God 'determined to call together in the holy Church those who believe in Christ'

Lumen Gentium


History of ecumenism

The Journey towards Full Communion between the Churches

Christ, in the Last Supper discourses (John 14-17), makes it clear that his vision and promise for the Church is that of one flock and one shepherd. Although we are called to work hard for this goal, its absolute fulfilment belongs only to the final times (eschatology); we can only find a partial realization of unity in the present times. We live in between times, between the first and second coming of Christ, often footsore and weary pilgrims, broken by sin and falling short of the full possession of the truth, ‘always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in it’ (Dei Verbum, 8). Even in New Testament times we can find divisions and fractures between the churches, until possibly in the late 80s the Church tragically became cut off from its roots in Judaism, the first great hurt in the Church’s history (Romans 9-11). The first four councils of the Church fashioned a way of talking about Christ’s solidarity with God and humanity, truly God and truly human, but after the Council of Chalcedon (451) some of the Eastern churches disassociated themselves from the teaching accepted by Rome and Constantinople: the Assyrian (Nestorian) Church and the five Oriental (perceived by some to be monophysite) Churches: Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), Ethiopian and Malankara (Indian) Churches. A series of valuable Common Statements has been produced between the Catholic Church and many of these bodies.


As the Roman Empire gradually split into East and West, the former speaking Greek, the latter Latin, people grew apart, developing different institutions and customs, until the heads of the Churches of Constantinople and Rome grew estranged both culturally, politically, and doctrinally, mutually excommunicating each other in 1054. Two attempts to reunite the Churches of East and West, one at the Council of Lyons in 1274, another at the Council of Florence in 1439, sadly failed. The mutual excommunications were finally lifted in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, but more healing is to be done before the Churches are fully united once more. Vatican II recognised the Eastern Orthodox churches as ‘sister Churches’ because they have preserved the apostolic succession, and that they ‘possess true sacraments’ (Unitatis redintegratio 14, 15) although they are not in full communion with the Roman See. As well as the Orthodox Churches, there are twenty-two self-governing Eastern-rite Churches in full communion with the See of Rome (the Uniate Churches). Ongoing dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has, with many difficulties, produced results.

In the West, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the Church from within. The disagreements became increasingly acrimonious and there were hurts on both sides as communities cut themselves off from communion with each other: the Catholic Church itself, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Churches of Germany and France, the Anglican Church in England, the Baptist Churches; later the Methodists separating from the Church of England. Now there are also an increasing number of Pentecostalist and House-Church movements.

At first the ecumenical movement, which grew out of problems of rivalry between various missionary groups, was largely confined to the Protestant Churches. A World Missionary Conference was organised in Edinburgh (1910), and an international conference to discuss issues of Faith and Order in the Churches was held in Lausanne (1927). In 1948 the World Council of Churches was established. Pius XI remained hostile to such movements, preventing Catholics from joining in (Mortalium Animos, 1928), insisting ‘on the return of non-Catholics to the one true Church’, but by 1949 Pius XII had given tentative permission for Catholic participation in some ecumenical gatherings under careful supervision. A little earlier the French priest, Paul Couturier, worked hard to promote and popularize the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the octave leading up to the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, January 25th, which became the focus of world-wide prayer for the unity of Christians.

Vatican II (1962-1965) changed the Catholic Church’s perspective on ecumenism. It began to recognize that ‘some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the church itself’ (Unitatis reditegratio, 3) can be found in these other Christian communities: ‘gifts belonging to the church of Christ…’ serving as ‘forces impelling towards Catholic unity’ (Lumen Gentium, 8). These ‘the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using… as means of salvation (Unitatis reditegratio, 3). We are united by sharing in a common baptism; invariably it must be admitted that what unites all Christians remains far stronger that the things that divide us.


In the last 50 years there has been a proliferation of multilateral and bilateral dialogues. The World Council of Churches has produced a series of study documents, including Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) and Called to be the One Church (2006). The Church of England signed an agreement entering into communion with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches, The Porvoo Declaration (1995). In 1999, A Joint Declaration on Justification was accepted by the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, recognising ‘a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ’. Important, and long-running dialogues, are in place between the Catholic and the Anglican Churches (ARCIC), and the Catholic and Methodist Churches (MRCIC). Although the heady enthusiasm of the first years of dialogue has somewhat abated, and some argue that we are entering an ecumenical winter, much activity still abounds. A Receptive Ecumenism Process pioneered by the Catholic Studies Centre at Durham University has produced much fruit as had Cardinal Kasper’s call for a renewed ‘spiritual ecumenism’. Prayer is the principal path to the unity for which Christ called.


(Pictures: Mazur/CatholicChurch.org.uk)