Ecumenical identity: a real possibility?

In introducing Dr John D’Arcy May, the chair of the diocese’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Council, Rev Christine Sheppard, said, “Isn’t it wonderful we can be together?”

She was, I’m sure, echoing the thoughts of many who had gathered to hear John explore the possibility of an “ecumenical identity”.

The evening was an acknowledgement of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. John D’Arcy May was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942, where he now lives in retirement. He received doctorates from the universities of Münster (Ecumenical Theology, 1975) and Frankfurt (History of Religions, 1983). He taught at the Catholic Ecumenical Institute, University of Münster, 1975-1982, and was Ecumenical Research Officer with the Melanesian Council of Churches, Papua New Guinea, 1983-1987. He was Director of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, 1987-1990 and 1995, where he was Associate Professor of Interfaith Dialogue, 1987-2007. He is a Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College. Recent publications include Social Justice and the Churches: Challenges and Responsibilities (editor, Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2014) and Imagining the Ecumenical: A Personal Journey (Melbourne: Morning Star, 2016).

The time John spent living in Germany and Ireland enabled him to bring a different lens to the Reformation in particular and the possibilities for ecumenism more generally.

An overview of the historical context of Martin Luther’s Germany gave a sense of how anachronistic a phrase like ‘ecumenical dialogue’ would have been, in a “winner takes all’ society. While it can seem to us that the fullness of ecumenism is still far away, a look back reminds us how far we have come.

John May brings also a social science perspective to the questions arising from the Reformation, saying that churches are social structures – institutions. While they are more than this, churches do act institutionally and are affected by what he called “non-theological factors – an economic base, class structure, language and culture.”

However, the councils of the early Church were “councils of Christians who were in communion together” and ideally, the Church would be “perpetually in council”. Something to think about…

The second Vatican Council recognised the “elements of sanctity” residing in other faiths and there have been great leaps forward in the years since the Council.

John said that, “Ecumenism needs leadership and humility rather than concessions” and asked, “Could identity flow from mutual understanding rather than individual opposition?”

Whatever barriers remain, there are many activities and causes, particularly in the social justice realm, that denominations and faiths can pursue together – and this is happening all around us.

As John said, “The way ahead is not ‘tolerance’ but interreligious engagement.” 

Postscript: Since Christ Church Cathedral is closed due to the supercars, Evensong will be held in the Sacred Cathedral at 5pm on Sunday 26 November!

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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