By Neil Dhingra

If Christians are called to unity (John 17:21), presumably churches should be able to learn from one another. Can churches learn from one another?

One answer is only superficially positive. Yes, churches can use one another to strategically position themselves as golden means between two opposing extremes. Likewise, ecclesial factions can use other churches, whether as exemplars or warnings, to steer their own churches in the preferred direction. A bit more constructively, we might imagine churches cagily learning from one another in safely managed ecumenism: liturgy, but without hierarchy; monasticism without monastic vows; exegesis without categorical definitions of scriptural authority. None of these forms of learning, however, involves conversion, only the careful negotiation of existing boundaries. And, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, “Ecumenism that looks as though it is about the negotiation of frontiers is an ecumenism that is based on theological foundations of sand.”

As Archbishop Welby notes, divisions inevitably call attention to themselves and away from our only stable foundation in Jesus Christ. “Like the evil fairy in so many folk stories that comes to the birth or christening of a princess, division waves its wand, and the world turns to look at the Church itself and does not much like what it sees.”


Can churches really learn from one another? One option is receptive ecumenism, which is now the path of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which, as Archbishop Welby says, “looks beyond those frontiers and asks what it is that we can receive from another church or tradition.” For its leading theologian, Paul Murray, receptive ecumenism is a “Kennedy-style reversal” (JFK, not RFK Jr.) — “Ask not what your ecumenical others need to learn from you; ask rather what your tradition can learn and needs to learn from your ecumenical others.” This, Murray continues, brings “self-criticism and conversion” into an ecclesial life that might thus be drawn closer to unity in Christ.

A recent edited collection, Receptive Learning as Transformative Ecclesial Learning, demonstrates the promise of receptive ecumenism yet shows an interesting tension in imagining what it should look like, particularly the place of self-emptying within it.

Catherine E. Clifford writes that receptive ecumenism requires an openness and humility that only comes with conversion from false images of church and self. She cites a former co-chair of the ecumenical Groupe des Dombes: “Every conversion … involves a dying to self and a welcome of the living God,” and, thus, ecumenism necessarily involves “death to our confessional egotism.” “This,” she says, “is not horse-trading.” Elsewhere, Clifford, again following Dombes, recommends ecumenism follow a theology of kenosis (Phil. 2:2-8) — self-emptying — to emulate Jesus’ rejection of the “popular messianism of his time,” including his refusal to make himself “the focus of his own preaching,” in order to place radical trust in his Father. Now, Clifford writes, we should ask, “Of what, in our time are our ecclesial selves called to be emptied?”

Murray, though, worries the approach of the Groupe des Dombes first prioritizes “emptying” rather than “overflowing fulfilling — always from fullness to fullness” and then imagines forsaking ecclesial identities rather than appreciating their plurality. For Murray, the “motivational basis” of receptive ecumenism is not only acknowledging egotism in one’s own church but also following “pragmatic self-interest” because of the possibilities in other churches. It is “both repentant recognition and the dreaming of dreams.” Afterward, ecclesial identity is not simply cast aside for the other but “enhanced by that which is fluent of grace in another,” so unity is finally imagined as a family Christmas tree full of accidental ornaments brought into decorative harmony. Elsewhere, Murray has argued that renunciation, whenever necessary, always be accompanied by awareness of participating in transformative, joyous love. He quotes Teilhard de Chardin: “It was a joy to me, Lord, in the midst of my struggles, to feel that in growing to my own fulfilment I was increasing your hold on me.”

Concerns about the theological use of kenosis are well-founded, whether they focus on self-emptying as the justification of suffering as paradoxically meaningful (Karen Kilby) or positing a strictly zero-sum competition between the good of the self and the good of others (John Barclay). But why then does the Groupe des Dombes draw on self-emptying in the first place? Does it have a role in receptive ecumenism?

In For the Conversion of the Churches (1991), the Groupe des Dombes distinguishes Christian identity, marked by conversion, from ecclesial identity, which is at once at the service of Christian identity and “vulnerable to the givens of psychosociology,” particularly the tendency of a church to “safeguard its own identity jealously and to be little open to the share of truth present in its partner.” Thus, in ecclesial identity, which then takes confessional form, “‘the alienable share of truth’ which is present in each church is always liable to be the point of its own perversion.” The Prodigal Son lost his identity just as he grasped for it in claiming his inheritance, beginning his journey to the “distant country”; his elder brother lost his own hard-won filial identity when he refused to share it with his wayward sibling. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matt. 16:18) just after Peter confesses that Jesus is Messiah and gains status. “On this rock I will build my church” (16:17). What is good and true, given its reception in all-too-human hands, can become the instrument of self-justification. (Likewise, in Matthew 25, the goats seem to be those who assumed they were sheep. As Donald MacKinnon notes, “The irony is devastating.”)

If ecclesial identity thus requires purification, Christian identity is always “opening up to an eschatological beyond which … prevents it from shutting itself up in itself.” The ecclesial identity that is in service to Christian identity is itself an “eschatological gift” and never a possession and cannot be given up. Nor should any church ever be asked to do this.

The need for self-emptying, then, is because churches must sacrifice not merely unreasonable prejudice, unbalanced theologies, and overly harsh words. Instead, they must grasp there is not a single theology, that “even the best and most carefully chosen words must be the objects of understanding, not veneration,” and “how to be silent or rather how to say what is essential at the appropriate moment.” What must be surrendered is the deep-rooted “spirit of controversy,” so the Groupe des Dombes suggests ecumenism depends on kairoi, like that of Vatican II — a “thunderbolt of grace” — and “symbolic gestures of conversion and reconciliation,” as when the Pope gave the Archbishop of Canterbury his episcopal ring even as official Catholic thought deemed Anglican orders null and void.

So, the Groupe des Dombes recognizes that Christian identity is a “shifting of the centre, an exodus, a transition, a paschal movement,” and ecclesial identity, where conversion is present incompletely, remains a place of vulnerability. This causes tension with Murray’s receptive ecumenism. If God reaches us through the same confession and fellowship that congeal into “confessionalism” and “denominationalism,” we might need caution toward what first appears as fullness, caters to pragmatic self-interest, or excites what Murray calls “loving, even erotic, desire” for communion. After all, ecumenism can be pursued with uncertain motives, whether in the form of what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls the “negotiation of frontiers,” which leaves the other safely across a frontier, or an “ecumenism of action” that becomes self-congratulatory niceness and usefulness. Ecumenism can have unforeseen results. Perhaps the most challenging contribution to Receptive Ecumenism as Transformative Ecclesial Learning is Gabrielle Thomas’s discussion of the Church of England’s attempt to both ordain women and offer pastoral care for those opposed to women’s ordination. What is officially described as (and sincerely believed to be) “mutual flourishing” may be a zero-sum game.

Thus, what Murray calls a “pragmatic-pneumatic conjunction of need and desire” may have to presuppose a continual recentering of desire not unlike “self-emptying.”

David Ford’s contribution to the collection may suggest a Johannine reconciliation of Dombes and Murray, as he sees “the whole Gospel can be read as an education of desire.” John’s Gospel, Ford says, centers on unity but does not present detailed ethical teaching. Instead, John recommends “a practice of improvisation that trusts believers to discern together in the Spirit what the parallels and analogies are between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and their own times and places.” This practice never holds an abstract belief as a form of self-justification against other Christians, as its main imperative remains the disarmingly noncompetitive and non-possessive act of foot-washing — “Nothing else in the Gospel of John is insisted upon like this.” The presence of foot-washing rather than an account of the Last Supper may even caution Christians that communion requires not only sacrament but also the “strange, challenging, indirect sign” of “humble, loving service.” After all, earlier in John’s Gospel, the difference between the man born blind and the Pharisees is the man “has nothing to lose in the encounter with Jesus and so is open to who Jesus is,” while the Pharisees retain “much to lose and therefore much to protect” (here, Ford quotes the exegete Gail O’Day).

Ecumenism is no exception to our tendencies toward self-deception and arguably, given the history of Christian division, may serve as the vehicle for rivalry and self-justification. The question, then, is whether we trust ourselves to make well-intentioned efforts to recognize the elements of grace and truth in other churches without first adopting an ethos of self-emptying.

The particular if not unique strength of Anglicanism for the ecumenical project may be to foster traditions of self-emptying. Then, as Eugene Schlesinger has written, we might habitually imagine ecclesial humility and even death, not from rejection of fullness or plurality, but in hopes of “a transcendence in a wider catholic reality … a great fullness” that we cannot presently imagine, but only gesture towards in actions such as foot-washing or the giving of an episcopal ring.

When Archbishop Welby says, “We tie ourselves down through our inability to imagine who we really are,” the first step for churches that hope to learn from one another in receptive ecumenism may be to grasp the paralyzing extent of this inability. Perhaps, in the end, receptive ecumenism can and must first receive kenosis for us to truly learn and cease drawing attention to our divided selves rather than Jesus Christ.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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2 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    Thank you, Neil. After the time my wife and I spent worshipping in the Catholic Church in France, I found the receptive ecumenism in the flesh, sur la terre. The director of the conference of Bishops committee on unity of Christian churches in France uses the tag line. To be Catholic is to be Ecumenical. I tried to write up my own version of the experience, working from the side of biblical interpretation, after teaching at Centre Sevres, in Convergences: Canon and Catholicity.

    I always benefit from your reflections.

    • Neil Dhingra

      Thanks, as always, for writing. Yes, I learned a lot from that essay.


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