Ecumenical dialogue – whatever is the rhyme or reason?

A long read: The Church of England's National Adviser for Ecumenical Relations Rev Canon Dr Jeremy Morris explains why ecumenical dialogues do matter.

A lot of old white men sitting in a room, burbling about things a million miles away from the realities of everyday Christian life.  That’s what a lot of people think ecumenical dialogue is like.  Remote, obscure, incapable of communicating the basic elements of faith…At its worst, ecumenical dialogue can sometimes seem like that.  But in fact, the reality is mostly far, far different.

It’s sometimes said, ‘Why can’t we all just agree to be different, and get along with each other?’  And at a certain practical level, that sentiment is understandable.  The world is riddled with problems – wars, oppression, poverty, sickness, suffering.  What the world needs, Christianly, is love and service, and the healing which we believe comes from communities torn apart by suspicion and fear learning again to live in the light of the Gospel.  All the different people of Christ’s church, wherever they are, whatever their particular traditions, need to join together in that great pursuit. 

And yet a moment’s reflection surely makes it obvious that things aren’t that simple.  Christians aren’t just people sitting outside the world’s problems who could bring their influence to bear on those problems for the good – they are part of the problem, and their own divisions, both in the past and actually even today, continue to be major contributors to the world’s woes. 

At its heart, ecumenical dialogue is not principally about producing long theological statements, but about a process of mutual study and mutual learning about each other’s differences, so that we can begin to step outside our prejudices and preconceptions and see ourselves as others see us.  If we are indeed all, as Christians, ultimately part of the one church, how is it that we have failed so dismally to express that in the past?  Why have Christians called each other ‘heretics’ and persecuted each other?  Why do people who in many cases confess the same creed in their worship, actually continue to deny each other the sacrament, criticise each other’s values and attitudes, and impose their own styles of worship and modes of belonging rather than sharing what they have and learning from others?

Christian division is bound up with the complex histories of peoples, places, and cultures.  If we really want to be closer together, and to work together and live together as Christians, we have to understand how and why we have come to be so different – and that’s where the ecumenical dialogues come in.  So what are they?  How are they set up, and how do they work?

Imagination and sensitivity

For a start, they are – in most cases – official.  They have been sanctioned and supported at the highest level.  That’s because our churches – and here I really do mean, for example, all the churches which are members of Churches Together in England – have recognised their need for each other, and their need therefore to learn from each other.  So, when two church traditions agree to meet and talk about their theological differences, it is almost invariably in the form of officially approved teams of people meeting together.  That usually – but not always – means that the difficult or eccentric, wilfully controversial, even offensive, are not often appointed to these bodies.  These bodies in a sense have to represent the mainstream of their traditions, and they have to be both robust in their own convictions, and at the same time have imagination and sensitivity enough to see how they might learn from others. 

And then, second, for obvious reasons they have to include various kinds of experts.  Churches generally seek to put their best scholars, historians, and theologians in the field, as well as representative church leaders.  It’s no good going a long way down the road of exploring some occasion of disagreement and difference, only to have someone later say ‘That’s not what we believe at all’ (though it does sometimes happen).  So it’s inevitable that the dialogues will be theologically testing, and sometimes I’m afraid therefore obscure. That’s their job, to explore the difficult by-ways of theological development, with a view to transcending, ultimately, division.

And then, third, the dialogues also have to be truly representative of their communities of belief.  This is often a tough call, because realism demands that numbers are quite limited on each side.  People need to get to know each other, to feel comfortable about talking about sometimes painful things, to have confidence that what they say will not be shouted down by others.  So that’s why these teams can’t be enormous.  Generally speaking, somewhere around 15 to 20 people on each side of a bilateral dialogue is the maximum practical limit.  But that’s where the representative principle is often difficult, especially when the dialogue involves worldwide Christian traditions.  Anglicans, for example, need women and men, people from the Global South as well as the ‘West’, Evangelicals, Liberals, and Anglo-Catholics, and so on – and, of course, scholars. As you can imagine, selecting and appointing an adequately representative and expert team is extremely challenging.

Anglican Pentecostal Steering Group members 2023
Rev Canon Dr Jeremy Morris (at far right) with other members of the Anglican Pentecostal Steering Group which includes CTE President Bishop Tedroy Powell © Jeremy Morris

Working systematically

So once appointed, how do these dialogues generally work?   There is no common pattern, because the participating traditions of course all vary widely in their histories and church structures.  Catholics bring to the dialogues a highly organised bureaucracy in the form of the Vatican machinery, representing the needs of the whole Roman Catholic world.  Orthodox have no such mechanism.  Anglicans do have some global institutions, but as we all know their diversity is considerable, and every province is technically autonomous.  And so on.  Anglicans and Catholics now have over 60 years of dialogue behind them, and although not everything they have discussed has been received with universal acclaim in their own churches, nonetheless they have worked systematically through many of the main points of doctrinal and historical difference.  But other dialogues have sometimes had to operate in a more oblique way, picking up what might seem less directly controversial points, but in the process working towards a common understanding of crucial elements of faith.

An agenda is drawn up, covering what the main subjects of the conversation might be.  Usually, individual members are asked to write preparatory papers.  Then, at the formal meetings, at some point the discussion will move on from consideration of these preparatory papers to the drafting of a statement or agreement.  But this might take many meetings, and in some cases many years.  These meetings are very intense, and usually each side is careful not to be drawn too quickly into positions which will not be recognised or received well by their own tradition, though even then the reception of these texts is unpredictable and sometimes hostile. 

Trying to reset centuries of misunderstanding

Why all the effort?  Ecumenical dialogue is trying to reset centuries of mutual misunderstanding.  Sometimes it almost seems as if a new vocabulary has to be found to express common agreement on what in the past have been seen as widely separated positions.  Perhaps the most striking example of this is the agreement Catholics and Lutherans reached in 1999 on the doctrine of justification, the most divisive theological issue of all for churches of the Latin ‘West’.  By studying carefully what each tradition was trying to express in terms of its understanding of faith in the past, the dialogue members were able to recognise the essentials of a common faith underlying very different theological languages and styles.  It led to the removal of the mutual condemnations each ‘side’ had made of the other in the sixteenth century.  It was a major step – but still only a step – towards reconciliation and unity between Catholics and Lutherans.

Dialogue is a process of learning.  Getting to know another person properly is a crucial part of the whole business of building a relationship with them.  It is the same with churches.  But of course, the work of the theological dialogues is only part of the challenge of Christian unity.  The theological work must be done.  But there needs to be hard work also at the local level, between local communities of Christians learning to live, work and worship together.  There needs to be common action to address the serious problems of poverty, illness, injustice, war, and environmental injustice faced by the world – what is sometimes called the ‘ecumenism of action’.  There needs to be a continual, intensifying growth in trust between church leaders at all levels of our churches.  Without all these things, and more, working in harmony, theological dialogue is likely to seem arcane and even irrelevant.

But to turn that last point around – if we do not do the hard work of understanding each other’s theological traditions, and learning to see a common faith in them, then the problems that have bedevilled relations between our churches will never be at an end.  And, in my experience, there is always grace and hope to be found in fellow Christians of very different opinions.  Christ is one, and his Church, ultimately, is one: what we need to do is to live that unity in conviction and in love.

Rev Canon Dr Jeremy Morris is the Church of England’s National Advisor for Ecumenical Relations. He has been involved in the church’s ecumenical activity for many years, including dialogues involving Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans. His portfolio now includes oversight of all of the main ecumenical relationships the Church of England sustains in this country, principally at the national level. By background, he is a theologian and church historian.

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Main photo credit: © Albin Hillert/WCC