Jigsaw Puzzle Ecumenism

As worldwide Anglicanism implodes, Catholics may remember the heady days of Anglican-Catholic ecumenical relations. In 1966, the last great archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, met with Pope Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel. The archbishop and the pope embraced and signed agreements to begin the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. The pope gave Ramsey an episcopal ring and they promised to "go forward together."
At the same time, Rome initiated ecumenical conversations with a whole range of ecclesial bodies from the Reformed tradition. Even Southern Baptists were wooed into talks. Alas, this type of large scale ecumenical activity seems to have sputtered to a halt. 
Much of it has to do with the internal divisions within Protestantism itself. In all the denominational traditions, as the mainline churches follow a predictable feminist/homosexualist agenda, the conservatives are splitting off to follow what they believe to be the "scriptural" faith. As the liberals and conservatives in the Protestant denominations fight to the death, it has become clear to them and to everyone else that even if Rome wanted to move forward ecumenically, any real chance of this happening is now impossible.
It is impossible because both the liberal and conservative Protestants have no real love for Rome. As heirs of the classic Protestant religion, conservative Protestants never abandoned the slogan, "No pope here!" The liberals have often made the right sounds Rome-ward, but they have never really understood the Catholic Church, nor wanted to. The conservative Protestants were (and are) opposed to Rome for all the old Protestant doctrinal reasons. The liberal Protestants are opposed to Rome because they perceive the Catholic Church to be reactionary, authoritarian, homophobic, misogynistic, and patriarchal. As a result, anti-Rome feeling among Protestants is now as high as it has ever been.
This leaves the few remaining Anglicans (along with a few Lutherans and Methodists) who have clung to a "high church" religion with Catholic trappings, bishops, and Catholic sensibilities. These are the rump of Ramsey’s Anglo-Catholic religion of the 1960s. They now occupy a shrinking minority position within their own churches, or they have split into "orthodox" breakaway groups.
So where does this leave the ecumenical movement? In fact, there are some very encouraging signs of hope within Pope Benedict XVI’s overall vision and mission. The key is in Benedict’s concept of "the hermeneutic of continuity." Through everything from his Wednesday catechesis to the reform of the liturgy, to his relaxation of the restrictions on the Latin Mass to his use of more ornate ceremonial and vestments, Benedict is intent on flying the Catholic flag. He is leading a Church that is distinctively Catholic once more, and by doing so is rallying to his flag all those of whatever background who sincerely wish to belong to this Church that lives in continuity with the Christianity of the ages.
This renewal of an authentic and distinctive Catholic faith will not only consolidate the faith for Catholics worldwide, but it will build a bridge for all those who truly wish to be Catholic and are presently alienated. By renewing the ancient traditions of the Church, Benedict is already inspiring confidence among the Eastern Orthodox, who criticized the abuses and radical direction of much of the Western Church after the second Vatican Council. A renewed, distinctive, and authentic Catholic faith will also appeal to those Anglicans who sincerely wish to belong to the fullness of the Catholic faith and be reconciled.
The Eastern Churches can look hopefully to the existing situation with the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. The way forward may very well be to continue to encourage their own traditions, liturgies, clergy marital discipline, and episcopal jurisdictions. Many more problems need to be solved, not least the Eastern Orthodox’s traditional dislike and distrust of the Eastern Catholic Churches. However, the models that allow and encourage diversity within unity are available, and working well, and the recent reception of a group of Assyrian Catholics into the fold proves it.
Working with the Anglicans is more difficult. The Anglican Communion is a diffuse body that is splitting further every day. In addition to the hundreds of national churches that are part of the formal Anglican Communion, there are now nearly one hundred Anglican breakaway churches. Some of them are no more than a bishop with a few souls worshipping in his garage; others are serious global confederations that are already in conversations with the Vatican. Negotiating unity with whole groups like this is fraught with difficulty, not least because so many of their members and clergy are former Catholics who have formally apostatized or are in irregular marriages. 
Nevertheless, in a breathtaking gesture of welcome and encouragement, Rome has already authorized an Anglican Use liturgy, provided the pastoral provision for married former Anglicans to be ordained as Catholic priests, and shown a way for Anglican Use parishes to be established within the existing diocesan structures. Rome has batted the ball across the net; it’s up to the Anglicans who are interested to return it. If they want, individual congregations, religious communities, apostolates, and even dioceses or breakaway Anglican churches can come into full communion.
More easily reconciled are those groups that have most recently broken away from the Catholic Church. If the entire Society of St. Pius X cannot be brought home to Rome, at least we can be hopeful that individual congregations, priests, religious, and provinces might turn away from schism and affirm full communion with the Catholic Church. 
This has happened recently when the Transalpine Redemptorists (a group associated with the Society of St Pius X) and the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church (a group of sedevacantist nuns) were reconciled. The model of receiving religious orders into the Church and regularizing their position — allowing them a certain measure of independence while grafting them into the Church — may also work for schismatic ecclesial communities, new movements in the Church, and individual congregations that have broken away from either the Catholic Church or some other Catholic-oriented schismatic Church.
In my observation of the ecumenical movement over the last 25 years, I have been amazed at the courtesy, diplomacy, and patience of Rome. Time and again, Rome has taken the initiative. She has made the memorable gesture, offered the hand of friendship, opened discussions, and welcomed every effort toward unity in the church. With firmness but love, Rome has kept the conversations going while speaking clearly when her ecumenical partners have time and again created new obstacles to unity.
Until recently, ecumenism has resembled the old US-USSR détente: The two powers sat down from time to time for "talks," but little was accomplished. In reality, one side was merely waiting for the other to collapse. We are witnessing the collapse of any viable, coherent Protestant structures. Just as the Soviet Union broke into many little parts, so in the future Protestantism will be made up of increasingly smaller splinter groups with their own traditions and agenda. The advantage is that they will know what they believe and state it clearly.
This means each one of the small groups can be reconciled to the Catholic Church more easily. The old ecumenism of Rome talking to the big global players is finished. Instead, we’ll see the reconciliation of individuals, religious communities, breakaway groups, and small, ethnic churches or sub-groups within churches. As the Protestant churches disintegrate, the new ecumenism of the 21st century will be far less like a corporate merger and far more like the intense, painstaking work of assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of
More Christianity. Visit his Web site at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Todd

    After reading this essay, I have to wonder if Rev Longenecker has a grasp of real ecumenism, at least one aside from the political maneuvering on the level of the curia. I detect a confusion of what Rome says and does that is either Roman or Catholic, but too often not both.

    Looking from the inside of Roman Catholicism, I don’t always see a hierarchy that is courteous or diplomatic. Many in the curia seem to bumble about, pulling the official face of Roman Catholicism in different directions. Certainly we Romans suffer a frayed sense of sin, given the hand-wringing over John Paul’s gestures during his papacy.

    My sense is that ecumenism from the top down is dead and probably always has been so. I would look instead to the “laboratories” of ecumenism in small communities, in efforts of charity, and especially in families.

    Such efforts bypass this author’s cheerleading for everybody to come under the Roman umbrella. An emboldened curia and the whiff of ultramontanism continues to taint our relationship with the East far more than their sniffing about our liturgy.

    The real proof for the Catholic is how often she or he adheres to the urging to pray and work toward Christian unity. It takes a lot more than to stand on the Tiber shores urging others to swim faster.

  • Tito Edwards

    I never thought of it in the way that Fr. Longenecker has presented it. I kind of resigned myself that the only real ecumanism that can be achieved is with our Orthodox brothers.

    But viewing it from a micro-level really does lend itself to many new possibilities that arise that could not ever have been achieved through the more episcopal bodies.

  • Primus

    and thank God for that. Ecumenism doesn’t consist is blurring the distinctions between faiths or incorporating elements from other faiths into Catholicism. The new clarity that Pope Benedict has brought into the ecumenical arena, along with the Protestant collapse, really means that reunion with Orthodoxy is the only thing really worth talking about.

    As to these small splinter Protestant groups having the advantage of knowing what they believe and stating it clearly: what they believe is that they don’t like Catholics and that they have been stating clearly for years.

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    This reminds me of some of the messages Jesus and Mary reportedly gave to Myrna Nazzour of Soufanieh:

    “The Church is the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He who has divided it has sinned, and he who has rejoiced in its division has also sinned.”

    “Tell my children that it is from them that I demand unity, and not from those who act and pretend to work for unity.”

    “My, children, Jesus said to Peter: you are the rock, and on it I shall build My Church.”

    For more information, see: http://www.soufanieh.com/

    Personally, I have always found Myrna Nazzour to be far more convincing than any of the other alleged visionaries wandering the world today, and it seems that the Church, too, has favorable of her, though no final decision has been rendered.

  • tom

    Dwight writes from the point of view of a convert, of one who has in his own eyes, “come home,” and is quite enthusiastic about what he has found. I do not know from what point of view Todd disagrees so strongly.

    Like Dwight, I am a convert from evangelical Christianity. I dialog a lot with separated brethren and I agree with Dwight’s basic tenet, that we are seeing the disintegration of large Protestant bodies into smaller ones, and that many of those smaller ones (especially individuals) are on their way home.

    Over this I rejoice. I wish Todd would too.

    I often find cradle Catholics dismissing the fervor and enthusiasm of us converts as misplaced or even childish. It’s like, alright already, we have the Eucharist and we are in lively communion with Mary and the saints, and we a continuous 2000 year tradition lined with Fathers, and 33 doctors and ecumencial councils, and, in our time, John Paul II, but these people, these converts, simply do not understand–there is so much wrong with the Church, so much we have to change! The list of proposed changes is not always spelled out (it’s a little different for each complainer) but almost always includes the word curia, and ususally the word ultramoantaine, so Todd’s response does not disappont.

    Tom, now in Ohio

  • Geoffrey Miller

    “An emboldened curia and the whiff of ultramontanism continues to taint our relationship with the East far more than their sniffing about our liturgy.”

    As a convert from Eastern Orthodoxy, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart of hearts that only two things divide them from Catholics: Liturgy and Biblical Scholarship. Everything else is merely a smokescreen to cover these central issues.

    They disagree with Roman Liturgy because it has become banal and has lost its air of sacramentality. In order to appreciate this complaint fully, you need to attend an Orthodox Liturgy some Sunday morning. Then, you will know exactly what’s wrong with the Roman Liturgy, and let me tell you straight off, it isn’t that the rubrics aren’t followed.

    They are frightened by Catholic Biblical Scholarship because they view much of it as plainly heretical. Anyone who has read the footnotes in the New American Bible, or picked up any modern commentaries on Holy Writ would have to agree. There’s no dodging this point of contention. We need to start treating the Bible as the Word of God and let it judge us rather than vice versa. Furthermore, we need to read what all the Saints have said regarding Biblical Inerrancy (contrary to popular belief, it is almost all-pervasive in Catholic Tradition), and come up with a dogmatic definition for it.

    If we solve these two problems, we’ll be home free!

  • Primus

    of cradle Catholics who are dismissive of Catholic Christianity as it now manifests itself. Most of us cradle Catholics are quite happy with the rigorousness and clarity offered by the present Pontiff and wish that had been the paradigm over the last fifty years.

  • K

    It seems, from a perch quite outside the Roman Church, that the author misreads both conservative and liberal protestants quite badly. Many conservative protestants have been joining conservative Roman churches lately. They are still frustrated and freaked out, though, when they encounter some of the features that are either unreformed in the Roman Church (mariolatry comes to mind; veneration of the saints can sometimes appear to cross bright lines; power struggles in the heirarchy cause concern) or pockets of 1960s radicals and liberation theology, at the most extreme, the womanpriests – thankfully excommunicated.

    So, the conservatives, as they study more and take unity seriously, look for a reformed RC church, and in so much as they are welcomed into it, tend to become serious Roman Catholics – much as the Orthodox uniates take their faith seriously.

    The liberals, on the other hand, are always looking for ‘dialogue’ – which means, they want to be heard. They are also happy to hold hands, as long as it doesn’t commit them to anything. Unity is all well and good for them, because the faith is meaningless. Praxis is what they care about – and that praxis is social justice done for the benefit of ‘humanity’ – humanism – with no regard for the spiritual status of those cared for. This is, naturally, very unlike what the apostles did when caring for the widows.
    Oh, and if there were to be some sort of ‘unity’ – issues like abortion, feminism, homosexuality, science-worship, alternative paths to God, disbelief in scriptural accuracy, and other issues would simply poison either the unity, or the whole church.

  • Ben

    there is no “mariolatry” or saint worship. That is a typical Protestant libel from times past. I’m surprised to see it appear now.

  • MarkF

    We should for now forget about union with the Protestants. Why? Because the Holy Spirit has clearly left most of them behind. How can we tell this?

    Look at the Orthodox Church. Though separated from Rome for almost one thousand years, the Holy Spirit has preserved their teaching. Look at the Protestant groups. Not only have they changed much more, and much more away from the Truth that is in the Catholic Church, they have changed a lot in my short life. Protestant groups break apart and then break apart again, and are rife with dissent and controversy. Though individual Protestants’ lives are often more in line with the teachings of Jesus, their leaders and their proclaimed doctrines move further into error each decade.

    You see this perfectly in the Anglican communion. One side moves towards the deification of homosexuality while the other side moves further towards the errors of Luther and Calvin.

    Yet the Orthodox east still remains out there. We should follow Pope Benedict’s lead in become more distinctly Catholic – revive the Latin Mass, continue with new fervor to pray the Rosary and be devoted to the Sacred Heart, and to reach out to our Orthodox brethren. They have sacraments, apostolic succession and the Holy Spirit. Individual Protestants will flock back to us if we are reunited in faith and orthodoxy with the Orthodox east.