Cruciform Ecumenism

Why it Matters

I wrote a book, and now it’s published!

During my time as a doctoral student, I became convicted more than I had been before about the absurdity of division in the Christian Church in the West. If Christians 2,000 years ago felt that they were handed a truth, a life-changing, life-saving truth, and told to share the good news with others, what right do we, the followers and believers in that truth, have to scandalize that truth by remaining divided with each other? If it’s our responsibility to share this news with “all nations” (Matt 28:19), but we can’t even agree about what that truth is or how to live it, why should anyone take us seriously? To quote myself, “a broken church is hard to sell.”

I am not the first person to come up with this, of course. The Ecumenical Movement has been around for over a century. Sadly, I’ve discovered that many Christians find it passe and outdated. My book is a cry for a renewed sense of urgency.

My Angle

I submitted the book for publication on October 31, 2017. The Protestant Reformation is often pinpointed as beginning on October 31, 1517, the date of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, so I used the 500th anniversary as an opportunity to look at our sadly divided state. Luther began as a Catholic priest, but the Church’s apparent refusal to take seriously his recommendations for reform caused him and his follwers to leave and begin anew. Since then, the same story has repeated itself on many, many occasions. We are not only divided among Catholic and Lutheran, now, but into a myriad of other traditions. Protestant traditions are almost as numerous as the believers who populate them – Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, Congregational, Pentecostal, to name only a few. Each division represents another rift in the family. Much of the theology of the last 500 years aims to isolate the correct vs. incorrect theological beliefs and condemn the heretics.

Thankfully, the Ecumenical Movement aims to walk toward unity once again. We have many examples of traditions who have come back together – for example, the United Church of Christ represents a few different traditions that melded into one. When asking what prevents my own tradition, the Catholic tradition, from entering into unity with one or more Protestant denominations, I discovered the biggest hindrance is one of authority and legitimacy. Cue the big words – apostolicity and episcopacy.

Apostolicity and Episcopacy

The Catholic Church believes itself to be apostolic. This means it’s not a church of its own invention, but the very church founded by the apostles. The Church would not be the Church it claims to be if it did  not maintain the apostolic faith. It does not feel it has the right to change what was handed on to us 2,000 years ago. (To be clear, apostolicity is important to Protestant denominations, too).

The Catholic Church exercises a particular form of episcopacy. Put most simply, this means the existence of bishops. The episcopate (bishops) they exercise the ministry of oversight in the Church.

Apostolic succession. This is another important term. It asks the question, “How is the Church apostolic?” How can we guarantee that the faith we profess is, indeed, the faith handed onto us by the apostles, and not some invention of our own? The answer is apostolic succession, or the belief that the faith is handed down through each successive generation of believers. Not merely kept in a book or a treasure chest, the faith is taught and lived and handed on to each new generation and guarded by the Holy Spirit to be handed on correctly. (To be clear, apostolic succession is important to many Protestant denominations, too).

Historic episcopal succession. Here is where the “rubber meets the road” in both Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian theology. Apostolic succession takes place most significantly, according to Catholics, Anglicans, and Episcopalians, through the office of bishop. It’s the bishops that maintain the apostolic succession. The apostles (aka the first bishops) laid their hands on the next generations of bishops, ordaining them and handing the faith onto them in the power of the Holy Spirit. That generation laid their hands on the next genneration of bishops, doing the same. This unbroken chain of historic episcopal (bishop) succession made manifest through the laying on of hands is how we can guarantee legitimate apostolic succession. Through the laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit ordains a new bishop who now stands in the line of succession stemming all the way back to the apostles, meaning they have legitimate authority to teach the faith to believers.

How these Words Matter

Catholics, Episcopalians, and Anglicans share a very similar belief about apostolic succession and the significance of the role of bishops in maintaining it. Other Protestant denominations, however, find this contrived and short-sighted. Lutheran theologians whom I cite in my book, for example, have pointed out that the Church maintains its apostolicity (its guarantee that it is practicing the faith of the apostles and not some invention of its own) not simply through the one office of bishop (historical episcopal succession), but through the entire teaching and practice of the entire Church. Its faithfulness to the Bible, its practice of sacrament, the behavior of all the people, guarantees the apostolic faith is being lived and taught.

Such a big divide stems way back to 1517, really, when Martin Luther wanted to reform the leadership structure of the Church. Having a few men with all of the power rubbed Luther the wrong way.

I’ve discovered that a vast majority of our current ecumenical discussions get stuck on this one issue. The issue of authority and legitimacy halts all discussions on how we might come back together. Who is in charge? How are we sure this is the apostolic faith? Who gets to decide? Who is admitted to communion? Who is allowed to be ordained? Who gets to decide what a legitimate belief or practice is? All of these questions stem back to apostolicity and episcopacal succession. Until we can reach some kind of method of discussing these issues, we can’t have any hope of moving toward unity.

Cue the Anglican-Lutheran Dialogues!

There is hope! Remember I said the Anglicans/Episcopalians have a very similar belief about historical episcopal succession as Catholics? And remember I said Lutherans have basically the opposite belief? Well guess what. In the 1990s, Anglicans/Episcopalians and Lutherans in the U.S., Canada, and Northern Europe had a series of dialogues aimed at overcoming this historic impasse and reaching an agreement on the role of bishops, authority, and understanding of apostolic succession. And they worked. The two denominations in those three locations have reached full communion with each other, meaning that their congregants and even ministers are basically interchangeable. They maintain their separate names (“Anglican,” “Lutheran,” etc.) but are unified in belief and familial identiy even while maintaining a diversity of practice.

This is huge! Why is no one talking about it?

Cue my book.

My Point

As a Catholic, I aim to look at how the Anglicans/Episcopalians, who believe basically the same things we do about apostolicity and episcopacy, were able to reach such a unified state of full communion with the Lutherans, who believe basically the opposite. Much of my book aims to use these dialogues as a case study to ask what the Catholic Church could take from them in her own dialogues with Protestants with different theoloiges.

The Catholic Church is not called to compromise her rich theological heritage for cheap restoration of unity. No one is called to do that. But neither is she called to simply “call everyone home to mother Church everyone dumb enough to not be Catholic.” (Read my sarcasm, please).

I hope my investigation provides some real urgency and some real actual tools for Christians to dialogue with each other and journey toward real solutions that would enable unity to happen.

Where You Can Buy It

The best place is HERE. I know, I know, it’s more expensive than I would like, too. The publisher is currently offering a 30% discount! Use code LEX30AUTH19 when ordering to take advantage. If you’re too late, I think they do this once a year. You can also buy one for a discounted price when you attend one of my speaking engagements and buy one from me there!

Thank you for your support, your concern about this important issue, and any time you are able to take to read about this important subject and to help me advocate for unity.

One Comment on “Cruciform Ecumenism

  1. Elizabeth,
    This is wonderful. I want a copy. I’ll also give you a copy of my book (out of print), Mixing: Catholic-Protestant Marriage in the 1980s, a guide for couples and families. (Paulist Press).
    Barbara Schiappa

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