Ecumenism must be advocacy and action not mere unity

Christian religions coming together must be agents of God’s compassion

We must act together in the service of a suffering world rather than in the service of unity itself. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

We must act together in the service of a suffering world rather than in the service of unity itself. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

First a confession. Regardless of what the subject under discussion might be I sometimes come away from meetings with people from other Christian traditions with the uneasy feeling that I wouldn’t be all that happy or even comfortable worshipping or witnessing other than as an Anglican.

I am reassured that the feeling is uneasy, suggesting a bad conscience about my chronic attachment to the religious tradition of my birth. However it is a pretty mild and decorous conscientious discomfort and it has never affected my sleep as I suspect it hasn’t for my Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker etc counterparts.

So, speaking in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and as president of the Irish Council of Churches and co-chair of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, it would be very dishonest of me to say that I look forward to the “visible” unity of the church – if by that is meant a great cosmopolitan institution with agreed rules,canons and beliefs, all cut square and subscribed.

I am slightly reassured by the thought that the existence of such a body might not be all that appealing to the “unbelieving” world either with its current suspicion of all institutions and its conviction that real worth lies only in personal relationships freely entered into and that there is virtually no moral value in any sort of compelled response to authority, to law or to God.

Suffering world

Perhaps “visible” unity would be more appealing in the rudimentary sense of a unity that can be “seen”, and particularly seen in believers acting together in the service of a suffering world rather than in the service of unity itself.

As with all forms of discipleship, ecumenism needs to have a goal beyond itself to indicate that it is an activity of the God of compassion and who we experience by what he does for us.

We should consider and we should pray and we should act in unity for the benefit of others

That is not to say that it is to be unconsidered and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is to be uncontemplative. In his sermon during this week in 2013, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin spoke about how we must learn to pray together and not just by cut-and-paste liturgies. But really pray together; to come into the presence of God and to leave ourselves open to the task which he will lay on us.

We should consider and we should pray and we should act in unity for the benefit of others. For instance, 10 years ago the western world almost came apart at the seams. At that time heaven and earth were moved to ensure the continued existence of the financial system and particularly of financial institutions.

Practical works

And in one sense the remedy worked; however it has left the system slightly more robust and better regulated but essentially the same. I do not think that it is a coincidence that the focus on fixing financial institutions has left this island with a homelessness and a housing crisis nothing short of a scandal.

There is a passage in one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament which often surfaces at this time of year. It is about the message and the ministry of reconciliation with which the church is charged to bring to the world.

Proclaiming the message is one thing but serving that message, doing something practical and concrete about it and doing so together, perhaps has been the missing element in developing a unity that is both a gift to the world as well as a grace for the church.

I was hungry and you gave me meat, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me . . .

After a very moderate celebration on New Year’s Eve (in exoneration, it was also a significant birthday for my wife), it was sobering to read the Gospel on New Year’s Day from St Mathew 25 and to reflect that the criteria for ultimate judgment will not be about adultery, murder, sacrilege, infidelity, blasphemy or dishonesty but that “I was hungry and you gave me meat, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me . . .”

Perhaps it is around this kind of advocacy and action that we can show our unity.

Rt Rev John McDowell is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher. He is currently the president of the Irish Council of Churches and co-chair of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting

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