To many people, it may, perhaps, be blindingly obvious that Christian unity is a prerequisite for any effective Christian witness to the world. But it might not be so obvious that ecumenical experience can offer powerful insights for how to evangelize. At least, it may not be obvious until you think that honest conversation, dialogue, is at the heart of both ecumenism and mission.
Receptive ecumenism in particular offers an original take on mission. At its heart is receptive learning. It is a style of learning that is a way of being in the world and, still more, of being in honest conversation. This is because it begins with the reality of who we are.
So what is the reality of Christians? It is the same as for all human beings. We all, all of us always, have a lot to learn. But a Christian has also made an amazing discovery: Jesus Christ and the riches of the gospel. We are a mix of need and giftedness.
So when Christians meet together to learn receptively they start by recognizing their own weakness, then go on to see the healing gifts in the other and, finally, seek to apply what they have learnt within the truth of their own existences. In receptive ecumenism, this happens at the level of traditions, since it is churches that come together.
But when we approach a person who does not have faith in Christ, we can practise the same pattern. We can begin 1) by recognizing that in our frailty we always have a great deal to learn, which means our attitude will be fundamentally one of listening. We can go on 2) to highlight the gifts others possess, so that they recognize what is good in themselves through our loving gaze. Finally, we can 3) take what we have learnt and, in our integrity as followers of Christ, translate it into practice so we become better Christians. This threefold approach in its lowliness and love is already a witness to the truth of the gospel but it becomes mission in a fuller sense when, as it almost always will, it is turned to us. The other, who is listened to and not judged, is free to be who they are in whatever fragility they may have, and they too can then discover the gifts in us. And what better gift do we have than Christ and his gospel?
Is it not wonderful, in a church riven by scandals, that like this we have an approach where we do not have to pretend to be better than we are but give glory to Christ as we live out his gentle humility? Perhaps, though, it is still more wonderful that we can allow Christ in us to reach out to the work of God, who loves everyone, already begun in others.
Callan Slipper (PhD, Lancaster University) is a Trustee of Churches Together in England and chairs the Society for Ecumenical Studies. He was ordained priest by the Church of England in 1994 and lives in London in a community of the Focolare Movement (one of the Charities and Networks in Association with CTE), where he strives to practise the Focolare’s spirituality of unity. He is a member of the Focolare Movement’s international study centre, the Abba School. Until 2022 he was National Ecumenical Officer for the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity. Prior to that, he had been both a County and a Denominational Ecumenical Officer. He is the author of Five Steps to Living Christian Unity and Enriched by the Other: A Spiritual Guide to Receptive Ecumenism.