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Ecumenical history offers lessons



With churches closed throughout much of the world, many events and dedicated weeks have passed us by. One of those weeks was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Catholics who paid attention to Pope Francis’ engagements may have noticed it through his references to the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s Encyclical on Christian Unity, Ut Unum Sint.

Pope Francis with Eastern Churches and Ecclesial Communities (Franco Origlia/Getty images)

Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that famously did not bark, the Week for Christian Unity may be significant for both churches and our wider society precisely because it passed so little noticed. At one level that is a measure of its success. It began at a time of vigorous missionary activity by European and American churches with a long history of mutual antipathy. Those involved had begun to realise how far their rivalry and exclusive claims for their own church weakened their individual efforts. The non-Christians among whom they worked were also deterred by the inconsistency of people in conflict preaching a Gospel of peace and unity. 

The Week for Christian Unity was one of many initiatives aimed at healing the divisions of the past, restoring unity among Christians, and praying and cooperating with one another. Together, they became known as the ecumenical movement. Attitudes towards the movement among church leaders and members were ambivalent. Most were in favour of the unity of Christians as a distant goal. But for many the issues that had initially led to their division were still alive. Christian unity had to be based on unity of belief, whether this concerned, for example, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist or salvation by faith alone. They were also divided about whether unity would mean joining one church as it was already constituted or shaping a new and diverse community.

In the Catholic Church the initial attitude to the ecumenical movement was generally suspicious. It was seen to downplay the significance of unity of belief and to see all churches as equally valid, so failing to recognise that the true Church already existed in the Catholic Church. By Vatican Council II, however, the disunity among Christians was seen as a scandal, the many elements shared with other churches recognised, and the urgency of church unity stressed. Catholic leaders and theologians joined their fellows in other churches to seek common ground on disputed points of doctrine. Local congregations of different churches prayed together and sought to cooperate on common projects. Roman statements, however, mixed encouragement with fear that differences would be neglected and that many Catholics would believe and act as if all churches were the same. This alternation between brake and accelerator is also evident in Ut Unum Sint.

More recently, though, the passion for Christian unity has waned as church congregations have declined, the place of churches in society has diminished, and churches have become more preoccupied with their own identity and questions of governance. The Catholic Church has become focused on the reality and response to clerical sexual abuse of children.

For an increasing number of Christians church allegiance is seen as part of personal history rather than as a commitment to an authoritative tradition. As all churches cope with more limited resources, too, there is less energy or enthusiasm for deepening relationships with other churches.


'The first temptation is to focus on returning to a previous order and set of relationships within society or church. To do this is an illusion because the crisis has already changed society and church.'


At a time when Australia addresses economic hardship and contraction on top of the grief and isolation caused by the coronavirus, the history of the week for Christian Unity is pertinent both to church and state. For both, uncertainty and insecurity offer temptations. 

The first temptation is to focus on returning to a previous order and set of relationships within society or church. To do this is an illusion because the crisis has already changed society and church. Because the proposed return to normal is unreal, to pursue it will inevitably lead to division and disaffection. A better approach is to ask what kind of society and church we are called to build and what patterns of relationship are entailed in the building.

The second temptation is to focus narrowly on oneself, one’s own group and one’s own society. The focus in churches on denominational identity to the neglect of Christian identity yields to that temptation. So would also the placing of party political interests, and the interests of powerful groups in society before the common good in the response to the rebuilding of Australian society. A better approach is to keep before our eyes all the relationships to others, to other groups, to other nations and to the environment of which we are part are part and on whose health we depend. 

The third temptation is consequent on the second. It is to divide our world into friends and enemies and make a gulf between them. Doing this allows us to obscure the flaws of ourselves and of our own groups by exaggerating those of the groups we demonise. It also allows us to represent our own interests as the national interest. In Australian public life the creation of enemies has been an art form — we need to think only of the abuse and discrimination against refugees, Indigenous Australians, Muslims and people who are unemployed. It is a work that can be seen in progress as China is made into the paragon of viciousness in contrast to our shining virtue, and Chinese Australians are made the targets of discrimination.

The better approach is to build conversation with those with whom we disagree and whose actions we disapprove, and to allow the attractiveness of what we hold as true and good to be manifest. The goal of the ecumenical movement was to turn people perceived as enemies into friends, and friends into fellow labourers for in the vineyard.  That should be also the spirit of national rebuilding.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: (Franco Origlia/Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ecumenical, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity



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Existing comments

Andrew, Wonderful thoughts and insight.The divisions within Christianity remain as a scandal, both to Christians and non Christians alike . My mother's parents were ; Catholic (Mum) and Anglican (Dad) . On Sundays Mum went with her sisters and mother to the Catholic Church, My uncles went with their father to the Anglican Church. Sectarism was alive and well, even into the 1970's. My brother wanted to marry an Anglican girl . Mother said "if you marry in the Church of England, I will not be there". Our Parish Priest refused to marry them, so they went to the Parish Priest in her suburb who did ! I was engaged to an Anglo-Catholic girl. Mother made such a huge fuss about it that our engagement was fatally damaged by the acrimony. I married a Catholic in 1982 and we are still married! Two of our children married non Catholics, two of my childhood mates, (Presbyterian) married Catholics, much to their mother's dismay. I totally agree that the Church, in the Spirit of Vatican II, should embrace our Christian brothers and sisters in a spirit of reconciliation and love.What is past is past!

Gavin O'Brien | 04 June 2020  

I doubt whether world history will be divided into Before Covid and Anno Corona. It’s not as if the Great Bushfire Drama of 2020 is reverberating in the memory. Seeing events as epochal just sets up social engineering for down the road. Resilience is the stubborn tendency of humans, not cowed and not craven, after a dislocation, to revert to the mean, which is what the reopening of an economy would signify.

roy chen yee | 05 June 2020  

“Roman statements, however, mixed encouragement with fear that differences would be neglected and that many Catholics would believe and act as if all churches were the same.” It’s obvious that all churches can’t be the same because faith, like science, is concerned about the truth of particulars, unless it can be shown somewhere that God doesn’t care if Christians have different ideas about him. It’s not as if a human doesn’t get exasperated if every time he visits his in-laws they serve him broccoli when they ought to know he hates the stuff. It’s not as if prospective citizens of Australia can opt out of swearing allegiance to the Queen and her legitimate heirs and successors because they’re into republics. Why should God be held to a lower standard? The sovereign border around the Catholic faith is the moat that serves to protect the truth of each Catholic particular from being corrupted.

roy chen yee | 05 June 2020  

So much of the sectarian hatred described so lucidly by Gavin O'Brien was bred out of England's oppression of Catholicism in England and occupied Ireland, John Knox's hatred of Catholicism and that of other erstwhile Catholic priests with a beef like Luther and Calvin (non-ordained seminarian). Vatican II's proclamation on ecumenism was the greatest and most successful of its reforms because the seriously flawed attitude that Catholicism had a mortgage on God and salvation was so wrong and needed reforming. It was so unfortunate that the same Vat II Council destroyed so much of the life blood and difference from others that Catholicism embodied such as, for example, its sacred liturgy and universality. Like you Gavin I married a blue stocking, practising English Anglican and expected to run into all sorts of family trouble when we made the decision to marry. My Irish Catholic mother was doubly shattered (A Pommie Protestant !!) until she learnt that my intended was becoming a Catholic. My wife's father, however, said, "If my daughter thinks she should become a Catholic, I should be most disappointed in her if she didn't get on with it and do it." Thank God for the ecumenism he espoused. Would that we were all indeed one in the spirit of Ut Unum Sint and Vat II.

john frawley | 05 June 2020  

"For an increasing number of Christians church allegiance is seen as part of personal history rather than a commitment to an authoritative tradition." The perception Andrew identifies here could well be the single most influential factor in the waning of ecumenical spirit since its initial enthusiastic promotion in the '60s with Vatican II. It is reflective, I suggest, of a broader contemporary academic scepticism and subjectivism with regard to truth, the basis of authority and the unifying principle of ecclesial tradition.

John RD | 05 June 2020  

Another great article Andy! May I strongly encourage you to publish it more widely in order to reach a wider audience. The Age for example?

Nick Hale | 05 June 2020  

Interesting, while one is paying more attention to politically active conservative and/or nationalist Christians, many of whom are Catholic, what is the basis for their strong public antipathy towards Pope Francis? They often, along with non Catholic Angela Merkel, cite (Moslem) immigration as a central issue, but is that all? There seems to be nostalgia and a form of political support for Pope John Paul, and old ideas on 'identity' internationally between southern plus central Europe, the US and Australia (latter includes MPs and journalists)?

Andrew Smith | 05 June 2020  

Jesus says “Who are my mother and my brethren?... Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”.... At Pentecost The Spirit of God inspires the Apostles and sends them on their mission; while all the Baptized are asked to do the same. As those who receive the Holy Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus Christ in the world, while He the Holy Spirit sanctifies our hearts in creating a dwelling place for Himself (The Divine presence) to reside within us.... After the Crucifixion in the upper room we see those who had travelled the road of enlightenment/self-realization with Jesus (The Word Made Flesh) hide in fear of the Jewish leadership while now knowing the full reality of their brokenness (Betrayal and cowardice) before our Father in heaven. It could be said that their hearts were now readied to receive The Holy Spirit as a humble heart is His dwelling place as in …“I am leaving you with a gift--peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don't be troubled or afraid”… Please consider continue via the link as the post with an addendum is long. kevin your brother In Christ https://acireland.ie/eucharist-divine-presence-or-divine-feeding__trashed-2/#comment-12042

Kevin Walters | 05 June 2020  

I rather think that the majority of lay-people already feel united. In the absence of a Roman Catholic chaplain for many years because of the shortage of priests, I try to see as many Roman Catholics (and Maronite Catholics and Oriental Orthodox as I can) as well as my own Anglican patients, and sundry Protestants. Almost all Roman Catholics &c welcome a visit. Once when I told an old Spanish lady very sick in intensive care that I was C.of E., she pointed upwards and said "one Jesus". And even among the clergy, I have been invited to share in a Eucharist AND in the distribution of the Sacrament to the large number of Roman Catholics and Anglicans present at a wedding. I myself have very publicly been anointed - for sickness - and given the Sacrament at a Roman Catholic church I sometimes attend. The spirit of Vatican II is still alive as Pope Francis is showing us though of course there is more to be done. Cheers.

John Bunyan | 06 June 2020  

To my mind Christendom, which does not include just Western Christianity, but also Eastern Christianity including the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, is like Humpty Dumpty after he fell off the wall. There is nothing wrong meeting Christians of other denominations and saying a few prayers, but I do not think this will ever bring about Christian unity. There are too many vested interests at play. Christianity is under real threat worldwide from a variety of sources. It did not survive under Nazism or Communism without showing real spiritual strength. I am afraid that many Christians today in the prosperous West have no spiritual strength whatever. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Cardinal Mindzenty; the Russian martyrs; the leaders of the Polish Catholic Church and Cardinal Zen showed and show real courage. One of the problems I have with some of the clerical leaders of the Ecumenical Movement in the West, particularly in the once traditional Protestant heartland such as Holland or the Netherlands, is that they do not believe in traditional Christian truths such as the Resurrection. How on earth can they call themselves Christians in any real sense if they've reduced Christian belief to a sort of weak, watered down gruel? Why on earth would anyone want a specious unity with them?

Edward Fido | 06 June 2020  

The denial of the Christ's resurrection, noted by Edward Fido as a distortion of the Gospel and an obstacle to unity, is symptomatic of the post-Enlightenment project to produce a 'religion' confined to the natural and immanent only, at the expense of the supernatural dimension which situates human being and our ultimate potential in creaturely relationship with God; and, in God, with the rest of creation. Its creed demands the elevation of the human by the subordination - or, in its Nietzschean form, negation - of the divine, so that we become masterbuilders rather than stewards of existence. A 'theological' demythologising of miracle accounts in the gospels contributes, wittingly or unwittingly, to the same self-vaunting humanism uprooted from its origin, being and goal in God - in whom, as St Paul says, ". . . we live, and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28).

John RD | 08 June 2020  

In overcoming division, churches should be looking to the freedom of the Trinity. I take comfort that my waywardness and resistance can be redeemed by God. And I think it is in recognising our individual finitude that we can come to an understanding of others' finitude. Only God is infinite. Though I've stated this in individual terms it applies to institutions, like churches, equally.

Pam | 08 June 2020  

Divisions? George Floyd was treated as if Jesus. Jesus was treated as if George Floyd. Both men, one man. To how many will Jesus say one day: I do not know you? Divisions, from where do they come?: The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you: The smoke, mirrors and shadows created by this passing world. Jesus called himself the Bread of Life, not the Golden Fleece.

AO | 08 June 2020  

I think a true ecumenism is about people prayerfully attempting to learn Christian truth from each other. There is a short YouTube clip of Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna encountering Nicky Gumbel in this spirit, where the Cardinal says he wants to learn how the Alpha Course attracts unchurched people to Christianity and also explains the Trinity the best and simplest way I have ever heard. Both of them and their audience are looking for a meaningful exchange, not just the empty mouthing of platitudes. Much theological talk and writing today by the likes of Richard Holloway, formerly Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who after retirement described himself as a humanist, is mere speculation with no grounding in Christian Truth.

Edward Fido | 09 June 2020  

How can we catholics expect to move towards unity when there is so much dogmatic disagreement among each other - witness the vast panoply of polarised opinion, just among catholics, above? Why do we frogmarch to the tune of dogma? What did the Master say: "only one thing is needed".

Patrick John Mahony | 12 June 2020  

Interesting post, Patrick John Mahony. Up until the Second Vatican Council Catholicism in Australia seemed to me to be very much in an Irish-Australian straightjacket. It was a version of the Faith which was outdated both in Ireland and here. The Second Vatican Council was meant to get Catholics to grow up and develop a mature faith to guide their own lives. Jesus was very much about standing up on your own two feet. Sadly, many Catholics took Vatican Two as an excuse for a sort of adolescent rebellion against everything. This continues today. There seems to be a standoff between most of the hierarchy, who are basically authoritarian about everything and many laity who want to go well beyond the recognised traditional bounds of Christian Faith into the sort of dangerous Modernism, now termed 'Liberal Christianity', so prevalent in much of the Anglican Communion and the historic mainline Protestant denominations. I think it is important that we in the West who are Christian rediscover the Living Truth of our Faith. For Catholics it is centred in the Sacraments, of which the Eucharist is the epicentre, which embodies everything. The Sacraments are real and unarguable.

Edward Fido | 15 June 2020  

Let's hope that near-forgotten event, Plenary Council 2020, will help recovery of liturgical experience grounded, as Edward Fido affirms, in the reality of the sacraments which address and transform all human life's defining aspects.

John RD | 16 June 2020  

Andrew, a timely article,and very well explored and written. it was unfortunate that the week for prayer for Christian Unity was almost unnoticed by me this year, due to lack of church attendance through Covid restrictions, and when I realised it was over I acknowledged it with a prayer. As a person who has had a family background including a Catholic Irish Famine Orphan background and Anglican background, I believe that their are ongoing issues of history that are yet to be resolved and forgiven in the public sphere. That places those of us who are in the"middle" so to speak sometimes in the "firing line" of family disputes. Through doing some family history I have now become more familiar with English History. Mostly the Marian persecutions and the Jesuit/Catholic persecutions, including the stories of secret Catholic recusants. Its time to bury the hatchets everyone and for the sake of ecumenism realise that we have more in common than we have differences and that the sectarian disputes can hurt those of us who are in the "middle".Lets all stop 'demonising" each other as you suggest and lets all be good students of English history where sometimes Anglican and Catholic families united to keep the legacy of Christian faith alive through turbulent times.One may call it a CathAnglican legacy or AngCatholic legacy. Thanks Andrew for highlighting this issue and theme.

Roz | 22 June 2020  

The ultimate split between the Catholic Church and the Church of England took a while coming and the final act only took place during the reign of Elizabeth 1, Roz. When it happened it was similar to Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. I think there is no chance of organic reunion due to a number of deep theological issues. Friendly relationships can, of course, take place and individual Anglicans can come across. The Ordinariates provide a safe haven for many who wish to retain something of their former Anglican identity but most seem to join the mainstream Latin Rite. One of the things looking at any mass movement, like ecumenism, can mask is the real personal turmoil many sincere Anglicans and others are going through. Many are looking for a safe haven and the peace which passes all understanding. The likes of St John Henry Newman and others found it after immense soul searching and sacrifice. Saying a few prayers together often does not answer these deep seated needs.

Edward Fido | 07 July 2020