumenism asks each church to focus for a while on its own faith, life and witness; to identify where renewal is needed; AND to seek help from our ecumenical partners in this process of internal renewal. This is ecclesial learning.

12.  I believe we should not underestimate the difficulties involved in this methodology. Let me list some of them. First, it is counter-intuitive. For those of us who are ecumenically aware, we may become distressed if we seem to be concentrating more on ourselves than on building ecumenical relationships. Paul Murray's point is that at the present time we may not be able to make any real advances in ecumenical relationships if we persist with the traditional methodologies. We might not go backwards, but we might find ourselves locked to the status quo for some time. In this case, we might be losing a valuable opportunity to do something different. What some refer to as an "ecumenical winter" can become an opportunity to do some work on our own house.

13.  A second difficulty is that all of our churches can be remarkably resistant to change. Often this is not a case of ill will, but of a lack of imagination in identifying those areas where we need new ways of thinking and acting. For all of our churches, this is often linked to the way authority works in the church. No one way of exercising authority would seem to be immune from facing head on the need for change. Further, it is not easy for a church to agree internally on those areas where renewal is needed.

14.  A third difficulty is that once some internal consensus on the need for renewal has been reached, it may not be easy to approach our ecumenical partners, seeking to learn from them. This can be particularly difficult if we are dealing with an area where there are basic doctrinal differences (e.g. ministry; or the nature and mission of the church). The secret of overcoming this difficulty, it would seem, is to recognise that learning from the other does not have to mean doing things the way the other church does them, or even accepting their basic theological stance. But another church can shine a light on our current practices and help us to see them with fresh eyes, and develop strategies for renewal.

15.  The practical implementation of receptive ecumenism can be very broad in its scope. It may work most effectively in situations that concern the practical life of the church. In my opinion, the way the churches have been willing to learn from each other about responding to the crisis of sexual abuse has been an example of receptive ecumenism, even if it has not been named as such.

16. The methodology of receptive ecumenism will be challenging for us. However, it offers us opportunities. In particular, it offers us a way to reflect on those areas of church life where we may be struggling. For some, it may also be a challenge to identify those areas to our ecumenical partners and to learn from them.


February 2013

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