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Receptive Ecumenism and Ecclesial Learning

Learning to Be Church Together: Report on the conference held at Ushaw College Durham, 11-15 January 2009 by Roger Paul

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In 2006, the Centre for Catholic Studies, whose director is Paul Murray, organised a conference on Receptive Ecumenism at Ushaw College, Durham, in order to test out some of its principles with respect to Roman Catholicism. This conference was set up as an exercise principally for Roman Catholic theologians and ecumenists to engage with other traditions. Three years later, a second conference has taken place from 11th to 15th January 2009, including delegates from many traditions: theologians, ecumenists, and local practitioners to engage with each other on this subject. This second conference was much wider in scope than the first, and represents a second stage in the development of this idea.

Receptive ecumenism is offered as a way forward, at a time when it appears that ecumenical progress has slowed to a stand still, and when neo-denominationalism is asserting itself in many of the major traditions. While full visible unity of the church may be still an ultimate vision, the present climate suggests that an interim strategy is needed to help Churches to continue to be engaged with one another, and to make some progress. Paul Murray writes in an introductory paper for the conference:

“The basic principle of Receptive Ecumenism is that considerable further ecumenical progress is indeed possible but only if each of the traditions, both singly and jointly, makes a clear, programmatic shift from prioritising the question, “What do our various others first need to learn from us?” to asking instead, “What do we need to learn and what can we learn – or receive – with integrity from our others?” Alternatively stated, the John F. Kennedy style reversal that is in view here (cf. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”) is from asking “How might they become more like us so that divisions might be eased?” to asking “How might we become more like them in diverse particular ways so that any specific difficulties we experience in our own thought and practice might be eased?” As this suggests, Receptive Ecumenism is about each tradition taking responsibility at every level of its life for its own continued learning and potential further flourishing in the face of the other.”[1]

Such learning, according to Murray, is transformative, and is intended to lead to openness to other traditions, as well as to the convergence of traditions. It involves much more than offering a way for the Churches to receive ecumenical agreements, although that of course is a vital process, but engages Churches in face of and across the differences between them. In this respect, the deep seated organisational and cultural differences between Churches are as important as Faith and Order issues, and indicate a need for receptive ecumenism to be explored in a practical way in the arena of the local Church. This is reflected in a further strand in the programme of Receptive Ecumenism, which is a project to explore the implications for local Churches in the North East. Part of the conference was given over to a presentation on this project by its leaders.

Overall impressions

The conference as a whole was very tightly structured, with the main input given in formal sessions, in which generally two related papers were presented, with limited scope for discussion. In addition there were two sessions of short papers, given in parallel, which gave more scope for interaction, and four small group sessions, one of which fed into a final plenary. One particularly pleasing aspect of the conference as a whole was worshipping together in the magnificent (but cold) Chapel of St Bede. Morning Prayer included an extended meditation on the Bible reading for the day, given by Dr. Catherine E. Clifford (Saint Paul University, Ottawa). These meditations provided a foundation for the day’s work, rooting it in prayer and lectio Divina. Each day also exposed us in worship to the riches of three of the traditions represented in the conference: Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist. More than one speaker pointed out that this in itself is indication of how far we have come in the last 100 years of the ecumenical movement.

As the very brief reports on each of the formal sessions show, there was a very rich diet of ideas at this conference. However, I have two observations about the difficulties faced by ecumenism in the present time. Firstly, there is an issue about how academic ecumenists and practitioners can engage with one another. There is no shortage of good ideas coming out of serious ecumenical study, nor is there any shortage of new ecumenical initiatives at local level. But there is a real need to bring theological reflection and practice together, to root the theology in practice, and the practice in theology. Some of the shorter papers (notably by Kirsteen Kim (Trinity College Leeds) and Clare Watkins (Heythrop College and the ARC Project)) showed what can be possible.

The second observation was forcefully made by Joe Aldred (Secretary for minority ethnic concerns at CTE). Where are the black theologians and black majority church leaders? We need to listen to their voices, laments, insights and stories. An international conference tends to be dominated by delegates from North America and Europe, but it is so easily overlooked that in our diverse community in the UK we have great potential for cross cultural as well as inter church dialogue. I hope that this is something we may begin to address.

The Content of the Plenary Sessions

The plenary sessions followed a number of broad themes. The opening session on Sunday evening, allowed Mgr Don Bolan (former staff member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and Dr John Gibaut (Director of the Faith and Order Commission, WCC) to offer some initial thoughts. Don Bolan quoted Cardinal Kaspar, who has suggested that we need new ideas and creative ways for a mutual exchange of gifts between traditions. Recent statements of the Roman Catholic Church are significant in that they accept that such gifts reside in other ecclesial communities. Through mutual recognition of Baptism, others are recognised as members of the Christ’s body. There is much potential here for the Roman Catholic Church to be self critical and to receive from others.

John Gibaut suggested that Receptive Ecumenism is not a new phenomenon. It has been an essential part of ecumenical dialogue, as for example in the process that led to the Anglican Orthodox report, the Triune God. The difference now is that it has been named and so lends itself to be a far more conscious process, which can form the basis of an ecumenical programme. There is a lot of work to be done in the Churches receiving what has already been achieved in ecumenical dialogues. The question is whether receptive ecumenism can assist this.

The discussion following raised issues about the way the Churches need each other to help them through the problems they face: there is more than a hint of self interest in how they respond to crises. We need to look where the difficulties are in our own traditions. Learning from each other is not just to do with “learning about”, it is a learning which leads to conversion.

Session 2: Scriptural Reasoning

On the Monday morning, the conference focussed on the reading of scripture. Bishop Tom Wright gave a report on the Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops which met in Rome in the autumn of last year, of which he was an observer. He pointed out that there are profound differences between traditions in the framework of reading scripture, and suggested that the Scriptural reasoning project can help us to engage with each other across these divisions. He was disappointed that the Synod did not give very much attention to mission, although it provided an undercurrent to the whole proceedings, and occasionally surfaced. Anxiety about fundamentalism possibly acted as a constraint in this respect. Nor was there much engagement with the political task of the Church, which is a hot issue in many parts of the world, and about which there are many resources emerging from local situations, for example in Latin America. He ended by reflecting on how the Blessed Virgin Mary offers us a hermeneutic of mind, soul, heart and strength: in other words a framework of reading scripture within the whole body, and with the whole person.

Professor David Ford continued this session by exploring the meaning and process of scriptural reasoning. Essentially this is a method of inter-faith engagement in which Jews, Muslims and Christians study together each others’ scriptures. There are two aspects to this: first each religious tradition brings its own assumptions and interpretation – the life blood of the tradition - into reading its own scriptures. By careful listening to each other, we may learn what it is like for each to read their own scriptures. The second is that my own reading of the scriptures of my religious tradition is extended and given a new horizon through the insights of the other.

David then went into a refreshing look at a controversial passage (in inter faith terms) from St John’s Gospel (17.20-24), making the point that the text of St John’s Gospel offers its own hermeneutic. He focussed on just five words: believe, one, glory, love, as. Rabbi Peter Ochs (Professor of Modern Judaic Studies, University of Virginia) then responded, picking up these words and exploring the Shema from Deuteronomy. He referred to the corrective, reparative value of David’s interpretation of the passage from St John, in his own reading of this classic text. This dialogue gave us an insight into scriptural reasoning in action.

Although this was my first encounter with Scriptural Reasoning, I was told by Pete Ward of Kings College London, that it is big at Kings, with groups meeting all over the place. David Ford suggested that this methodology could be explored by different Christian traditions studying scripture together (which could then be called “ecclesial reasoning” to differentiate it from scriptural reasoning proper).

Session 3: Two examples of Receptive Ecumenism in the Roman Catholic Church

Two papers from Australian Catholics, Rev. Dr Ormand Rush and Rev. Prof. Richard Lennan on Monday evening, suggested ways in which Receptive Ecumenism is at work within the Roman Catholic Church. Ormand Rush identified five ways through which we may know what has been revealed by God to his Church: Scripture, Tradition, the Sensus Fidelium, Theology and the Magisterium. There is no systematic space here for dialogue with other Churches (nor for that matter, with socio-political or scientific insight). However, he suggested that the most appropriate arena for giving notice to other Churches is in the sensus fidelium, or the sense of faith of the body of the church, the faith as it is lived faithfully in varying contexts and communities. As a non Roman Catholic, it is difficult to appreciate the sea change that this view represents. It is the recognition that those who are not Roman Catholic may have important insights into the content and meaning of revelation, which can be absorbed by and indeed challenge the Roman Catholic Church.

Richard Lennan followed this by suggesting that the understanding of ordination could develop in the light of other churches’ emphasis on ordination as ordination for ministry and mission, rather than focussing exclusively on ordination as a gift from the tradition.

Session 4: Receptive Ecumenism and the dynamics of development in two distinct traditions

Session four on Tuesday morning began with Rev. Dr William G. Rusch, Yale Divinity School, USA presenting a case study of the reception of the gifts given through ecumenical dialogue within the Lutheran Church in the context of the USA. He suggested that this work of dialogue was not sufficiently on the radar in the life of the Churches, which show an indifference to the convergence that is emerging. He took us through the progress made in three dialogues in which the Lutheran Church was engaged: with the Reformed Churches, the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Between 1969 and 2001 for example, the Evangelical Church of America and the Episcopal Church went from exploratory talks to full communion, but this has yet to be received into the life blood of each Church.

The paper following, given by Prof. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Professor of Systematic Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary & University of Helsinki, brought a new perspective: that of Pentecostalism. It is one of the weaknesses of ecumenical engagement that it often ignores and even excludes the Pentecostal Churches. There were very few delegates at this conference from Pentecostal Churches. There are many reasons for this, not least that Pentecostal Christians are suspicious of the processes and aims of ecumenical engagement. One Pentecostal Christian from a Church in the USA connected with the origins of the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th Century (therefore a very well established Church) commented that his Church had not sent him to the conference: he was there in a personal capacity. Prof. Kärkkäinen suggested in his paper that Pentecostal identity is not based on history, foundational documents or by being part of a global institution, but comes out of a dynamic experience of the Holy Spirit. In the early 20th Century, Pentecostalism was born out of a vision to renew the church, but became a Church itself. Despite Pentecostal suspicions towards other Churches, and the WCC, there have been a number of dialogues with other Churches in the last generation: notably with the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches, and it is also the case that many of the traditional churches have experienced instances of charismatic renewal. Prof. Kärkkäinen went on to suggest that focusing on Apostolicity could lead to a rich encounter between Pentecostal Churches and traditional Churches. Many Pentecostal churches call themselves “apostolic”, with the self understanding of being connected directly to the Church of the Apostles through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in each generation. Their understanding of what it means to be apostolic is thus dynamic, mission orientated. Here the work of Howard Snyder (referred to by Martyn Atkins in “Mission Shaped Questions)[2] may be of help for the traditional Churches to relate to this interpretation. A further area of exploration could be “ecclesiology from below”, which could involve empirical study of Pentecostal church life. There is indeed growing interest in congregational studies, which could well feed into engagement between Churches which do not have a traditional ecclesiology. may be of help for the traditional Churches to relate to this interpretation. A further area of exploration could be “ecclesiology from below”, which could involve empirical study of Pentecostal church life. There is indeed growing interest in congregational studies, which could well feed into engagement between Churches which do not have a traditional ecclesiology.

Session 5: Obstacles to Learning and Ecclesial Impasse

The focus moved on in session 5 to look at what prevents Churches from learning. Rev. Prof. Jeff Astley (Director of the North of England Institute for Christian Education, St Chad’s College, Durham) noted that John Hull in asking “What prevents adult Christians from learning? focussed on individuals and cognitive outcomes. Jeff Astley suggested that learning should also involve the affective faculties, and engage the whole person. He was asking a similar question but wanted to focus on Churches as communities, and called for “critical openness” in relations between Churches. However Churches are “closed” often because they have been hurt, rebuffed or jilted by their potential partners. This is not to underestimate theological differences, there is also an affective dimension which affects how theological reflection is received. What is crucial here is the “tone of voice” in which we engage with each other.

The following paper (Ecclesial Impasse: What Can We Learn from Our Laments?)by Prof. Bradford E. Hinze, Professor of Theology, Fordham University, New York, USA, focussed on lament for the frustrations, failures and disappointments experienced in conflicts between and within Churches, what he called “ecclesial impasse”.

Lament is a common theme in the OT Biblical narrative and in the Psalms, and involves a triadic relation between the subject, the enemy and God. It is often presented in the form of a trial in which all parties are cross examined, and no one escapes scrutiny.  In the NT Conflicts between James and John, Martha and Mary and Paul and Peter are presented as moments of awareness raising and learning.

It is important for the conflicts, disappointments and failures of the Church today to come out in synods, meetings, councils and forums, but how do we engage with these laments so as to learn from the frustrations, which may reveal deeper yearnings which are not included in our ecclesiology? A theological method and process is needed in order to reflect on the ways our laments signal the structural dynamics of disunity, in which deep longings are thwarted by policies and practices.

Section 6: Unity and Universality; Locality and Diversity

This session brought together two familiar voices, Archbishop Rowan (in the voice of Jonathan Goodall who presented his paper in the Archbishop’s absence) and Professor Paul Fiddes, of Regents Park College. The Archbishop’s paper looked at this issue in the Church of England from a historical perspective. Martin Luther wanted to appeal to a Council of the Church, rather than the Pope, because he saw that the Papacy did not have the capacity to reform itself. In the absence of any alternative, Luther turned to the Christian Prince as an agent of change. However, the Church had to find ways of defining its own doctrine and to govern itself. The development of a conciliar process was key to this. However, the underlying issue was where did the final court of appeal lie in local disputes. This was a legal issue before it was theological. The English Reform Settlement is then a matter of law on one hand, because there was no appeal outside the English Church, and on the other a matter of theological discernment as a way of arriving at conciliar judgements. The Anglican Communion today does not have a universal court of appeal, although it does not follow that each province should therefore go it alone. The issue of women’s ordination for example shows that independence and mutual accountability are held in tension. How is this tension to be held together in the absence of papal magisterium? The model of a Court of Appeal may be a good one to start with. We need to work out how we are accountable to one another, not just organisationally, but also spiritually, and find ways in which we can express our belonging to one another. The New Testament Church was not uniform but diverse: St Paul’s image of the body of Christ may help us here: the diverse body is one in the mutual gift of its members.

Whereas Archbishop Rowan ended with the body of Christ, Paul Fiddes began with this image, which he regards as both figurative and literal at the same time. For the early Church, it was important that the body of Christ was visible in the united Church. For Baptists, it is important that Christ is present in his fullness in the life of the local congregation. All members are called to seek the mind of Christ for the local Church, which is the Body of Christ without deficit. Baptists consider that the local congregation is one manifestation of the one universal Church, but not in its fullness. There is a bond between congregations, which walk by one rule under Christ. How then, does the local and Universal Church connect in practice? There is no common law, no division of responsibilities. There is however mutual trust under Christ, in which local Churches need to listen to each other, which does not always happen.

Paul asked what can Baptists learn from other Churches? From the Roman Catholic Church, certainly, that the Universal church is not simply the sum total of all local communities. It is a question of how the parts relate to the whole, not just by voluntary association, nor as a result of fellowship. By putting the local prior to the universal, the problem is to move from the part to the whole. Cardinal Kaspar’s argument that both the local and the universal depend on each other in a mutual indwelling is very helpful to Baptists.

Paul went on to reflect on the visibility of the body, which can be seen and touched. For Baptists it is not an optional extra to relate to other Christians and seek healing for the divided body of Christ. It is a tragedy for the Church to be broken in pieces, it is an aspect of the Church’s participation in the Cross. Can we see the Church in each other, despite our divisions? Developing the language of Covenant, as the Anglican Communion is doing, may help us to see the Church in others despite division. The early Baptists linked the horizontal and vertical in the idea that Christians who gather in Christ’s name are in covenant with God and each other. Covenant may be a way of thinking about how the local church may be linked to universal.

Session 7: Unity and Universality continued

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware continued the theme of unity and universality in the session on Wednesday morning in relation to Orthodoxy. He emphasised that the Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist. This does not mean that the Church just does the cult, it is what flows from the Eucharist that matters, which is the koinonia of the Church, and the whole of the Church’s mission. There is one Eucharist, which is manifested in each celebration of the local Church around one altar. The one Church is an icon of the Holy Trinity. This is why intercommunion does not have integrity where a shared faith is not visible. In discussion, the idea of the Church as an icon of the Trinity needs to be held in tension with the idea, expressed by Paul Fiddes of recognising each other in the broken body in Covenant.

Sr Prof. Susan K. Wood, SCL, (Department of Theology, Marquette University, USA) reflected on the need in the Roman Catholic Church for a richer understanding and appreciation of the Parish as a community of the Christian faithful. However, her discussion of mission as reaching out to the lapsed and those on the fringe of this community, seemed to lack a sense of the Church in the Parish being a missional community, charged with God’s mission within the whole context in which it lives.

Session 8: Receptive Ecumenism and the Local Church: The Anatomy of a Project

This project is the third phase of the Receptive Ecumenism programme, led by Paul Murray. The project is a partnership between the Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies, three other university departments and eight local Churches in the North East. Three interdisciplinary teams are researching the organisational culture; leadership and ministry; and learning and formation in the eight participating Churches, through studying formal documents and policies, and conducting structured interviews with key players. A second phase of the project is to explore the lived reality of each Church, identify good practice and dysfunction, and how might receptive ecumenism be relevant in practical ways. The methodology used will be a combination of structured interviews, questionnaires, and group listening exercises. One of the key issues is that all the Churches are having to manage a situation where clergy numbers are decreasing.

Some very interesting questions are already emerging from each strand of the project. It is hoped to find ways of disseminating some of the interim findings of this project.


Roger Paul, National Advisor (Unity in Mission) for the Church of England




[1] Murray, P. Receptive Ecumenism and Ecclesial Learning: Receiving Gifts for Our Needs. Louvain Studies 33 (2008) 30-45

[2] Atkins, M. What is the essence of the Church? In Croft, S. Ed. Mission Shaped Questions. London CHP 2008.


Roger Paul, National Adviser Unity in Mission CCU, 03/02/2009
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