Building on Fifty Years of Ecumenical Trends
By James Loughran, SA, and Aaron Hollander
The Rev. James Loughran, SA, is Vicar General of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, and Editor of Ecumenical Trends. He has long been involved in ecumenical and interreligious affairs in the New York area, and he is a veteran member of the USCCB dialogue with the National Council of Synagogues. He has lectured in seminaries, churches, and other houses of worship, and he serves on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome.
Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends, and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fordham University. He currently serves as Vice President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, with his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and his master’s degree from the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin).
Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, like the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement more generally, is at a significant moment in its history. With this final issue of Ecumenical Trends in 2021, we are celebrating the 50thanniversary of the journal: such a moment as this is an opportunity to take stock, to celebrate the achievements that have brought us this far, and to reflect on the significance of this journal’s history for the ecumenical landscape as well as for the future of the Society of the Atonement.
Following the pattern of the interview series that has generated collaborative ecumenical and interreligious insight in the pages of Ecumenical Trends over the past few years, the editors of ET have chosen to compose a 50th anniversary editorial in dialogue with one another.
Aaron Hollander: Fr. Jim, we’ve already published (in Ecumenical Trends 49.1) some comments on the history of Ecumenical Trends, but aspects of this history bear repeating insofar as they help us make sense of what a milestone like this 50th anniversary might mean, as a tool for assessing our road ahead. Would you walk us through some of the key factors in how Ecumenical Trends got its start?
Jim Loughran, SA: Well, between 1967 and 1968, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement had what we call a “renewal chapter.” Canonically, it was our Sixth General Chapter, and the results of that Chapter were confirmed by the Seventh General Chapter in 1970. The Second Vatican Council had called upon all Roman Catholic religious communities to take some time to discern their founding charism – why had they come into existence; what was the purpose of their ministry; how was this ministry being maintained through the years; could it be informed in a different way by the Second Vatican Council? Or else, had they in fact become distracted and lost the sense of the particular charism that motivated their existence as a distinct religious order. This was a striking time in the history of the Catholic Church, particularly in Western Europe and North America, because it was a time to take seriously and digest into our collective life all the many decrees and declarations of the Second Vatican Council.
So the Friars did exactly that, as did so many other religious orders and congregations and societies of apostolic life; and, as a result of these renewal chapters, certain challenging decisions were taken. One was that the Friars of the Atonement came to agree that we were not primarily a congregation that engaged in teaching, so even though our new college seminary had been built at Graymoor in 1960, by 1968 it was closed. Those friars who had been teaching there were able to use their intellect to go into other kinds of ministries, and some became great pastors, professors, or librarians, but as a community we shifted our resources and our focus to what, in fact, was the founding charism of the community: ecumenical engagement in service of the unity of the Church.
Our renewal chapter went hand in hand with an embrace of Vatican II’s conception of Christian unity, which is compatible with the broader ecumenical movement and entailed a full-throated entry of the Catholic Church into that movement; prior to that, Catholic ecumenism (of the sort that Father Paul of Graymoor, our founder alongside Mother Lurana White, would have promoted) was primarily a seeking to reconcile “separated churches” with the full visible unity that was held to be already present and sufficient in the Roman Catholic Church. For the first eleven years of our history as a society, the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement were Episcopalian, heavily influenced by the Oxford Movement that sought greater integrity with Rome; both before and after the Society was received into the Roman Catholic Church, the goal of its ecumenical ministry was reconciliation with Protestants and Orthodox Christians and Anglican Christians – truly in a spirit of respect and dialogue – but the underlying aim was return, motivating non-Catholic Christians to return in submission to the authority of the See of Peter.
AH: But the pivotal conditions of Vatican II allowed for a paradigm shift, not only in the Catholic Church at large, but also in the Society of the Atonement’s perspective on the nature, purpose, and method of ecumenism?
JL: Not just for the Society of the Atonement – there were many religious communities striving to reimagine and rearticulate their core charisms. I think of the Sisters of Sion, for instance, who had spent over one hundred years working to convert the Jews, all the while becoming ever more connected with and committed to the well-being of Jewish communities, which of course were under threat in Europe and the Holy Land; after Vatican II they found a new blossoming of self-understanding in Nostra Aetate’s commitment to Christian-Jewish rapprochement, no longer limited to an urge to convert them.
AH: That’s a good example. The Sisters’ renewal was a true conversion, as Mary Boys describes it – a profound process of corporate conversion, but one that led not away from their original charism to a new and different purpose, but to a flourishing of the original charism with new perspective on its purpose.1 It sounds like you’re suggesting something similar was taking place at Graymoor?
JL: For the Friars of the Atonement, as for many other societies, there was a pent-up desire to encounter other religious communities in a spirit of humility and hospitality, without presupposing that we had the sole solution to their own struggle to be whole. But as we were good Catholics, there were limits on what we could do – it was kind of like a problem that couldn’t be solved, always a circular conversation, although there were cracks through which glimpses of an alternative could be seen. And then, in the aftermath of Vatican II, that alternative became a reality and the Friars of the Atonement were able to experience their founding charism of Christian unity and human unity (what we call, in shorthand, “at-one-ment”) anew, in the fresh air of Vatican II’s open windows and the dazzling light of the ecumenical boom that followed.
We established Graymoor Ecumenical Institute in 1968 at our Motherhouse of Graymoor, in Garrison, NY, and the Centro Pro Unione in Rome in 1969. The purpose of these institutes was to equip and deploy the friars who were now being trained to invest our energy and resources into the post-Vatican II ecumenical moment. Ecumenical Trends was born in this context.
The first Ecumenical Trends was published in April of 1972, having been edited by three friars: Fr. Ralph Thomas (who was also the first Director of Graymoor Ecumenical Institute), assisted by Fr. Edmund Delaney and Fr. Alexander Kelleher. The periodical itself was not entirely new, but it relaunched a joint publication of the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (what is now the USCCB) that was being phased out. The Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches had, for the better part of a decade, published Faith and Order Trends – which was topical and not always regular, in the sense that its purpose was to disseminate documents that were being produced by Faith and Order, at whatever pace those were becoming available. Parallel to this, the NCCB published a newsletter called Directions Unity, with the same purpose. In 1967, the two efforts were joined under the title Unity Trends. This was edited by the same Friars of the Atonement mentioned above. These friars saw an opportunity to work with the National Council of Churches and the NCCB, by offering to take over the publication of Unity Trends, broadening its scope, and making it a more regular publication. And so, for the first few years, Ecumenical Trends was published by the Friars of the Atonement, but in cooperation with the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, which also had Catholic membership. Ecumenical Trends became a single vehicle for disseminating documents but also providing scholarly interpretation and pastoral consideration of those documents for the sake of ecumenically interested parties in the churches.
For the first few years of Ecumenical Trends, the direction given was that it should be a journal where the dialogues themselves would be highlighted; it was still primarily a resource for finding the latest statements – an information service. That was a standard format – people wanted to know what ARCIC was saying, what the Lutheran-Anglican dialogue was saying, what was going on. You couldn’t Google it, in those primordial days before the internet, so you went to Ecumenical Trends for the latest! But even as Ecumenical Trends was primarily a news service every month, since this what was most urgently needed, it always included commentary on those contemporary ecumenical affairs as well, drawing on the insights of theologians from all the different denominations that were engaged in dialogue.
AH: So from the beginning, Ecumenical Trends was not just transmitting or communicating the results of dialogue that were happening elsewhere, but was processing these results and facilitating new ecumenical exchange in response to them. That’s important, I think, and we’ll need to revisit it when we think about the way forward for the journal.
JL: Yes indeed, but at the beginning this was marginal compared with the information service dimension. Later on, in the 70s and into the 80s, Ecumenical Trends moved away from documentation as its primary function, and came to place greater emphasis on original articles that provided commentary and interpretation relating to how the various dialogues were proceeding and what their significance might be. What was going on that was new, what were the trends(not just the individual accomplishments) that perhaps were not immediately apparent but were prevailing in ecumenical conversations?
The main continuity over the years has been that Ecumenical Trends has remained a vehicle for the promotion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue (that is, not only a site for documentation or analysis of that dialogue) – but every generation has needed to discern how to do that most productively in its own context. Some editors were particularly committed to expanding the interreligious element of Ecumenical Trends, while others have included book reviews, popular items, homilies, news items from different communities, and so forth. The journal has looked very different over the years – appropriately so, since we are dedicated to meeting the ecumenical movement where it is, reflecting on and contributing to it as seems most appropriate in the moment.
And now we have a new format again: six issues a year rather than the eleven of previous years, issues that are more substantial in size and content. We are currently pursuing, it’s fair to say, a more scholarly approach than at various stages in the past. We are soliciting more articles that contribute to and expand on themes which we have chosen, emerging from the trends that we are discerning in the field. This affords us the opportunity to do some very interesting, novel, and provocative things. As I mentioned, Ecumenical Trends is certainly committed to the flourishing of ecumenical exchange and reconciliation – it’s not a journal of dissent, in other words. But it’s not a journal of official orthodoxy either. We have ideas that appear in Ecumenical Trends that the Pontifical Council would not officially promote – and I have it on good authority that, when they get their issue, they eagerly read it and enjoy encountering these challenging ideas – because we’re hosting perspectives that pose new and authentic questions about the status quo, from outside the formal limits of inter-church dialogues.
AH: I hope that the merit of this approach is evident in features such as this past January’s Baptist and Anabaptist responses to Fratelli Tutti – vital opportunities for critical engagement, appreciative dissent, and the like, which aren’t justoffering contrasting perspectives but themselves are in service of meaningful ecumenical encounter and insight, destabilizing the ways that our own interpretations of documents and accords become naturalized and appear self-evident in spite of being anything but.
What I’ve heard you say, in narrating us through this history, is that Trends has changed many times, and so doing, it’s found different ways of being itself – different priorities in the kinds of content it includes, shifts in emphasis between reporting and analysis, shifts in tone between popular and academic frameworks (and finding its way somewhere in between with what we’ve been describing as “accessible scholarship”), and shifts in scope between the primarily intra-Christian concerns of Faith and Order and the wider questions of interreligious relations and human peacebuilding. And I know that every one of these changes is going to be met with a variety of reactions on the part of the readership. But I think what’s important about this is that Trends has survived and, actually, thrived by its adaptability, its willingness and ability to become different things and bring different elements into the foreground. There’s a wonderful line by T. S. Eliot: “I must borrow every changing shape to find expression.”2 The journal – like the friars’ ecumenical ministry more broadly – needs to be proactive in its self-discovery of what is needed in each new moment, without being so chameleonic that its core purpose can’t be identified.
For instance, these past couple of years have seen Ecumenical Trends highlight a regular interview series with leaders in the field, affording us the opportunity not just to feature a variety of perspectives, not just to report on others’ ecumenical activity, but really to generate ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Trends can and should be a site where dialogue is happening, giving voice to unexpected possibilities of thought and exchange. The ideas that come up in these interviews – and I’ve heard this now from several of our conversation partners – are not just repetitions of what our guests are saying or writing anyway. The interviews, at their best, allow for the collaborative generation of insight, producing something that wouldn’t be available if either conversation partner were writing on their own.
It’s worth recognizing, in other words, that Trends doesn’t just reflect, but also generates, ecumenical energy, and this is important for thinking about its purpose. When we host lectures or colloquia at GEII – for instance, we held the roundtable on “Ecology and Ecumenicity” in late 2020, and that became a print roundtable in early 2021 – we are making new space for particular ecumenical conversations. With the ecology roundtable, we hosted five different perspectives from five different churches on an urgent contemporary issue. We might say that there’s a sort of bilateral energy in the interviews and a multilateral creativity in the roundtables stemming from GEII’s public programs. In each case, moreover, we are reaching several different kinds of audiences, including those who are more regularly plugged into ecumenical affairs as well as those who might just have come to listen to a one-off conversation on an interesting topic.
JL: The interviews are also great occasions for connecting or reconnecting with people who have something important to contribute, whose voice is urgently needed, but perhaps they are not part of existing ecumenical networks or working groups, with the result that their perspectives too often fall off the radar of a more sanitary, more structured ecumenical infrastructure. But why shouldn’t they be at the table? A lot of people think that ecumenical contributions are made only by those with longstanding Faith and Order bona fides, or expertise in comparative scholarship, or the like. But no, you just have to be someone who believes in the healing process for the church, or someone whose work in whichever field offers some insight for the dynamics that keep us apart and corrode our relationships.
Faith that we are better together than apart goes a long way, because ecumenism is not a project in the sense of a diplomatic effort to negotiate a treaty; it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. An ecumenical document that does not make the Holy Spirit central to the entire work is missing the forest for the trees. And the Holy Spirit is not only blowing among the institutional instruments of ecumenical rapprochement.
At Graymoor, we have a long history of grassroots ecumenism, among people in all strata of society, not just in the halls of power and intellectual achievement. This, I should say, is a meaningfully Franciscan dimension of our ecumenical charism. We work with the poor, we pour ourselves out in caring for the poor – and not only with those who are crushed by addiction, who are starving to death, but also with people who are spiritually starving to death because they have been betrayed and abused by society and its institutions, people who don’t know where to go in the world anymore.
AH: In this respect, a healing and rehabilitation ministry like St. Christopher’s Inn is utterly integrated with the ecumenical ministry of GEII and Trends – in the faith that motivates them, in the love that they enact – love for the poor, for the stranger, for the outcast and marginalized – and in the hope from which they take the energy to sustain their work in the midst of so much cruelty and tragedy.
Now, I’d like to come back to this issue you’ve just raised, of the specifically Franciscan tradition of the Friars of the Atonement. We’ve already spoken about, and we could say much more about, the inspiration of Vatican II in the creation and the progress of Ecumenical Trends. But what about the Franciscan inspiration – how does the Franciscan tradition shape the goals and content of Trends, and at the same time, what does the journal offer in terms of the Franciscan charism of the society that publishes it?
JL: Well, as the signature publication of the Friars of the Atonement, Trends is and has to be deeply influenced by the Franciscan culture and charism of the friars. GEII (formerly GEI) was from the beginning a place of profound hospitality for the ecumenical movement. The Franciscan element of that hospitality is that we friars (and sisters as well) have a religious DNA according to which we welcome everybody to the table. Hospitality is a core value.
I’m reminded of the story of Francis of Assisi and perfect joy. Francis was asked once to define perfect joy, and he related to the friars the story of being locked out of a friary himself – there was some knucklehead of a novice acting as the porter, who didn’t know him, so Francis was knocking on the door and this novice was saying, “it’s the middle of the night, go away!” “But it’s your brother Francesco!” “Oh yeah, right, that’s a good one,” and so on. Three times Francis tried to get in and was turned away, so eventually he went off and slept under a tree. Finally, in the morning, someone with authority opened the door, absolutely mortified – “Oh Francis, oh no, we didn’t know it was you!” And Francis rebuked him: “Who cares if it was me? Why didn’t you let in whoever you thought it was? As for me, I discovered the perfect joy of being rejected, by being a man with nothing, no prestige or privilege, but as for you – how dare you do anything but open the door to a stranger in need?”
This is what it comes back to for the Society of the Atonement, and indeed for Ecumenical Trends: opening the door. Opening the door to other people, other churches, other ideas – opening the door and being hospitable, rather than starting from a place of evaluating the status of the one on the other side, rather than being able to welcome only those whose credentials match our own. After all, Fr. Paul Wattson was known for his emphatic commitment that no man would be turned away from St. Christopher’s Inn for any reason, and that no one would be turned away from pilgrimage to Graymoor. There was a time when African Americans had very little access to places like state parks in New York, but they were always welcome at Graymoor. There wasn’t the slightest hesitation or segregation! So too with the community itself, from the time of Father Paul and Mother Lurana forward – for generations, our brothers and sisters in the community were racially integrated in a way that much of the country would have found intolerable.
AH: And again, it’s not only letting people in – though this is deeply important in its own right – but it’s letting ideas in as well, ideas that might at first be uncomfortable or foreign but are owed the dignity of attention. I think we see this in the pages of Trends: an openness to real conversations that don’t have to presuppose a certain kind of attitude or perspective or provenance. That freedom of encounter and exchange is itself in service of deepening ecumenical relationships.
JL: If you remember the last conference we had at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York (in 2019), the whole gathering had as its watchword: “Do not be afraid of dialogue.” And for us, that does not come as a surprise. It’s a deeply Franciscan mentality and spirituality. The regula bullata of the First Order of St. Francis states – it’s the only place I’ve seen this in a religious constitution, and I am hoping the Friars of the Atonement can add it to our own constitution somewhere – “The Franciscan Order shall have dialogue with Muslims.” So this is nothing new – it’s second nature to Franciscans. We aren’t afraid of disagreement, afraid of the messiness of dialogue and debate. Notice that you don’t even have to be a Roman Catholic to be a Franciscan – we have an active, international community of ecumenical Franciscans, along with Franciscan societies in several different denominations. There’s no inhibition in Franciscanism when it comes to encountering theological differences and meeting them with genuine hospitality.
AH: In this respect, the Franciscan charism really is an ecumenical charism, in the sense of a disposition that is profoundly needed in an ecumenical movement that risks erring by becoming too safe, too cautious, too sanitary.
JL: One of my favorite passages in the gospels is when the disciples inform Jesus – “we saw someone casting out a demon in your name, but they’re not one of our community, so we stopped him.” And Jesus says, in effect, “Why would you stop him? Whoever is not against us is for us” (see Mark 9:38-41). That is an all-too-easily forgotten ecumenical principle – starting from the presumption of cooperation rather than competition.
AH: That passage captures the kind of un-fussy, un-fixed evangelical energy that you see throughout the gospels, resisting and troubling the impulses for over-institutionalization. You see it again in Francis, this total willingness to set aside one’s own comfort and primacy in the pursuit of reconciliation (or at-one-ment, if you like!). Such an ethos is so fruitful but is easily sidelined in ecumenical settings.
JL: You know, we tend to be blamed in the ecumenical movement for being wishy-washy, or being diluted in our theology – the fear seems to be that people concerned with reconciliation and peace and unity care only about “getting along” rather than “getting it right.” Franciscans are perennially charged with this, that we are too nice to people. But this is a serious misreading of the situation – both of the ecumenical ethos and of the nature and purpose of church unity. People worry that “getting along” means giving up being who you are. Well, if that’s the case, what does it say about who you are?
AH: We so easily impose our shallow, all-too-human, zero-sum games on the gospel, which shows us that hospitality isn’t a concession to worldly niceties – it’s something positive and proactive, at the heart of God’s mission for the world. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. The history of the churches has incentivized viewing hospitality as “accommodation” to those churches that have lost their way, as a denaturing of the faithful remnant (that is, obviously, us). But if reconciliation requires giving up some aspect of who we are, it’s because our identity has become more anchored in opposition, in negativity, than it is in the positive purpose for which we are the church. Giving up such oppositional identity will definitely be disruptive and disorienting, but failing to do so means that any vision of church unity is wishful thinking at best.
Now, we’ve had some rich conversation about the history and the present of the Atonement Friars’ ecumenical ministry, but of course this history is anything but complete; the 50th anniversary isn’t a victory lap, it’s the start of the next leg of the journey. So I would like to transition to considering the future of Ecumenical Trends, and with it the future of the field in which Trends is intervening. We are living in an interesting time, to say the least, and there have been in recent months a number of events and colloquia around the future of ecumenism: what ecumenism is or should be for the mid-twenty-first century. This is a period of openness and new potential, if we have the courage to see it that way: a time for ecumenical motives to find new expression, rather than just saying, “Oh, woe is us, the ecumenical movement is dying.” We have to recognize that anxiety and uncertainty always accompany the fertility of new life.
Just this past October, we hosted an event on this wavelength, named after John Mackay’s description (in his inaugural Theology Today editorial in 1944) of the final days of World War II – another period of great suffering and stress, which would also give rise to new imaginaries and instruments of peace-making. During this period of the 1940s and 50s, we saw the emergence of the World Council of Churches, we saw all kinds of new directions in Christian-Jewish dialogue, we saw the fertility and tension in the Catholic Church that lay the groundwork for Vatican II. John Mackay describes his moment as God’s “terrible springtime,” which is such a rich phrase, but it’s especially important today as a response to all our worry about “ecumenical winter,” which has dominated ecumenical conversations since the 1990s – almost 30 years we’ve been worrying about ecumenical winter! I want to start thinking again about ecumenical springtime, recognizing and respecting that this is a time not just of innovation and experimentation, but also of upheaval, of real stress and storms that have to be weathered, of the melting away of certainties about the way things are or should be.3
Our friend and colleague in Münster, Thomas Bremer, has written about ecumenism being in a time of “upheaval” (Umbruch), not only referring to the ecumenical movement, which is disparate in its goals – that is, trying to do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways – but also recognizing that our society itself is in a period of upheaval, in which long-standing norms and values are being broken and breached.4 What do you think about this assessment of ecumenism being in upheaval and needing at the same time to respond to a society in upheaval?
JL: I think that we in the ecumenical movement, those of us of a certain age anyway, have been educated in and have depended on the idea that ecumenism has been fully defined – that it fits into a certain box, and anything outside that box risks undermining that clear and stable definition. And we get a little protective of our box, especially when its usefulness is disparaged or seems to be threatened by other boxes into which the work we have been cherishing and sweating for might fit. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the notion that ecumenism has as its goal the full visible unity of the whole church; but, to many younger people these days, that is a frightening or distasteful concept. And I understand why this would be! Full visible unity with what? Under whose organizational auspices? And for what purpose? Too often it seems (whether or not this is a fair impression) that the ecumenical movement has pursued church unity purely for its own sake, or for the sake of concentrating the power of the church in the world.
AH: This is such a pivotal question – one that has been asked repeatedly over the last century and that we have to keep asking because its answer is going to evolve as the world does – not just about the nature of unity but about the purpose of unity. An ecumenism that makes full visible unity an end rather than a means is bound to fail, because it is more concerned with the aesthetics of the church than it is with the mission of God in the world. Twentieth-century ecumenism had its start in the missionary societies, and although the meaning and practice of “mission” have changed enormously over the last century (not least by becoming more self-conscious and self-critical of its colonial entailments), this integrity is vitally important because an orientation toward the church’s mission and purpose serves as an inoculation against the ever-present urge to turn our life inward and celebrate our own self-fulfilling successes – to curve our hearts in on themselves, as Augustine put it. So what is the purpose of the church? What is the point? Is it good news to the poor, freedom for the imprisoned, healing for the sick, liberation for the oppressed, and sabbath for creation (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61)? Or is the point of the church its own continuation, its own cultural prestige and purchase power?
JL: Any meaningful, purpose-driven definition of church unity first requires people proving to one another that they can trust one another (and aren’t just trying to exert their will on one another), that they want justice and fairness for one another, that they want abundant life and cultural advancement of all kinds for one another. In this respect, the genuineness and authenticity of Christian lives lived for the sake of one another’s flourishing does much more to unite us than any agreed statement on the filioque, for instance. But there’s the rub – such lives cannot be taken for granted. They have to be cultivated.
AH: In this respect, ecumenical spirituality is at the core of ecumenism – fuel for the relational virtues that precede and undergird any of the institutional accords. It is the desperately needed alternative to what we see so often today: a fear of or revulsion toward difference, a way of being in a relationship with otherness that begins from a point of assuming the worst. How then do we cultivate such spirituality and form our communities accordingly?
JL: That’s a large and crucial question, and it’s closely related to other, broader questions about Christian formation and discipleship – it would be a mistake to think of ecumenism or ecumenical spirituality as something on the margins of Christian life. But you know – I’ve heard repeatedly, over the past ten years or so, that spiritual ecumenism is going to have to be the primary way we go for now, and I think there’s some truth to that assessment of spiritual ecumenism as a way that remains open when other ways of ecumenism seem to have been closed off in recent years.
AH: But that makes it sound like a concession! I see ecumenical spirituality (and perhaps this is not identical to “spiritual ecumenism”) as the foundation, the wellspring, for whatever activities or accords might be produced; without it, nothing else will endure. Ecumenical information, of the sort that Trends provides (in the form of scholarship, analysis, pastoral reflection on new accords, and so forth), is nothing without ecumenical formation in our communities, where such information can take root and bear fruit.
JL: That’s why I’m excited about the practical suggestions we’ve received about using our programs and publications to bring ecumenical spirituality front and center. It’s so needed – more than ever, in a time when religious bigotry, cultural and political polarization, and the closure of identities and epistemologies are pumping fear and willful ignorance into our communities. People are afraid; they find comfort and safety in their own groups, and so much of the identity politics that we’re facing right now is, I think, a product of feeling threatened and less so of outright chauvinism or intolerance. Fear dulls and shrinks our moral imagination. So what are the resources in our traditions for naming and healing these relational wounds? What can ecumenism offer in this kind of a context?
AH: Well, until we really get a handle on the way that unconscious processes of identity-formation and identity-preservation intersect with the socio-political life of the churches and with the frames of understanding of the truth claims of the churches, we’re not going to get much further in our ecumenical efforts. I often come back to John D’Arcy May’s observation that every ecumenical solution gives rise to new ecumenical problems,5 because we’re not addressing what’s actually keeping us divided – which isn’t ultimately the doctrines, but is more fundamentally the ways that intercommunal differences (great or small, general or specific) make us feel about each other and about ourselves, especially when our own existence as a community has historically depended on our being dissimilar to some other, usually antagonistic, community or framework of understanding. And this is where, not to belabor the point, ecumenical spirituality is so crucial for honestly confronting and intervening in our own deeper anxieties and desires, which easily remain invisible when we are charting a course for institutional rapprochement and reconciliation.
JL: Ecumenism really struggles to operate at this level – we make gestures and engage in occasional rites of repentance, but historically the preference has been to focus at the level of divisive doctrines rather than at the deeper level of divisive attitudes and divisive epistemologies. People feel more secure in their own worlds, and this affects which doors we’re willing to open and which we’re not.
AH: What you’re saying, I think, relates directly to just how unpopular ecumenism has become. I don’t mean primarily in the academic sense of a disciplinary field that is aging or losing credibility or what have you (and that’s its own problem); I mean in the broader sense of being viewed publicly and professionally by so many people as counterproductive or threatening. And it’s striking that this is the case across not only a theological spectrum – where (as you’ve spoken of already) ecumenism can be accused of relativism and accommodation to error and wishy-washiness, and at the same time of being overly stuck in its ways and insufficiently radical in the pursuit of the aims of the mission of God – but also across the political spectrum that has come to dominate our social imagination, where ecumenism comes to be viewed either as a sort of socialistic globalism, on the one hand, or as a repressive Eurocentric imperialism, on the other. Why is it that ecumenism is so threatening, in seemingly contradictory ways, to so many people who are otherwise opposed to one another’s visions of the good?
JL: Ecumenism is a way of conversion – it doesn’t demand that people change who they are and what they hold dear, but it does ask that they come into a new mode of relationship with themselves and one another. And this can be, indeed should be, very disturbing.
At its root, we’re talking about a simple enough idea: “That they all may be one, that the world may believe.” But that being-one, that at-one-ment, is an alien idea to so many Christian believers today, especially those who are no longer (or have never been) part of the institutional churches that have been the dominant players in ecumenism to date. One effect of this drift is that many people are forming an idea of what ecumenism is from a stereotype: that it is the work of grey-haired old white men, who are sitting around and puzzling over pointless, pedantic issues that don’t matter in the real world, or else are just being chummy and forming a mutual admiration society – I’m fine, you’re fine, now let’s have some sherry!
But that’s not what ecumenism is, even if there’s a history here that must be acknowledged, a history full of regrettable instances from which the stereotypes take their shape – occasions in which difficult issues were sidestepped or lofty pronouncements were made without a grip on the messiness of real communities. The stereotypical attitude about ecumenism is that it’s like being a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking and choosing what we feel like believing or throwing out whatever incompatible doctrines are keeping the churches separated. And people worry (incorrectly, but nevertheless) that by being involved in ecumenism they are going into cahoots with the socialists, or with some globalist cabal that wants to tear down traditional values and impose uniformity on the churches, or what have you. Or else they associate ecumenism with colonialism, and church unity with a uniformity imposed by power-hungry institutions. Our prevailing political polarities have come to dominate our perception, including our perception of ecumenical history. But ecumenism involves, among other things, the attempt to overcome the culture wars, to imagine and enact an alternative to them – and this is, quite reasonably, seen as a threat by anyone who is invested in and who benefits from maintaining the culture wars.
AH: There’s a tension here, because that stereotype does circulate, of ecumenism asking its participants to give up their convictions and become generic religious jellyfish, and this does need to be debunked – but we also need to be careful about downplaying the extent to which ecumenism is in fact asking for real change, for conversion, as you rightly put it. It is asking its participants to give up certain aspects of their identity – recognizing those aspects to be self-serving or distorting of the obligation to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It’s asking for a change of heart, which is no small thing. Changing one’s heart, especially where there are long histories of resentment and grief, can be far, far harder than changing institutional regulations. It is not surprising that this would provoke strong suspicious or dismissive reactions.
In this respect ecumenism is threatening: it demands that we let go of our rancor and resentment, which afford us so much pleasure in maintaining our indignation against those who have wronged us. It demands that we let go of our pride, which convinces us that our understanding of the world is infallible because it is our truth. It demands that we let go of the fear and cynicism with which a history of violence and jockeying for power has equipped us for self-preservation. And none of this letting go is easy to do – the ascetic tradition holds that these things have us in their grip, possessing us as if by demons, or indeed because they are demons by another name. It’s not insignificant or accidental that ecumenical virtues and methods – dialogue, hospitality, humility, repentance, reconciliation – are all controversial in our society.
JL: It’s a tremendous risk to listen to other views, truly listen without presupposing one’s own response. As you put it yourself in your Paul Wattson Lecture – ecumenism takes tremendous courage.6 Our fears are just as much a part of us as our certainties, and for many people, feeling certain can crystallize into dismissiveness or even hate – hating your position on an issue so much that they come to hate you. The trend today, what feels normal and right in our culture, is to believe that disagreement is a zero-sum contest, and so if I’m right (and why wouldn’t I be right?) it’s my way or nothing. That’s not good, and it’s not sustainable if we are going to survive and flourish as a civilization. It’s poison for society – if society is going to be something more than warring alliances of individuals.
AH: I am hopeful about the future of ecumenism precisely for this reason, that it’s urgently needed as a dissonant strain in our cultural context. Duncan Forrester described theology similarly as “grit in the oyster.”7 He was talking about academic theology, because theology in the contemporary academy is far from being “queen of the sciences,” responsible for overseeing and integrating other forms of knowledge; now it’s more of a “productive irritant,” around which something precious can begin to grow, once it destabilizes the ordinary operation of the system. And much the same can be said for ecumenism today. Ecumenism is grit in the oyster of a zero-sum culture. Even if it is treated as a foreign irritant by society, what it produces is precious – so long as it has time and space to do so.
JL: When Francis was asked for a rule of life for his community, he said: “It’s the gospel.” And he was told, “no one can live that way!” So he came up with a rule, and it was too radical, so he came up with a new one. And this rule is summed up for us in the evangelical counsels (called this because they come directly from the gospel) of poverty, chastity, and obedience – they’re methods of living a certain life in harmony with the mission of God. So we call that “living a radical life.” Many of us fail at it, that’s why we have repentance and reconciliation. And purely as a human being, I could never live the gospel – I need the Holy Spirit, I need the sacramental ministries of the church to live the gospel, all these things that are support mechanisms. But one of our support mechanisms is the vow of life, and in that we say that we’re “contrarian to culture.” We love culture, we don’t condemn the world, but we strive to stand out from and in contrast with all the ways that culture falls short of the gospel promise. Religious orders in general, not just Franciscans, have always been called the “conscience of the church” for this same reason – we’re supposed to be the conscience of the church, and that makes us odd, very odd, in environments that prioritize self-interest, prestige, and vengeance. And the roots of our life as a religious community go back to trying, with every reform in the church, to reactivate something of the apostolic life. The call to Christian unity is an apostolic vision – it’s not something new, even if it always has to be expressed in new ways.
AH: I don’t think it’s accidental that the religious orders have proven to be so attuned and adept in ecumenical settings, even at times when diocesan and episcopal leaders have been wary or even dismissive of it. There’s an ascetic heritage here that (at its best) trains its participants for the hard work of uprooting poisonous dispositions in the heart, that equips its communities for relationships forged in humility and hospitality rather than self-interest and competition. The ecclesiological, theological, and charismatic differences between the religious orders (and of course we do have to acknowledge a long history here of competition and violence; it certainly has not all been irenic!) do not need to be overcome. It’s a different kind of orientation toward unity-in-diversity, one which is vitally needed in ecumenical circles – here is another dimension, I would say, of the specifically Franciscan contribution of the Society of the Atonement to the ecumenical movement.
It has been widely observed, as we emerge ever so gradually and haltingly from the upheaval of COVID-19, that the pandemic has forced us all to rethink what we are at our most authentic level, to reconceive of where we’re going and why we’re going there. Being part of the Friars’ conversations along these lines, as a lay collaborator, I’m continually struck by the tone of hopefulness. Things are all upside down, but something is emerging that is worth committing to. That’s the terror and the hope of an ecumenical springtime.
There’s one last question I’d like to pose before we conclude. In this issue of Trends, again, we are recognizing the milestone of our 50th anniversary, marking fifty years in which the Atonement Friars’ ecumenical commitment and charism have found expression in a periodical journal of accessible scholarship that brings together pastors, scholars, and the interfaith field. We are, of course, looking backwards and celebrating all the writers and editors who have gone before us, and who have done so much to get us where we are – we’ve had so many heroes of the ecumenical movement laboring in this field. But at the same time, we are entering our 51st year of this ministry – the same year in which the Society of the Atonement will be holding a major assembly, dedicated to discerning the forms and directions of its ministries in years to come. Trends is obviously a crucial piece of those ministries. So I’m hoping that we might, at the end of this editorial dialogue, offer a glimpse of how the ecumenical ministry of the Society is evolving. In your view, is there a particularly important direction that we are currently moving as an institute or that the Society is moving as a community?
JL: We’re looking forward to more and more collaborative models of ministry, which means that we Friars of the Atonement do not own the ecumenical movement, and cannot go about our ecumenical charism unilaterally. It’s not ours, it’s God’s, and it’s the whole church’s. So how do we live up to the recognition that we are never going it alone? We will be committed to this movement and to the spirituality that animates it until the last friar blows out the last light, but we are discovering ways to be ever humbler in the pursuit of that commitment, walking hand in hand with others beyond the community of the Friars and beyond the Catholic Church. Humility really is a gift for the ecumenical movement, and an absolutely fundamental ecumenical virtue.
We fully intend to continue Ecumenical Trends – we can’t wait for its hundredth birthday! But if and when that day comes, the journal will look extremely different from how it looks now. It will be something new, taking shape in new technologies and in the thick of new ecclesial and scholarly networks. But we will support it in whichever forms it takes, so long as it remains an expression of the prayer that all will be one, a vehicle for the information and formation necessary to build peace in our time.
- See Mary C. Boys, “The Sisters of Sion: From a Conversionist Stance to a Dialogical Way of Life,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies1-2 (1994): 27-48.
- From Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady.”
- See also Aaron T. Hollander, “Fundamental Ecumenics Revisited: A Near-Forgotten Intellectual Framework as a Toolkit for the Mid-Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies2 (2021): 161-199.
- See Thomas Bremer, “Ökumenik und ökumenische Theologie im Umbruch,” in Ökumene— überdacht: Reflexionen und Realitäten im Umbruch, edited by Thomas Bremer and Maria Wernsmann (Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2016), 18-36.
- See John D’Arcy May, “Integral Ecumenism,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 4 (1988): 573-591.
- See Aaron T. Hollander, “The Courage to Hearken: Ecumenism and the Underside of Modernity,” Ecumenical Trends2 (2019): 1-13.
- Duncan Forrester, Forrester on Christian Ethics and Practical Theology: Collected Writings on Christianity, India, and the Social Order (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 218.
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