The Role of the Personal in Christian Unity Efforts

One summer during my years in grad school I participated in an intensive month-long Outward Bound Wilderness Survival program for teachers in the Boundary Water Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. We learned many survival techniques. One was how to treat a person for hypothermia, a condition in which the core body temperature drops to a dangerous low. We were instructed to put the person with hypothermia into a sleeping bag along with two other people who would enfold the person with their own body heat. This simple strategy has revived many a person whose vitality was visibly waning.

Over the years, I’ve made some analogous applications of what I learned in that wilderness to a very different kind of wilderness that I found myself increasingly involved in: the work for unity and solidarity among the followers of Jesus.

Some wonder whether the vitality of this movement called ecumenical is visibly waning. One of my colleagues who works on a regional level remarked, “We do not meet anymore as ecumenical colleagues in this area and not for a lack of my trying. Pastors are preoccupied with internal affairs, principally the effort to maintain visible unity within their own ecclesial boundaries, and less inclined to acknowledge the significance of things ecumenical or interreligious, or make the time to meet with one another.”

Ecumenical hypothermia? Dropping of the core temperature of the Body of Christ to a dangerous low?

The tripwire for this present cooling of air relates as we know to a series of moral/ethical/theological questions represented by passionate differences over chastity, marriage, homosexuality, pro-life/pro-choice, and who can be ordained. What is at stake below the surface are serious issues of authority, divine revelation, and our understanding of the Church (ecclesiology). These unresolved questions represent a kind of wilderness in which we are out there together in local settings. And the question is: will we keep each other warm or let each other freeze in isolation?

So much of the official and public ecumenical life of the churches today revolves around theological considerations that we risk forgetting the role of the personal in the work for unity. With each year of ecumenical work, I become more and more convinced that no matter how important theological work is for making more visible the unity that is already ours in Christ, the real crux of the work is to deepen the experience of our already-given unity on the local level.

That essential unity is already a given in baptism and not something that needs to be achieved. Rather, it is something that needs to be made more visible for the sake of the church’s mission in the world. Simply put: Our divisions undermine the credibility of the gospel of reconciliation we preach.

So a significant measure of my time and energy goes into leading ecumenical parish missions and ecumenical retreats where members of different traditions of Christian faith spend not just an hour together, but several evenings or days together, in prayer and faith-sharing.

For it is communities of believers, at least as much as if not more than articles of belief, that need to be reconciled. Love alone makes truth a lived reality and sets us free to make new beginnings.

Within the household of Christian faith, we need each other’s insights to correct deficiencies and imbalances. Any differences in theological priorities, preoccupations and insights will not create fear, because that is how we help one another to pursue the truth.

In the ecumenical exchange, partners share as fully as possible their deepest experiences and values. This approach does not undermine the confessional loyalty of the people concerned, but makes them appreciate the strength of the diverse traditions. And in the process, unsuspected possibilities for mutual enrichment begin to come to life. It is a question of offering one another both challenge and inspiration, of bearing witness together, of serving the same Gospel.

At the recent Anglican Lambeth Conference in England, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, said in his address to the Anglican bishops: “People ask me sometimes: ‘Has it been worth it? You’ve given a great deal of your life to this work and yet where are the results?’ My answer is: ‘Yes it has.’ I believe the path to unity is like a road with no exit . . . because it is Christ’s will that we be one, and however long it takes, that has to be our goal. We can already notice one result of our work in the changed relationships of these years and the ways we can work together with greater confidence in the faith we share.”

One concrete expression of those “changed relationships” at Lambeth was that the ecumenical representatives were told that they were not merely observers, but genuine participants, and invited to take part in the Anglican bishops’ discussion groups as well as in the life of prayer.

When there is a commitment to God and to one another, when the body of Christ has been built up from the bottom by shared prayer and shared life , when we have been keeping each other and Christ’s dream for his Church warm and alive all along the way, we will joyfully seize every opportunity to express our unity in Christ.

Any advance that has ever happened in the church’s mission for unity came about because there were relationships of trust and confidence between the people from the various traditions involved.

That may sound obvious, but if we’re too busy with in-house affairs to make available some time to meet and deepen relationships with pastors of other churches, then let us restate the obvious: Christ’s prayer for unity among his followers can only advance through relationships.

Are we willing to make available some time for this to let the Spirit work? It could be as simple as picking up the phone and inviting a local pastor to dinner….

Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.