Ecumenism where faith is flourishing

14 June 2021 • Persistent link:

Archbishop Ian Ernest’s speech at the Embassy of Belgium to the Holy See Malines Conversations Conference on Friday 11 June 2021

In his opening speech at the first Malines Conversations, on the 6th of December 1921, Cardinal Mercier shared that all of those present for the occasion, had agreed to seek the Lord and asked to make their souls live. He also invited those present to invoke the grace of the Holy Spirit. This moment of devotion needs to be valued as we celebrate the intentions of those who were willing to take the risks in uncharted territory they were called to enter. In my opinion, these conversations were built on the foundation of a spirit of faith.

I have been asked to offer some thoughts on how Ecumenism is perceived and lived where Faith is flourishing. I wish to develop a practical approach that gives light to our reflection:

First, my own story, as I come from a context where faith flourishes.

Ecumenism is about relationships of faith. As a child I was profoundly disturbed by the way in which relationships were broken by the claim that one’s own faith was superior to another. It was clear that people acted in this way because they were asked to follow a set of unquestioned principles. Tensions within the family network were therefore fuelled by the nurturing of erroneous perceptions of the Other because of religious differences.

But, in the depth of my heart, I knew that there must be a way to break the barriers that separated us. As I grew up I came to learn that the love of God conquers everything – even the death of family relationships.

I grew up with this implicit dream for unity. It was consolidated by my early formation in an ecumenical setting. I attended Roman Catholic institutions for my schooling and it was during that time that my father (an Anglican priest) met the chaplain of my school Father Henri Souchon. From this encounter, a relationship was established between two priests from different denominations. Years later this led to a National Working Committee for Ecumenism and my father became the first Anglican priest to preach in a Roman Catholic Church in Mauritius.

Years later, as a diocesan bishop, the experience of my formative years sustained my desire to work relentlessly with other Church leaders so that our witness might bear the compassionate and redeeming love of Christ in the diverse Mauritian context. This ecumenical collaboration gave the Church the opportunity to mould a society where mutual respect lies at the heart of daily living. Through prayer, this special relationship was ignited by the grace of God so much so that, on my departure for Rome, the Catholic Bishop (Cardinal Maurice Piat) said that through friendship we have become brothers. Friendship in ecumenical relationships can forge genuine brotherhood if there is faith, love and grace.

Second, I offer an objective analysis on how it works from the region I come from:

My experience as Archbishop of the Indian Ocean and Chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa showed me that whilst both Catholic and Anglican Churches were growing there was seldom collaboration between them. We were maintaining the status quo. Some unresolved issues emerging from our past colonial history seemed to act as stumbling blocks in our quest for mutual acceptance and respect. Nevertheless, certain circumstances brought people of Faith together across denominational boundaries. An example of this is the common commemoration of the martyrs of Uganda. This demonstrates how the powerful witness of a real and living faith brings Christians into closer relationship. The witness of these martyrs had an impact both in the growth of the Church in Uganda and on Christian unity.

Nourished by the commitment of those who, with heart and soul, believed in their call to witness to the love of Christ we, in turn, build up our own faith by encountering the faith of other Christians. However, nothing can happen without due sacrifice. We need to lay down our own selves and perceptions in order to give room to the sanctifying, liberating and unifying presence of Christ. This is not a naïve expression of a form of ecumenism, but one which is and should be grounded in the sacrificial love of Christ who emptied himself so that we can be reconciled to God our Father.

Whilst we see faith is flourishing in some parts of the world, this does not necessarily lead to a greater ecumenical momentum. Church leaders and influential members of our respective communities have responsibility, as the pioneers of the Malines Conversations had, to mobilise their imagination, energy and resources for building up a greater spirit of respect and love among Christians. This will bring about an ecumenism of action, to use a term beloved of both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby, which in turn leads to the addressing of current societal contradictions:

Now is the time for examining our own treasures and traditions, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the pioneers of the Malines Conversations did in their day.

Third, an Insight for the Future

The Church of Jesus Christ is a community built on relationships. We are that community. The first Christians made an impact on their communities because of the richness of their relationships. Any impact we have on our communities will be because of our relationship with Christ and one another. Christ is the gift that allows us to make the difference. The Malines Conversations first and foremost established relationships and relationships deepened unity.

This brings us to our role as Christians in the world. We are called to bring living faith to our relationships and, through that, help the church to be an enabler, a healer and a reconciler. Our responsibility is to devise a common plan of action for mission: locally, regionally and internationally: constantly to discern where the Spirit is leading us together.

There is need for costly commitment if we are to be effective in our mission. Such a task must not be built upon our own fantasies but founded on a real and living relationship with Christ and with each other.

The global pandemic has forced us to accept our inter-dependence and mutual responsibility. Now, more than ever, we realise that what happens in one part of the world has an impact on the other. In terms of vaccination – no-one is safe until everyone is safe. But our world, so often prefers separation and alienation; undermining stability. Discrimination, prejudice and the abuse of power mar the dignity of our shared humanity. Faith calls us to engagement and relationship with each other in society.

We have to be bold, creative, and imaginative so that ecumenically we can uphold the mission entrusted to us by Christ. He calls us to be companions in mission. Today, as we remember those who are engaged in the Malines Conversations, the leaders of Catholic and Anglican Churches should encourage their respective flocks to be in constant dialogue with each other.

The Malines Conversations were conversations in Europe. Those who took part were not necessarily representative of the full breadth and diversity of the Church. There were others in both churches who would have been aghast that these conversations were even happening. But the conversations took place in a Europe, and a Belgium, that had recently been torn apart physically and emotionally by war. Today ecumenical conversation, encounter and relationship has become worldwide: broader, more diverse and more inclusive. The Malines Conversations and the relationships they forged paved the way for the relationships we now enjoy.

We treasure that companionship which leads to greater cross-denominational encounter, and creates opportunities to discover Christ afresh in the other. This will foster a spirit of humility and provide a space for greater giving and receiving.  Imbued with this spirit, our faith can help us to grow together in Christ.

At times we can be tempted to retreat into ourselves, wary of sacrifice or risk. But then we exclude ourselves. This is why I welcome the conversation that was initiated at Malines and the dialogue that began after Vatican II. We are called to engage with each other and listen to the others’ experience of Faith. We need to encourage official ecumenical dialogues on doctrinal and other issues. However, to realize an ecumenism of action, we need the grace of God, as Cardinal Mercier recognized a hundred years ago. A grace that will enable us now, today, to nurture our faith in the spirit of Fratelli tutti.

We are a people called to challenge the world. This is where we make the difference: in everyday life, in diversity and with companionship; exemplified in personal acts of service, bringing about justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace; and by an active ecumenical work that can alter those structures which deny human dignity.

We cannot tell how God will use the church in the future. But what we know is that we can be confident that God cares and he only asks us that we live out our faith. No task can be too great as he provides us with the power of His grace.