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Ecumenism is an interdenominational initiative aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation. The term is used predominantly by and with reference to Christian denominations and Christian Churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, ecumenism is the idea of a Christian unity in the literal meaning: that there should be a single Church. Ecumenism is separate and distinct from Nondenominational Christianity.
The word contrasts with interfaith dialogue or interfaith pluralism aimed at unity or cooperation among diverse religions and referring to a worldwide "religious unity" by the advocacy of a greater sense of shared spirituality.
The word is derived from Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means "the whole inhabited world", and was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. The ecumenical vision comprises both the search for the visible unity of the Church (Ephesians 4:3) and the "whole inhabited earth" (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all Christians.
In Christianity the qualification ecumenical is originally (and still) used in terms such as "Ecumenical council" and "Ecumenical patriarch" in the meaning of pertaining to the totality of the larger Church (such as the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church) rather than being restricted to one of its constituent churches or dioceses. Used in this original sense, the term carries no connotation of re-uniting the historically separated Christian denominations.
Ecumenism is the movement within Christianity that aims at "the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church's mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church's obligation to be one". Thus, ecumenism is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of Christianity.
Ecumenism is distinguished from and should not be misused to mean interfaith pluralism. The interfaith movement strives for greater mutual respect, toleration, and co-operation among the world religions. Interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths, does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations.
For some Catholics it may, but not always, have the goal of reconciling all who profess Christian faith to bring them into a single, visible organization, i.e. through union with the Roman Catholic Church.
For some Protestants spiritual unity, and often unity on the church's teachings on central issues, suffices. According to Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink, most important in Christian ecumenism is that people focus primarily on Christ, not on separate church organizations. In Schlink's book Ökumenische Dogmatik (1983), he says Christians who see the risen Christ at work in the lives of various Christians or in diverse churches, realize that the unity of Christ's church has never been lost, but has instead been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences and by spiritual myopia.
Both are overcome in renewed faith in Christ. Included in that is responding to his admonition (John 17; also Philippians 2) to be one in him and love one another as a witness to the world. The result of mutual recognition would be a discernible worldwide fellowship, organized in a historically new way.
Standing against the modern ecumenist movement is the traditional Orthodox Church which staunchly maintains there is but one Church, and Orthodoxy is the Church. Thus, theories like "sister church" or "two lungs" are generally rejected, because in its view the Church is theologically indivisible. Leading the anti ecumenical movement in the 1980s was Fr. John Boylan of the OCA.
An example of ecumenism is the invention of and growing usage of the Christian Flag, which was designed to represent all of Christendom. The flag has a white field, with a red Latin cross inside a blue canton.
One understanding of the ecumenical movement is that it came from the Roman Catholic Church's attempts to reconcile with Christians who had become separated over theological issues. Others see the 1910 World Missionary Conference as the birthplace of the ecumenical movement. Others yet point to the 1920 encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople “To the Churches of Christ Everywhere” that suggested a "fellowship of churches" similar to the League of Nations.
After World War I, which had brought much devastation to many people, the church became a source of hope to those in need. In 1948 the first meeting of the World Council of Churches took place. Despite the fact that the meeting had been postponed due to World War II, the council took place in Amsterdam with the theme of “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design”.
The focus of the church and the council following the gathering was on the damage created by the Second World War. The council and the movement went forward to continue the efforts of unifying the church globally around the idea of helping all those in need, whether it be a physical, emotional, or spiritual need. The movement led to an understanding amongst the churches that, despite difference, they could join together to be an element of great change in the world. To be an agent of hope and peace amongst the chaos and destruction that humans seem to create. More importantly the council and the movement lead to not only ecumenism but to the forming of councils amongst the denominations that connected churches across continental lines.
Today, the World Council of Churches sees its role as sharing "the legacy of the one ecumenical movement and the responsibility to keep it alive" and acting "as a trustee for the inner coherence of the movement".
in English-speaking countries
For a significant part of the Christian world, one of the highest goals to be sought is the reconciliation of the various denominations by overcoming the historical divisions within Christianity. Even where there is broad agreement upon this goal, approaches to ecumenism vary. Generally, Protestants see fulfilment of the goal of ecumenism as consisting in general agreements on teachings about central issues of faith, with mutual pastoral accountability between the diverse churches regarding the teachings of salvation.
For Catholics and Orthodox on the other hand, the true unity of Christendom is treated in accordance with their more sacramental understanding of the Body of Christ; this ecclesiological matter for them is closely linked to key theological issues (e.g. regarding the Eucharist and the historical Episcopate), and requires full dogmatic assent to the pastoral authority of the Church for full communion to be considered viable and valid. Thus, there are different answers even to the question of the church, which finally is the goal of the ecumenist movement itself. However, the desire of unity is expressed by many denominations, generally that all who profess faith in Christ in sincerity, would be more fully cooperative and supportive of one another.
For the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the process of approaching one another is formally split in two successive stages: the "dialogue of love" and the "dialogue of truth". To the former belong the mutual revocation in 1965 of the anathemas of 1054 (see below Contemporary developments), returning the relics of Sabbas the Sanctified (a common saint) to Mar Saba in the same year, and the first visit of a Pope to an Orthodox country in a millennium (Pope John Paul II accepting the invitation of the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Teoctist, in 1999), among others. The later one, involving effective theological engagement on matters of dogma, is only just commencing.
Christian ecumenism can be described in terms of the three largest divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. While this underemphasizes the complexity of these divisions, it is a useful model.
The Roman Catholic Church has always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow-Christians and, at the same time, to reject what it sees as a false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of sacred scripture and tradition.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the main stress was laid on this second aspect, as exemplified in canon 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law:
The 1983 Code of Canon Law has no corresponding canon. It absolutely forbids Roman Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities which are not in full communion (canon 908), but allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102 states: "Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state."
Pope John XXIII, who convoked the council that brought this change of emphasis about, said that the council's aim was to seek renewal of the church itself, which would serve, for those separated from the See of Rome, as a "gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father".
Some elements of the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism are illustrated in the following quotations from the council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio of 21 November 1964, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint of 25 May 1995.
Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity ... There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble. gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. ... The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us". So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us.—
Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord's disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today.—
In ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.—
The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?...Even so, doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it.—
When the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.—
While some Eastern Orthodox churches commonly baptize converts from the Roman Catholic Church, thereby refusing to recognize the baptism that the converts have previously received, the Roman Catholic Church has always accepted the validity of all the sacraments administered by the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Roman Catholic Church likewise has very seldom applied the terms "heterodox" or "heretic" to the Eastern Orthodox churches or its members, though there are clear differences in doctrine, notably about the authority of the Pope, Purgatory, and the filioque clause. More often, the term "separated" or "schismatic" has been applied to the state of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
The Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches are two distinct bodies of local churches. The churches within each body share full communion, although there is not official communion between the two bodies. Both consider themselves to be the original church, from which the West was divided in the 5th and 11th centuries, respectively (after the 3rd and 7th Ecumenical councils).
Many theologians of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxies engage in theological dialogue with each other and with some of the Western churches, though short of full communion. The Eastern Orthodox have participated in the interfaith movement, with students active in the World Student Christian Federation since the late 19th century. Most Eastern Orthodox and all Oriental Orthodox churches are members of the World Council of Churches.
The members of the Anglican Communion have generally embraced the Ecumenical Movement, actively participating in such organizations as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Most provinces holding membership in the Anglican Communion have special departments devoted to ecumenical relations; however, the influence of Liberal Christianity has in recent years caused tension within the communion, causing some to question the direction ecumenism has taken them.
Each member church of the Anglican Communion makes its own decisions with regard to intercommunion. Many of them are currently out of communion with other provinces of the Anglican Communion. The 1958 Lambeth Conference recommended "that where between two Churches not of the same denominational or confessional family, there is unrestricted communio in sacris, including mutual recognition and acceptance of ministries, the appropriate term to use is 'full communion', and that where varying degrees of relation other than 'full communion' are established by agreement between two such churches the appropriate term is 'intercommunion'."
Full communion has been established between Provinces of the Anglican Communion and these Churches:
The Episcopal Church is currently engaged in dialogue with the following religious bodies:
Worldwide, an estimated forty million Anglicans belong to churches that do not participate in the Anglican Communion, a particular organization limited to one province per country. In these Anglican churches, there is strong opposition to the ecumenical movement and to membership in such bodies as the World and National Councils of Churches. Most of these churches are associated with the Continuing Anglican movement or the movement for Anglican realignment. While ecumenicalism in general is opposed, certain Anglican church bodies that are not members of the Anglican Communion—the Free Church of England and the Church of England in South Africa, for example—have fostered close and cooperative relations with other evangelical (if non-Anglican) churches, on an individual basis.
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Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf, (1700–1760) the renewer of the Unitas Fratrum / Moravian Church in the 18th century, was the first person to use the word "ecumenical" in this sense. His pioneering efforts to unite all Christians, regardless of denominational labels, into a "Church of God in the Spirit"—notably among German immigrants in Pennsylvania—were misunderstood by his contemporaries and 200 years before the world was ready for them.
The contemporary ecumenical movement for Protestants is often said to have started with the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. However this conference would not have been possible without the pioneering ecumenical work of the Christian youth movements: the Young Men's Christian Association (founded 1844), the Young Women's Christian Association (founded 1855), the World Student Christian Federation (founded 1895), and the Federal Council of Churches (founded 1908), predecessor to today's National Council of Churches USA.
Led by Methodist layman John R. Mott (former YMCA staff and in 1910 the General Secretary of WSCF), the World Mission conference marked the largest Protestant gathering to that time, with the express purposes of working across denominational lines for the sake of world missions. After the First World War further developments were the "Faith and Order" movement led by Charles Henry Brent, and the "Life and Work" movement led by Nathan Soderblom. In the 1930s, the tradition of an annual World Communion Sunday to celebrate ecumenical ties was established in the Presbyterian Church and was subsequently adopted by several other denominations.
Eventually, formal organizations were formed, including the World Council of Churches in 1948, the National Council of Churches in the USA in 1950, and Churches Uniting in Christ in 2002. These groups are moderate to liberal, theologically speaking, as Protestants are generally more liberal and less traditional than Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.
Protestants are now involved in a variety of ecumenical groups, working in some cases toward organic denominational unity and in other cases for cooperative purposes alone. Because of the wide spectrum of Protestant denominations and perspectives, full cooperation has been difficult at times. Edmund Schlink's Ökumenische Dogmatik 1983, 1997 proposes a way through these problems to mutual recognition and renewed church unity.
In 1999, the representatives of Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, resolving the conflict over the nature of Justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation, although some conservative Lutherans did not agree to this resolution. On July 18, 2006 Delegates to the World Methodist Conference voted unanimously to adopt the Joint Declaration.
The mutual anathemas (excommunications) of 1054, marking the Great Schism between Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches of Christianity, a process spanning several centuries, were revoked in 1965 by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Roman Catholic Church does not regard Orthodox Christians as excommunicated, since they personally have no responsibility for the separation of their churches. In fact, Catholic rules admit the Orthodox to communion and the other sacraments in situations where the individuals are in danger of death or no Orthodox churches exist to serve the needs of their faithful. However, Orthodox churches still generally regard Roman Catholics as excluded from the sacraments and some may even not regard Catholic sacraments such as baptism and ordination as valid.
In November 2006, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Istanbul at the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and participated in the feast day services of St. Andrew the First Apostle, the patron saint of the Church of Constantinople. The Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope Benedict had another historic meeting in Ravenna, Italy in 2007. The Declaration of Ravenna marked a significant rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox positions. The declaration recognized the bishop of Rome as the Protos, or first among equals of the Patriarchs. This acceptance and the entire agreement was hotly contested by the Russian Orthodox Church. The signing of the declaration highlighted the pre-existing tensions between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate. Besides their theological concerns, the Russian Orthodox have continuing concerns over the question of the Eastern Catholic Churches that operate in what they regard as Orthodox territory. This question has been exacerbated by disputes over churches and other property that the Communist authorities once assigned to the Orthodox Church but whose restoration these Churches have obtained from the present authorities.
A major obstacle to improved relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches has been the insertion of the Latin term filioque into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in the 8th and 11th centuries. This obstacle has now been effectively resolved. The Roman Catholic Church now recognizes that the Creed, as confessed at the First Council of Constantinople, did not add "and the Son", when it spoke of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father. When quoting the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, as in the 6 August 2000 document Dominus Iesus, it does not include filioque. It views as complementary the Eastern-tradition expression "who proceeds from the Father" (profession of which it sees as affirming that he comes from the Father through the Son) and the Western-tradition expression "who proceeds from the Father and the Son", with the Eastern tradition expressing firstly the Father's character as first origin of the Spirit, and the Western tradition giving expression firstly to the consubstantial communion between Father and Son; and it believes that, provided this legitimate complementarity does not become rigid, it does not affect the identity of faith in the reality of the same mystery confessed.
Continuing dialogues at both international and national level continue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but major future developments will probably have to await the outcome of the 2016 Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church.
Contemporary developments in mainline Protestant churches have dealt a serious blow to ecumenism. The decision by the U.S. Episcopal Church to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay, non-celibate priest who advocates same-sex blessings, as bishop led the Russian Orthodox Church to suspend its cooperation with the Episcopal Church. Likewise, when the Church of Sweden decided to bless same-sex marriages, the Russian Patriarchate severed all relations with the Church, noting that "Approving the shameful practice of same-sex marriages is a serious blow to the entire system of European spiritual and moral values influenced by Christianity."
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev commented that the inter-Christian community is "bursting at the seams". He sees the great dividing line—or "abyss"—not so much between old churches and church families as between "traditionalists" and "liberals", the latter now dominating Protestantism, and predicted that other Northern Protestant Churches will follow suit and this means that the "ecumenical ship" will sink, for with the liberalism that is materializing in European Protestant churches, there is no longer anything to talk about.
Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches USA, Churches Uniting in Christ, Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship and Christian Churches Together continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics. There are universities such as the University of Bonn in Germany that offer degree courses in "Ecumenical Studies" in which theologians of various denominations teach their respective traditions and, at the same time, seek for common ground between these traditions.
Influenced by the ecumenical movement, the "scandal of separation" and local developments, a number of United and uniting churches have formed; there are also a range of mutual recognition strategies being practiced where formal union is not feasible. An increasing trend has been the sharing of church buildings by two or more denominations, either holding separate services or a single service with elements of all traditions.
There are some in The United Methodist Church who oppose the forms of ecumenism which are "not grounded in the doctrines of the Church" due to the fear of doctrinal compromise. For example, an article published in Catalyst Online: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians stated that false ecumenism might result in the "blurring of theological and confessional differences in the interests of unity".
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) bars its clergy from worshiping with other faiths, holding "that church fellowship or merger between church bodies in doctrinal disagreement with one another is not in keeping with what the Bible teaches about church fellowship". In practice of this: a Connecticut LCMS pastor was asked to apologize by the President of the denomination, and did so, for participating in an interfaith prayer vigil for the 26 children and adults killed at a Newtown elementary school, and a LCMS pastor in New York was suspended for praying at an interfaith vigil in 2001, 12 days after the September 11 attacks.
Despite many disagreements over ecumenism and how to approach interfaith dialog, there exists a sizable group of Orthodox Christians who are vehemently opposed to any kind of interfaith dialog, whether with other Christian denominations or religions outside Christianity. They view ecumenism and interfaith dialog as being potentially pernicious to Orthodox Church Tradition; a "weakening" of Orthodoxy itself.
In the Eastern Orthodox world, the monastic community of Mount Athos, arguably the most important center of Orthodox spirituality, has voiced its concerns regarding the ecumenist movement and opposition to the participation of the Orthodox Church.
They regard modern ecumenism as compromising essential doctrinal stands in order to accommodate other Christians, and object to the emphasis on dialogue leading to intercommunion rather than conversion on the part of participants in ecumenical initiatives. Greek Old Calendarists also claim that the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils forbid changing the church calendar through abandonment of the Julian calendar. The Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference entitled "Ecumenism: Origins, Expectations, Disenchantment", organized in September 2004 by the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki has drawn negative conclusions on ecumenism.
The word ecumenical arises in the Father Ted episode Tentacles of Doom, in which Father Ted sets out to train the drunken and bad-tempered Father Jack to say two all-encompassing phrases in response to questions from three visiting bishops, namely "Yes" and "that would be an ecumenical matter".
In the strategy game Europa Universalis III, the player can select "Ecumenism" as a National Idea. This increases tolerance of "heretical religions" (i.e. religions that are related to but not part of the state's religion) within the player's country.
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