Yesterday, I quoted Pope Benedict XVI on mission and ecumenism. I believe this Pope, as was his predecessor, is a real advocate of the central thesis of my book, Your Church Is Too Small. I am not suggesting that he would agree with everything I write, not by any stretch of imagination. I am a Protestant so I understand this cannot be true even in Protestant circles. But my central thesis is not re-union but relational unity. This unity begins with mutual recognition of our oneness in Christ as Lord. It also stresses what we can, and should, do together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the recently published interview with Benedict XVI, Light of the World, Peter Seewald asks the pontiff a question about the church that we should pay careful attention to if we love unity.
Q. Is it really true that the Pope does not regard Protestants as a Church, but, unlike the Eastern Church, only as an ecclesial community? This distinction strikes many as demeaning?
A. The word “ecclesial community” is a term employed by the Second Vatican Council. The Council applied a very simple rule in these matters: A Church in the proper sense, as we understand it, exists where the episcopal office, as the sacramental expression of apostolic succession, is present—which also implies the existence of the Eucharist as a sacrament that is dispensed by the bishop and by the priest. If this is not the case, then we are dealing with the emergence of another model, a new way of understanding what a church is, which at Vatican II we designated by the term “ecclesial community.” The word was intended to indicate that such communities embody a different mode of being a church. As they themselves insist, it is precisely not the same mode in which the Churches of the great tradition of antiquity are Churches, but is based on a new understanding, according to which a church consists, not in the institution, but in the dynamism of the Word that gathers people into a congregation.
This term, then, is an attempt to capture what is distinctive about Protestant Christianity and to give it a positive expression. We can always keep trying to find better terms, but the basic distinction is legitimate, indeed, it is a fact even from a purely historical point of view.
Apart from that, it is worth stressing again that the ecclesial situation differs greatly from one Protestant community to another. They define themselves differently even among themselves, so that we cannot speak of the Protestant Church. The key point is that Protestantism has, as it were, shifted the accent of Christianity and that we are trying to understand this, to acknowledge one another as Christians, and to join in service, as Christians (bold type is mine for emphasis, 94-5).
Note carefully the essential points made in this statement:
1. Protestant churches are real “ecclesial communities.”
2. Rome says that a church, in the proper sense of the term, can only exist where there is an episcopal office that is a sacramental expression of apostolic succession. Even the Eastern Orthodox Church is left out by this definition, though it gets very, very close. If these two ancient churches could agree on a mutual understanding of the See of Peter, which is very possible, then they could reunite.
3. Rome admits that she must deal with a new reality that is not precisely what she believes the church to be yet she has called it an “ecclesial community” since Vatican II. This could easily end up being a distinction with no real difference. As a Protestant I hope that this will be the case but as a realist I know we are a long way from that actually happening. In my humble judgment both sides have huge blind spots about the church. The Pope says “Protestants shifted the accent of Christianity.” I totally agree with him and believe this was a necessary corrective movement rejected by Rome. Rome believes otherwise. This remains an obvious barrier to union.
4. I think the Pope’s most insightful observation is that Protestants, at least generally speaking, believe the church “consists, not in the institution, but in the dynamism of the Word that gathers people into a congregation.” That statement is spot on. Protestants generally see the church as residing in people who are filled with the Spirit and gathered under the living and powerful Word of God. If somehow the two perspectives could more profoundly influence each other we would both gain a great deal in the process.
5. The Pope says that we can/should acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters and join in service as Christians.
If I read this correctly we are not near union between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. Some Protestant communions may be closer to union than others; e.g. Anglican. But even here the prospect of union has been damaged in recent decades as I noted in yesterday’s post.
What we are nearer to, especially since Vatican II, is missional-ecumenism. We can embrace the dynamic ways in which we are joined by the Holy Spirit as fellow believers. By this means we can find new and creative ways to “join in service.” We can read the Holy Scriptures together and pray together. This is precisely what I mean by the term missional-ecumenism.
This thesis is rejected, often rather strongly, by some Catholics. The individual Catholic who refuses to believe that Vatican II, in the Fourth Session, actually taught anything new about relationships with other Christians reacts against missional-ecumenism. In some cases this reaction is based on indifference since they believe Rome is the true church and Protestants are outside the true church and that is the end of the matter. These Catholic brothers and sisters need to read the encyclicals of their recent popes, listen to the words and witness of the Vatican’s Congregation of Christian Unity, and then remove the blinkers that still keep them from clearly seeing what the Spirit has done in the last fifty years.
On the other side there are many , especially conservative ones, who refuse to believe that anyone can believe Catholic dogma and be a real Christian. (This is often stated in a strange way that says: “An individual person in the Catholic Church can be a real Christian but they must not believe Catholic dogma or they will be lost!”) This prejudice is rooted in a number of misunderstandings about the present; e.g. the condemnations of the Council of Trent are misunderstood/misapplied, Rome teaches that one is saved by doing good works thus they preach a false gospel, Catholics pray to the saints thus they deny Christ’s sufficiency, etc.
A new day has dawned for the whole catholic church. We can embrace it in love or reject it out of hand. I believe missional-ecumenism is consistent with the teaching of the whole counsel of Scripture and thus commends itself to Christians on every side. I even believe Pope Benedict XVI agrees.