An Anglican Priest on what effect the Vatican’s recent statement will have on practical ecumenism It seemed fitting that I was scheduled to share a meal with a Roman Catholic friend Tuesday evening, just hours after the Vatican released a statement reaffirming the 2000 document Dominus Iesus, in which Orthodox churches were deemed “wounded” and Protestant Churches, like the Episcopal Church in which I’m a priest (female, no less), are not really churches and our priests not true priests. As the document states: “Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress in the communities concerned and even among some Catholics, it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to [Protestant communities], given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements [i.e. the apostolic succession] considered essential to the Catholic Church.”
But in the same way that striking statement about these apparent differences between my friend and me didn’t prevent us from having a stimulating two-hour discussion about our shared belief in God over dinner, it also doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in the important ecumenical work among Catholics and Protestants going on at the grassroots level. It’s no secret that the gap between the Catholic Church’s teaching and the lived reality for many in the pews can be wide, and our meal that night seemed somehow symbolic of the continued fellowship and ecumenical progress we’re making even as the Vatican makes statements to the contrary.
Which isn’t to say many Protestants and Catholics aren’t (and shouldn’t be) upset about the document and what it may portend for ecumenical dialogue. The reiteration of this document has been decried by some as a “huge step backward,” and, more harshly, a sort of “excommunication” of Protestant churches. While not all of us take such an extreme view, as a member
of the New York Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Commission, I can
still attest that—despite attempts to soften the statement’s impact by the head of the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity—coming to a table to talk about shared fellowship in
Christ when one group isn’t even a “church” can sometimes seem pretty
absurd and discouraging.
All this being said, though, it seems to me that much of the ecumenical work that is going on—and will continue to go on—at the grassroots level is at least as important as anything coming out of the Vatican. The Rev. Keith Pecklers, Jesuit liturgist at the Gregorian University, calls it “underreported practical ecumenism.” Practical ecumenism refers to all the joint work between Catholics and Protestants (not to mention other faiths) that goes on every day in soup kitchens, thrift stores, homeless shelters, peace rallies, and church educational groups. It also refers to joint statements issued by church leaders against war and poverty, or to bishops of different denominations sharing responsibilities when need arises.
In that same vein, I experience a lot of what I call “relational ecumenism,” as well. For instance, a Roman Catholic friend of mine routinely takes communion from me because we have a strong spiritual relationship that precedes our current denominational affiliations. She isn’t going to wait until her church says I’m legitimate; she already knows that. Likewise, I wouldn’t for a moment think that the Catholic friend with whom I had dinner on Tuesday is somehow an unfit spiritual companion just because he doesn’t agree with my views on, say, papal authority.
Such relational ecumenism may be the strongest among us Christians in our 20s and 30s, the so-called “post-denominational” set. Upwards of 60% of us no longer consider denominational affiliation as important as it was to previous generations, and we also get around more, experiencing different denominations before possibly committing to one—if at all. Such experiences mean that, while not necessarily dismissive of the conversation, we’re just not interested in waiting around until the old men in robes hammer out every minute detail of doctrine before we can share in each other’s faiths.
But this spirit isn’t just limited 20- and 30-somethings. Several of my older parishioners who still identify as Roman Catholics regularly attend my mass because they like me—and I them. The Catholics and Anglicans on the New York Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Committee represent all different generations, and even as the Vatican tells us we’re not on an equal footing, we still talk about doctrine, politics, faith and life as though we were. While visiting Rome last fall for the 40th anniversary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues, I repeatedly heard female priests obliquely referred to as “obstacles” to unity in the endless round of talks I sat through. Yet once the talks were over and the cocktails wheeled out, I chatted and swapped email addresses with several Roman Catholic priests who daringly made a point to tell me they thought my priesthood was valid.
Examples like these abound. The Vatican can put all it wants down on a piece of paper to the contrary, but for the countless number of seekers for whom denominationalism itself is a mystifying stretch, the impact of pronouncements like these—if they are even heard at all—will be a lack of welcome and a deeper sense of alienation. Fortunately, it won’t stop the ongoing practical and relational ecumenism for the rest of us who already break bread together, serve together and worship the same God together in our daily lives.