‘That they all may be one’ (John 17:21) is a biblical quote I come across quite often. When someone asks: ‘Why do we need ecumenism?’, these words spoken by Jesus give us a reason anchored in Scripture – Jesus prays for our unity, so we should seek it.
It has been pointed out that the original intention of this passage is not specifically concerned with ecumenism as we understand it today, but I will leave this issue aside here.
The question that springs to my mind when I hear those words is: ‘What does it actually mean to be one?’ I don’t think this is a trivial question, firstly, because what we want Christian unity to look like will fundamentally shape the way in which we do ecumenism and secondly, because this question has been answered differently by different groups of Christians.
Just to throw a few possible options out there: 1) Christian unity is uniformity. 2) Christian unity is ‘unity in reconciled diversity’. 3) Christian unity is the smallest common denominator – we are all followers of Christ. 4) Christian unity is unanimity. I am sure there are many other ways in which Christian unity can be imagined.
It is of course not my place to say which option is the right or best one. This is the goal that Christians willing to embark on the ecumenical journey, must formulate and work towards together. That is a tough ask, given the huge diversity among our churches. Ecumenism can be frustrating and painful when there is disagreement and conversations stall. Eyebrows are regularly raised over the slow-paced, long-drawn-out deliberations that may or may not lead to a breakthrough in ecumenical relations. At the Kirchentag in Germany, someone once asked me about ecumenism: ‘Why do we need it? I just go and do what I want.’ Why indeed? I believe we need it because there are things at stake that matter and ignoring an ecumenical disagreement will not make it go away.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said: ‘I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.’ If I had to describe how I understand ‘that they may all be one’, it is exactly this: the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Ignoring complex problems, like the person at the Kirchentag who wanted to ignore ecumenical divisions, does make things simple. But this is a static simplicity that will be stuck in the same place and not change anything at all. Facing complex problems is, of course, not usually very comfortable. The complexity challenges our thinking, our understanding of things and often takes more than one attempt to find a solution. Take the Leuenberg Concord as an example, an agreement that was decades in the making. 50 years ago, this breakthrough in inter-Protestant relations simplified church life enormously through the acceptance of full communion between churches that had been divided for centuries. This is particularly tangible in Germany where no one particular church dominates the landscape. Take a look at a map of Protestant Germany here.
The simplicity that the Leuenberg Concord has led to is a dynamic simplicity because it has moved things on. It has changed things fundamentally because it has overcome a complex, church-dividing problem and allows people to interact on a wholly different level.
Maybe the challenges we are facing as an ecumenical community today will not be overcome soon or even in our lifetime. But despite the challenges and frustrations that lie ahead, we can make a start. And we must make a start if we want to echo Christ’s plea ‘that they all may be one’.
Dr Anna Krauss became the CTE President for the Fourth Presidency Group in May 2023. She is the General Secretary of the Council of Lutheran Churches in Great Britain.