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Maria Wernsmann {*}

"Reviewed" Ecumenism

Reflections on Theory and Reality of Ecumenical Processes


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2011, P. 572-575
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The unity of the churches is by no means imminent - even though numerous consensus documents exist, although the churches cooperate on important issues, and even though most theologians as representatives of the churches reaffirm the will to the communion of the churches. What is missing then? In Münster a three-day workshop dealt with the issue of how ecumenical processes can be interpreted and described.


Most of the ecumenical consensus and convergence texts that express a conformity or approach of the churches in matters of doctrine entail no practical consequences. The documents have little influence on church life. This applies also to important cooperations of the churches. Individual examples may perhaps be used as an exception: as e.g. the communion of churches, which is often accomplished in minority situations; or the Leuenberg Concordia, since 2003 "Community of Protestant Churches in Europe" (CPCE), where in 1973 Lutheran, Reformed and United churches in spite of further existing doctrinal differences granted each other pulpit and altar fellowship without restricting thus their independence and freedom in designing their church constitution.

Often, however, ecumenical progress results in immediate restrictions. The announcement of the first ecumenical church day, for instance, was followed by the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia", where a joint communion of Catholics and Protestants is categorically excluded because of the different understanding of the Eucharist. The Joint Declaration on Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, which formulated a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification, was followed by the announcement of a plenary jubilee indulgence in 2000 and the declaration "Dominus Iesus" (2000) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which denies the Reformation churches to be church "in the proper sense" (DI 17:2).

It is obvious that in ecumenical processes factors and mechanisms are effective which do not belong to the field of theological doctrine or truth.



Methods of sociology and insights from other disciplines may help to understand these mechanisms and to interpret them. In the ecumenical theology, especially as it is pursued in Germany, they are hitherto often not taken in consideration. The same applies to the realities of the ecumenical situation. It becomes increasingly complex - due to the shifting of the main focus of Christianity from North to South and the rapid growth of Pentecostal, Evangelical and charismatic movements. The latter are skeptical towards the classical ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches.

The workshop, which took place from September 22 to 24 in Münster and was organized by the Ecumenical Institute (Division II, Chair Thomas Bremer) of the Catholic Theological Faculty in Münster, had the goal to rethink the ecumenical processes and to cover them in the form of a synopsis of the ecumenical processes. To come straight to the result: a consistent theory of ecumenical processes did not emerge during the workshop. However, what became visible were many problems and desiderata which are associated with the realities of ecumenical processes and the forming of theories on ecumenism.

Some recent publications document the search for new solutions to the ecumenical problem and thus a new openness to questions of forming theories on ecumenism, as e.g. the Tübingen project "Grund und Gegenstand des Glaubens" (Grund und Gegenstand des Glaubens nach römisch-katholischer und evangelisch-lutherischer Lehre. Theologische Studien, Tübingen 2008). The introduction of the by Eilert Herms and Lubomir Zák edited book speaks of a methodological innovation. It consists in the fact that the Protestant and Roman Catholic participants present the design principles of each other's religion and attempt thus to understand the position of the partners from the inside. Dorothea Sattler (Münster) presented the project at the workshop and appreciatively pointed out its character and its achievements but questioned the novelty of the method.

However, a comprehensive theory of ecumenical processes, which deals in an adequate and at the same time generalizable way with ecumenical processes, is still a desideratum. This is seen so today also e.g. by Ulrich H. J. Körtner. A few years ago he put forward the thesis that the biggest problem of the ecumenical theology is the lack of a theory on ecumenism (Wohin steuert die Ökumene? Vom Konsens- zum Differenzmodell, Göttingen 2005, 26). This statement, too, is not new: Already in 1980 the former director of the Ecumenical Institute in Münster, Peter Lengsfeld, sought for a "methodologically reflected approach" to the ecumenical problem, because he diagnosed a "lack of theoretical reflection and of forming theories on ecumenism" (Ökumenische Theologie. Ein Arbeitsbuch, Stuttgart 1980, 22).

Lengsfeld developed the so-called "collusion theory". The concept 'collusion' is borrowed from the individual and group psychology. He wanted to take into account the interplay of theological and non-theological factors, and to clarify the influence of unconscious motivations in the interactive process between the churches. He identified three main factors which maintain and regulate the ecumenical processes: the efforts of churches to find the truth, to create a joint form of social order, and to protect one's identity. According to the collusion theory, it has inevitably consequences also for the other factors, if one of those factors undergoes a change.

Unfortunately, the collusion theory has hardly been adopted until today. But it has the potential to take up and to handle many questions of ecumenical hermeneutics and theory formation, as they were also discussed at the workshop.


Reconciled Diversity and Mutual Recognition

The discussion of the meeting revealed many issues and problems, as e.g. the fact that the developers of theories on ecumenical processes are at the same time also participants in the ecumenical events. How is it possible to develop a theory during the process? The formation of a theory is also made more difficult by the fact that those who are involved in the events are always committed both to ecumenism and to their own denomination. Otherwise, ecumenism would become a further religion besides the other denominations. It seems as if not all participants agree on the problem which has to be solved, and certainly not about the goal of the ecumenical movement: How may the communion of the churches look like or how can it be made visible?

The model of communion in reconciled diversity is a very important guiding model with regard to ideas of ecumenical unity. It was presented at the workshop by the Vice-President of the "Community of Protestant Churches in Europe" (CPCE), Stephanie Dietrich (Oslo). Reconciliation requires that the churches seek the way of lively encounters, spiritual experience, theological dialogue and mutual correction. Through the reconciliation the differences would not be resolved, but they would lose their church-divisive character.



For the unity or communion of the churches their mutual recognition is a central problem, if not even the most central one. Risto Saarinen (Helsinki) showed that the theory of ecumenical processes may benefit from philosophical theories on recognition. He pointed out that the differences of the other church is important for the act of recognition. It must not be understood only as an obstacle. But for the act of recognition correspondences and similarities are also necessary: based on them the recognition can be accomplished.

In ecumenism it is not about the recognition of doctrinal and historical differences alone but also about individuals and groups. The act of recognition is not merely a formal process; it includes also a personal, psychological and affirmative element. Moreover, recognition processes are always connected with an assumed imbalance in power: the recognizing party sees itself as superior. This points to another reality, which is effective in all social relationships and thus also in ecumenical processes: In the ecumenical theology, the role of power is far too seldom taken into consideration.


Contextual Realities

There are other realities which are often left out of account in the ecumenical dialogue. These include many contextual factors, as e.g. psychological, political, societal, cultural and many other factors. As underlying conditions they influence the ecumenical processes. In his final presentation John May (Melbourne) dealt especially with these circumstances of ecumenism, as e.g. the effects of increasing globalization, which are accompanied by a compression of space and time. This has the effect that all decision processes and information flows tend towards the zero point of simultaneity. The result is the relativization of all religious, ideological and even ethical standpoints.

Ecumenical theology, especially the German-speaking, is often oriented towards the ecumenism as it is practiced by the larger churches. But the perspective of missiology and religious studies shows that certain realities remain often unconsidered, as e.g. the "shift of gravity" of Christianity from North to South and the rapid growth of Pentecostal, Evangelical and charismatic movements.

Michael Biehl (Hamburg) dealt at the workshop with the future of Christianity from the perspective of missiology. His contribution raised the question of why the denominational divisions are irrelevant for the overall growth of Christianity. Biehl spoke about the "wild" forms of "Christianities" in Africa: they are growing explosively and can not be controlled. He emphasized here also the ecumenism on the spot, because only it is able to do justice to the actual diversity and heterogeneity. The "Global Christian Forum" could be an appropriate response to this ecumenical challenge: it shall provide an open meeting room, a round table for all Christians of different traditions. In Münster it was presented by Huub Vogelaar. He had been entrusted with the respective investigation by IIMO in Utrecht (Centre for Intercultural Theology, Interreligious Dialogue, Missiology and Ecumenism).

In current texts on the situation of the ecumenical movement the term "identity" is enjoying a boom. Many studies and conceptions, particularly from the social sciences, show that the idea of unchangeableness is associated with the concept of identity, even though identity is increasingly understood as an interactive process: it has always to do also with differentiation from others or the environment. Especially the open, interactive element may provoke the retreat to immutability: The more uncertain the identity appears, the more the demarcating element is emphasized. This was also stated by Bernhard Nitsche (Freiburg) at the workshop: Those who are not certain about their identity ask after it.

In Peter Lengsfeld's collusion theory the denominational identity is the main obstacle in the ecumenical dialogue. The interaction, resp. collusion between the factors truth, social structure and identity may result in a collision, if the factors of truth and social structure undergo a change and endanger thus the maintaining of the denominational identity. But is there such a common religious identity at all?

The possibilities of the churches to bind the faithful to a uniform denominational identity are clearly restricted: due to the processes of individualization, pluralization, detraditionalization or secularization. Collective identities with binding rules and uniform practices cannot be produced. The attitude towards many controversial topics, such as the ordination of women or particularly homosexuality, connects and disconnects meanwhile the Christians across the denominational boundaries.

Here, too, the perspectives of religious studies are helpful, where research is done into multiple identities and religious affiliations. Religious people experiment, sometimes simultaneously, with different religious affiliations, which are not regarded as mutually exclusive, said John May. Multiple identities and religious affiliations belong also to the realities which are largely left out of account by the churches and the ecumenical theology.

The idea of such a homogenous denominational entity, whose identity can be created and must be maintained, does nevertheless still exist - particularly among church leaders. It was clear for Lengsfeld that exactly this must change, and a change of identity must become possible. But how much change is possible?



With regard to ecumenism, the concept of identity has still another point, where it is about the identity of the churches with the Church of Jesus Christ. Heinz-Günther Stobbe (Siegen) has repeatedly pointed to it: What criteria do we have, in order to identify the Church of Jesus Christ? What makes a church to that church in which the Church of Jesus Christ subsists, as this is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium" (No. 8) for herself? This again affects the mutual recognition of churches as churches. In the context of the collusion theory this would be both a question of the social structure and of the truth.


Doctrinal Conversations Alone Do Not Lead any Further

Many previous observations confirm the starting point of Lengsfeld's reflections: dialogues on issues of truth, understood here in a narrow sense as doctrinal conversations, where the churches involved are represented mostly by their theologians do not lead any further. Already the lacking reception of many documents shows this. But today there are increasingly inquiries about the effectiveness of the so-called dialogue or consensus ecumenism also for other reasons. Ecumenists observe that the joint quest for consensus has its own dynamism: it does by no means always accomplish the intended objective, namely convergence and agreement. From the viewpoint of the churches, every consensus or convergence statement requires further comments and detailed clarifications.

Hans-Peter Großhans (Münster) pointed out that the dealing with consensus or convergence texts must take into account the findings of the language theory. One should not one-sidedly focus on the semantics, i.e. the meaning of consensus texts, wheras the pragmatics of those texts, as e.g. their sociological setting and their recipients are left out of account. Großhans presented the book project "Die Früchte ernten" [Reap the Fruits]. It is owed to Cardinal Walter Kasper's encouragement to look back on the things accomplished in the dialogue of recent decades (Grundlagen christlichen Glaubens im ökumenischen Dialog, Paderborn 2011). The publication deals with the achieved convergence and remaining differences and upcoming tasks in the bilateral dialogues of the Roman Catholic Church with Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and Reformed.

The book "Reap the Fruits" also raises the question of the coherence of dialogues. It would be a worthwhile task to compare Kasper's findings on the dialogues of the Roman Catholic Church with the churches of the Reformation with the results of the dialogues that the Roman Catholic Church conducts with other churches.

The call for more and more opinions and more detailed clarifications leads to a perpetuation of the dialogues, as Manfred Marquardt (Reutlingen) stated at the workshop. According to him this process of dialogues has nevertheless to be multiplied - and this at various levels, so that as many groups as possible in the churches come to an understanding across denominational boundaries.

The importance of personal and diverse relationships and of life forms in the ecumenical movement showed through in many places. Sattler's inquiry about the Tübingen project "Basis and Object of Faith" aimed at the fact that it is a purely academic project: it takes no account of life and worship. Open room, relationships and networks are keywords which are associated with the Global Christian Forum.

An Orthodox perspective was presented at the workshop by Evgeny Pilipenko (Moscow). He regretted the low presence of Orthodox topics and theologians and asked critically to what extent questions of forming theories on ecumenism are relevant for Orthodoxy. In view of the developments outlined by Biehl, as e.g. the uncoordinated forms of Christianity, the at the beginning described discourses on the unity of Christianity would become an illusory "ghostlike discussion," said Bernd Oberdorfer (Augsburg). The theory on ecumenical processes becomes thus to theory on such processes which can precisely not be classified or even be controlled.

The categories reconciliation and recognition remain nevertheless significant. What matters, also in the future, is the recognition of an actual pluralism and a reconciled dealing with differences. Thus, the two are not just merely formal processes. They have also an emotional and pragmatic side, i.e. they never happen without grounds. This applies to individuals and groups alike.

Reconciliation and recognition may also be understood as a spiritual process. They may help or provide a supporting reason to surrender to this process. For Lengfeld they mean always the medium in which fear and concern about the loss of specific denominational characteristics can be countered. A change in identity is a spiritual process, both at the individual and the collective level. With a similar idea also John May ended the keynote lecture, namely with the very first impression of the Christians on their neighbourhood, "See how they love each other." Exactly this tendency to generosity and magnanimity is the power which Christianity can exert.

Thus, during the workshop many questions and problems have been identified. A lot of research on them is still needed in the ecumenical theology - as it is understood by Lengsfeld as theory on ecumenical processes. Thus, it was possible to make an important contribution to the formation of theories on ecumenism.


    {*} Maria Wernsmannis a researcher at the Ecumenical Institute of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Münster - promotion project on the formation of theories on ecumenism; she is a member of the Standing Committee of the European Society for Ecumenical Studies (Societas Oecumenica).


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