Christian Ecumenism and Extravagant Mercy
The case for Christian unity and dreaming in line with Pentecost
By Edgardo Colón-Emeric
Early in the morning of October 5, 2022, a small band of Catholics and Methodists gathered in a room behind the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis. The room was called an auletta — literally, a “little hall,” but it was only little in comparison to the 6,300-seat-capacity room next door. While we waited for Francis, a member of our group spoke of having “happy legs,” which was a more original way of naming what I experienced as butterflies in the stomach as I prepared to present the most recent report of the Methodist Roman Catholic International Commission to the Pope.
My journey to the auletta began at Duke Divinity School in the mid-1990s, when I studied theology under the great Methodist ecumenist Geoffrey Wainwright. From him, I learned the journey toward Christian unity has deep roots in church history and Scripture. The word “ecumenical” comes from the Greek oikoumene, which the New Testament and the Greek version of the Old Testament use to refer to the whole inhabited world. For instance, Luke informs his readers that around the time of Jesus’ birth, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world [oikoumene] should be registered” (Luke 2:1 — biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted). When Christian leaders met in Constantinople in 381 C.E. to argue for the true humanity of Jesus against its detractors, they referred to the previous gathering of bishops in Nicaea in 325 C.E. as an “ecumenical synod.”
Wainwright helped me understand the abiding significance of the historical ecumenical councils and the creeds they developed. Today, the term ecumenical encompasses more than geographical scope or historic landmarks; it names a way of being church that affirms diversity, rejects division, and works for unity. It denotes a new posture before God and fellow Christians, a posture of dialogue (sitting ecumenism), service (walking ecumenism), and prayer (kneeling ecumenism). This last one most of all, for at the heart of the ecumenical way is Jesus’ prayer on the eve of his passion for his followers throughout the ages: “May they all be one … that the world may believe” (John 17:21).
Since 2008, I have had the humbling privilege of representing Methodists in bilateral dialogues with Roman Catholics nationally and internationally. In these years, I have been blessed by the exchange of gifts that comes from walking toward Christian unity. There is something truly remarkable about traveling, reading, discussing, eating, and praying together with fellow Christians with whom one has substantive disagreements.
One characteristic of these dialogues I greatly appreciate is their unabashedly doctrinal character. After all, historically, one reason why Christians part ways and remain divided is doctrine. Differences between how Catholics and the Orthodox understand the person of the Holy Spirit, and differences between how Protestants and Catholics understand the role of Mary, all promoted and sustain separation. The unity Christians seek cannot downplay doctrine’s importance because faith involves thinking. A unity that papers over questions of truth is, at best, toleration and, at worst, indifference.
Clearly, what unites Christians at the deepest level is not doctrine but Christ, with whom we are one through baptism. Scripture testifies to baptism’s significance when it says, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The church is already one. The letter to the Ephesians declares this in a beautiful way: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6). Oneness does not dilute diversity. Indeed, the letter to the Ephesians continues: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7). The waters of baptism do not wash away difference. Instead, they cleanse difference and prepare it for sanctification.
Even so, ecumenical dialogues often focus on doctrine. Ecumenical doctrinal statements claim baptism as the common ground for Christian unity. It is, however, a contested claim. One of the most painful moments in Methodist-Catholic dialogues comes when we celebrate the Eucharist and fail to share the body and blood of Christ. It is a scandal to see people who have been spending intense time together and share so much in common part ways at the Lord’s Supper. The ecumenical journey is not a yellow brick road but a Via Dolorosa. We are bound to fall against the stumbling blocks of divided doctrines and practices.
Lack of a common goal. Jesus prayed that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one, but he did not offer a blueprint or model for unity. The statement from the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi in 1961 perhaps comes closest to a common vision of the goal. It highlights unity as “both God’s will and his gift to the Church.” Ecumenism has spatial and temporal dimensions — unity with sisters and brothers around the world and with church fathers and mothers throughout history. Significantly, unity does not mean uniformity. There is legitimate diversity within Christian life. Nevertheless, beyond this broad level of agreement, differences emerge.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic model for unity was simple — return to Rome. The earliest Protestant expressions of the ecumenical movement aimed for organic union as the goal, the merging of diverse churches under one common structural arrangement. Models of reconciled diversity have also been advanced. For instance, some speak of different ecclesial forms like the Pauline (Protestant), Petrine (Roman Catholic), and the Johannine (Orthodox). In all these cases, multiple models suggest multiple ends, which necessitate multiple paths and may unintentionally provoke more estrangement.
Ecumenical skepticism. In Latin America, many Protestant churches experience deep misgivings about the work for Christian unity. Interdenominational cooperation is one thing, but a movement that embraces Roman Catholics as sisters and brothers is something else. The language itself is telling. In Latin American communities, it is still common to hear people distinguishing Christians from Catholics. The word ecumenism carries the baggage of sounding like communism and evokes external hegemonic forces. Latin American history does indeed bear the marks of a Roman Catholic ecclesial monopoly, which has broken up only in recent decades. The idea of sitting down with Roman Catholics for fraternal dialogues strikes some as a betrayal of the gospel and of the witness of hard-fought battles for social recognition.
Nostalgia for a golden age. It is common to hear that the most exciting days for ecumenism are past. The early decades of the 20th century witnessed stellar signs of hope for Christian unity: the formation of the World Council of Churches, the invitation of Protestant observers to the Second Vatican Council, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and many more. The abundance of signs of unity moved John Paul II to look to the 21st century as inaugurating a millennium of Christian unity that would heal the wounds of division from the second millennium. So far, those hopes have been disappointed.
Ecumenists have often pointed to the problem of reception. The agreements achieved through official dialogues have a hard time changing the situation on the ground. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification may have bridged gaps opened by the Reformation, but the churches have yet to cross these bridges.
Apathy about division. Simply put, we do not miss each other enough. In the International Methodist Catholic dialogue, the parable of the prodigal son mirrored the reality of this unrealized estrangement. Both sons abandoned the father’s house. The younger one lost himself in licentious living in a far country. The older one lost himself in work close to home. When Methodists and Catholics read this together, we saw ourselves. Both of us were the younger son. Both of us were the older son. Both of us long to return to the father’s house and be embraced. In Scripture, the parable ends without resolution. The older son refuses to celebrate with the father. One detail that interests me is the two brothers’ relationship — or the lack thereof. In his journey to and from the far country, the younger son spares no thought for his older brother. The older son bears only contempt for the younger one. Neither refers to the other as brother; neither longs for the other.
The Catholic ecumenist Jean-Marie Tillard’s final book was titled I Believe, Despite Everything. He describes a vocation to dream despite the lure of going back (nostalgia), or giving up (apathy), or digging down (skepticism). And the challenges facing the ecumenical movement are cause not for despair but for dreaming. In Scripture, we find hints of an eschatological dimension to ecumenism. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read of “the coming world [oikoumene]” (Hebrews 2:5). Difficult experiences with the edicts (dogmas) of Caesars and the ecumenical pretensions of Rome pushed Christians to distinguish the oikoumene of the empire from the oikoumene of the church. The unity of the coming oikoumene will not derive from homogenizing cultures or subjecting difference but from purifying and perfecting them. The promise of this coming oikoumene guides the ecumenical movement and inspires Christian dreams of unity. I here share a few dreams that I believe are not simply my own but reflect the aspirations of many.
I dream dreams of an ecumenical movement that goes out to the world. Ecumenism and evangelism cannot be separated. The event most frequently credited with the launch of the ecumenical movement was the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. The call to unity came from the mission field, where the denominational differences among Christians paled in comparison to the differences between Christians and non-Christians. Interestingly, in the lead up to the gathering, they called it the “Ecumenical Missionary Conference,” but the organizers judged that the absence of Catholic and Orthodox participants stretched the definition of “ecumenical” beyond the breaking point. Christian unity matters, but it does not exist for its own sake. Unity is the goal of the ecumenical movement, not the goal of the church; the church seeks unity for the sake of its credibility in its mission to the world.
I dream dreams of an ecumenical movement that goes down to the margins. The church has gone South, in the sense that the majority of its members are now found in what is often called the Global South. As the church has changed, so too must the movement toward Christian unity. The ecumenical questions emerging from the Global South are not identical to those of the Global North. Doctrine matters, but the pressures on the churches are not simply those coming from the secular age — they come from the heavy legacies of colonialism. Moreover, in the movement to the margins, we might rediscover the power of Jesus’ high priestly prayer by joining his journey of descent. Jesus voiced his prayer not from a temple or throne but from the place of rejection and suffering.
I dream dreams of an ecumenical movement that draws in the youth. Before the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, the movement toward Christian unity was a youth movement. The contributions of interdenominational groups such as the YMCA, the YWCA, and the World Student Christian Federation are underappreciated today. Youth and student groups committed themselves to Christian unity and “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Along with recovering the role of youth, the ecumenical movement needs to place laity at the center. Clericalization has rendered the movement the work of specialists rather than the work of the people of God.
I dream dreams of an ecumenical movement that draws in the theological academy. In its list of “instruments of unity,” the Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies does not mention theological schools, but these have long served as signs of and instruments for Christian unity. In seminaries and divinity schools, future Christian leaders deepen their understanding of the faith by studying, worshipping, and serving next to Christians of different traditions. An old saying directs the Christian journey toward unity: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In seminaries, many learn there is a hierarchy of doctrines, and this hiearchy clarifies the terms for the theological pluralism coherent with Christ’s gospel. Admittedly, the ecumenical seminary or divinity school is a fragile institution. The forces of secularization and polarization greatly stress these communities. God’s promised vision of the church is ecumenical, however, and a school that forms people for strictly denominational (or even non/postdenominational) leadership will fall out of step with the richness of Christ’s prayer.
A Pentecost Movement
Returning to the auletta, Francis walked slowly into the room. Aided by a cane, he made his way to the chair at the center of the room and sat down immediately to my right. Official greetings followed, first by the Catholic co-chair and then by me. In contrast to our scripted remarks, Francis spoke off the cuff. He fondly reminisced about his connections to Methodist pastors in Argentina before turning to talk about ecumenism and the parable of the prodigal son. He noted the necessity of doctrinal dialogue and its limitations. Full doctrinal unity will not be possible this side of the kingdom. The parable of the prodigal opens a new way, the way of mercy. Francis alluded to a popular staged rendition of the parable. In this play, the prodigal longs to return to his father’s house but fears rejection or worse. He asks a friend to carry a letter to his father asking him to drape a white handkerchief from a window, if he is to be welcomed home. When the prodigal and his friend draw near to the house, he sees not one but hundreds and hundreds of little handkerchiefs.
The message was clear. God’s mercy is extravagant. God sends the church, as the body of Christ, into the world as the face of mercy. The signs of mercy may be as small as little handkerchiefs, but they can overwhelm in their number for those who have eyes to see. In this connection, I find it fitting that one of the names for the feast of Pentecost is Whitsunday. The name comes from Pentecost’s association with baptism and the practice of wearing white for that occasion. This is the ecumenical movement — a movement toward a new Pentecost of mercy.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric is the Dean of Duke Divinity School; Irene and William McCutchen Professor of Reconciliation and Theology; and Director of the Center for Reconciliation. He is an ordained elder in the North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as the Methodist co-chair for the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission.