Receptive Ecumenism and Catholic Ecumenical Learning
Receptive ecumenism is a new ecumenical approach, inspired by Ut Unum Sint and taken forward by the work of Cardinal Kasper. It is also termed 'Catholic Learning', whereby the Catholic Church, true to its own integrity, learns and receives from other Christian traditions aspects of faith, ecclesiology, life, action, worship and spirituality which belong to the whole Church, but of which the Catholic Church has been deprived, owing to the fact of separation between Christians. By the same token, other Christian churches and communities can learn and receive, with integrity, from the faith, order, liturgy and spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church. Not least among these is a gift which Catholics treasure highly, the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as successor to the First among the Apostles.
In part the new approach has been called for, and been conceived and promoted by Cardinal Kasper, because after an earlier phase of ecumenical optimism it is widely recognised that we are now in a position where, on most fronts, the aspiration for programmed reunification in the short-medium term is unrealistic. Whilst recognising this, it should lead neither to a pessimistic resignation to the present 'ecumenical winter' as a permanent and inevitable state of things – the obverse of ungrounded optimism – nor to an over-ready accommodation to the claim that 'reconciled diversity without structural unity' is a sufficient equivalent to the unity and catholicity of the Church. On the contrary, it is assumed that a continued commitment to hope and work for structural reunification represents a core aspect of the Catholic instinct, no matter how long-term this aspiration might have to be nor, consequently, what combination of committed patience, imagination and rigor – or, in explicitly theological terms, faith, hope and love – this might require.
The Receptive Ecumenism approach is intended to explore how this kind of creatively continued ecumenical commitment could most fruitfully be lived - not simply at the individual level but, more significantly, at the communal, structural, institutional or ecclesial levels. More specifically, whilst recognising the distinctive ecumenical importance of commitment both to imaginative partnership in mission (such as IARCCUM, the International Anglican and Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission) and to the now increasingly emphasised 'spiritual ecumenism' – of sharing faith and so learning to appreciate each other the better – the Receptive Ecumenism aims to extend Spiritual Ecumenism into an explicit exploration as to how Christian traditions might most effectively and genuinely learn, or receive, from each other with integrity.
Thus, in January 2006, the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, in collaboration with Ushaw College, the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, and a number of other sponsoring bodies (including the Diocese of Durham), hosted an international research colloquium on the theme Catholic Learning and Receptive Ecumenism to mark the award of an honorary Doctorate of Divinity to Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in Durham Cathedral during the morning of 12th January 2006. The colloquium brought together a critical mass of internationally established theologians, ecumenists and ecclesiastics from across the traditions in order to explore a fresh way of conceiving the ecumenical task fitted for the situation in which the churches now find themselves – referred to as Receptive Ecumenism. The essential principle is that the primary ecumenical responsibility is to ask not "What do the other traditions first need to learn from 'us'?" or "How can they be more like us?" - as is still too often the default concern – but "What do 'we' need to learn from 'them'?" The assumption is that if all were asking this question seriously and acting upon it, then all would be moving, albeit somewhat unpredictably, in ways that would both deepen our authentic respective identities and draw us into more intimate relationship with each other. A more specific concern in January 2006 was to model this process of receptive ecumenical learning in relation to the host tradition, Catholicism: hence the full title Catholic Learning and Receptive Ecumenism.
The colloquium was experienced by all as a quite remarkable, even graced, happening. Included amongst the 150 participants from three continents, ten countries and six denominational traditions, were seven Roman Catholic bishops, three Anglican bishops, an Orthodox Archimandrite and the General Secretary of the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom. Senior theologians, ecumenists and ecclesiastics variously spoke of the event and the fresh thinking it introduced as 'historic', 'groundbreaking', 'opening a new chapter in ecumenism', and as 'providing the much needed model for future initiatives'. The colloquium will issue in a major volume of scholarly essays, Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning, (Oxford University Press, 2008), the publication of which will, in turn, be marked by a major international public conference in January 2009. In addition, a number of other parties have taken the initiative in organising other publications and conferences - such as Mater Dei Institute in Dublin in May 2007 and the Society for Ecumenical Studies in London in November 2007, on the theme of the project.
By the conclusion of the January 2006 colloquium, it was apparent that there was, in turn, a further pressing need for a subsequent, much more practically-orientated and fully collaborative research project exploring the relevance of Receptive Ecumenism to life ‘on the ground’ in the local church. Such a project, it was imagined, would test and extend the thinking behind Receptive Ecumenism in very practical ways that could act as a model of good practice throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Behind this imagining was the clear recognition that the Church is not simply an idea but a life-world and that ecumenism is, therefore, a profoundly practical as well as theoretical activity. This idea for a practical grounding of dialogue and exchange in action, following the workings of the Churches at local diocesan level, began in north east England in 2007, bringing together the Catholic diocese of Hexham & Newcastle, the Anglican dioceses of Durham and Newcastle, the corresponding Methodist district and the regional Synod of the United Reformed Church. It is a three-year 'action research' project, leading to valuable new advice and guidance on how to translate ecumenism from theory to reality, It will be co-ordinated, researched and then promoted by the new Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham's Department of Theology and Religious Studies.
In Pope John Paul's letter Orientale Lumen, 'light from the east', he famously expressed the hope that the Church would once again be able to breathe with both its lungs together - a re-integrated and united Christendom depends foremost on the reconciliation of the Catholic Church of the West and the Orthodox Church of the East, together with the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Apostolic Church of the East.
True its historic origins in the Association for the Promotion of the Union of Christendom, which brought together Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox in the 1850s, the Catholic League for the Unity of Christians, Unitas, will be actively supporting encounter, exchange and dialogue aimed at the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and especially the role of the Apostolic See of Peter in fostering unity and visible communion.
In the main, this will be through collaboration and participation with our sister societies, such as the Society of St John Chrysostom, the Society for Ecumenical Studies, the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage Trust, the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, and the East-West Meetings supported from time to time by a number of Benedictine communities.
2010 has seen the establishment of a new, Catholic-sponsored, Centre for Eastern Christianity at Heythrop College and the third meeting of the reinvigorated Catholic-Orthodox International Joint Theological Commission.