In English, the word “know” can be used for both a fact and a person. You can know that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, and you can also know your best friend. Both types of knowledge are genuine knowledge, but they are not the same type of thing. Knowing a fact is very different from knowing a person. Spanish on the other hand has two verbs for “to know”: saber which is about knowing facts; and conocer which is about knowing people.
Similarly, when we are doing ecumenical work there are two sorts of knowledge, and both have their place in shaping and influencing the success of our unity journey. The Society for Ecumenical Studies most obviously aims to encourage ecumenical understanding which means knowledge of facts (e.g. theological approaches, practices, history) about one another’s churches and traditions. However, most of those facts, though recorded in books as data points of information, are rooted in the experience of individuals, and individuals then make up a body, living together as a church or tradition. So for ecumenical studies to be successful, we need not only to know information, but to know one another, and to be in good relationship with one another.
Earlier this year I was on a flight to New York three days before Pentecost Sunday. I found myself sitting next to an orthodox Jew, a scribe, named Baruch. He was joining his Jewish congregation’s international Festival of Weeks (or Pentecost) celebration. We spoke for three hours about many things, but ended with the question “What makes community, koinonia, work?” We agreed that at its heart it was good relationships. He said to me “We find God in good relationships” and I agreed. We spoke about the Jewish personalist philosopher Martin Buber’s short book called “Ich und Du” or in English “I and Thou”. The essence of what Buber wrote was that when we are in a personal relationship with one another something is created, that somehow being in relationship, is a third entity, something added by God. And so being in an active good relationship is a creative work, it is God’s work, and if God’s work then it should be our work.
Buber’s reflection has, I think, profound implications for our ecumenical work. If we are to understand one another and continue on a journey of unity together, then we need to know one another. This means being in good relationship with one another, for then we will see God in one another. And suppose we see God in one another, though we may not fully understand everything about one another’s churches and traditions. In that case, we will be able to accept, without judgment, that each of us, despite any differences, is “in Christ”. And, if that, is then a brother or a sister.
Andy Pettman was the President of the European branch of the ecumenical movement of Christian communities called the Sword of the Spirit from 2019-23 and currently works on international development projects. Before this, he was the main leader for ten years of the Antioch Community in West London. The Antioch Community is a Charity and Network in Association with CTE. Andy is also an elder in the monastic, ecumenical brotherhood called the Servants of the Word. He is an Anglican and is part of a Church of England church close to where he lives in Acton.