Receptive ecumenism

Becoming vulnerable to the other

There is a moment when everything changes among the students who take the Mission and Ecumenism course at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The student composition of this compulsory course is quite diverse; the majority represent shades from the Reformed tradition: some (mostly young men) who consider themselves as “conservative” or biblicist; some (mostly women) are “liberals.” There are Baptists (“evangelical”), Mennonites (considered the most liberal), Pentecostals and students without a clear religious affiliation.

Most of the students are rather skeptical about ecumenism. Some do not believe there is any need to reflect on their relation to other Christians. Others believe that inter-Christian relations are irrelevant in the context of multi-religious encounters and extreme secularism.

Laying the foundation

During the first sessions of the course, my Reformed colleague Heleen Zorgdrager and I lead the students to study biblical texts on the unity of the church, like John 17 or Ephesians 4.

As we reflect on ecclesiology (the nature of the church), we discover that “being one” is an essential mark of the church in every tradition.

Becoming receptive to the other is quite different from trying to convince others why my way is not only legitimate, but superior.

We also learn about the history of the ecumenical movement.

Up to this point, most students prefer to stay in their comfort-zone. They have learned to “tolerate” others, but I sense they hold stereotypes about each other (and their Mennonite professor).

None of them really question what they have believed so far. And I encourage them to present their own identity, to cherish what they have learned from their belief systems and personal experiences with church.

Becoming receptive

Then comes a moment when everything changes.

This usually happens when I introduce the concept of “receptive ecumenism.” Instead of asking What do other traditions need to learn from mine? the leading question is What are the weaknesses that I experience in my own community? And Are there “gifts” in other traditions that could help me to overcome these weaknesses? Paul Murray who has developed this approach at the Durham Centre for Catholic Studies says the assumption is that “if all were asking this question seriously and acting upon it, then all would be moving in ways which would both deepen our authentic respective identities and draw us into more intimate relationships.”

Of course, there is some reluctance in the beginning. The students split up into groups of three or four, composed of different backgrounds. This provides a safe space to share problems, difficulties, challenges – even pain – they experience in their own community.

Sharing vulnerably

When they return to the larger group, everything feels different. Students now report, sometimes with tears in their eyes, the experiences they never thought they could share with anyone, let alone someone outside their own circles.

The other students listen in a very sensitive way. All the arrogance and ignorance from earlier sessions is gone.

Now they relate to each other, gradually building trust. It is no longer tolerance in the sense of indifference, but a real interest in the other and an honest, common search for biblical wisdom and theological reflection that meets the reported challenges.

Students start to ask each other: How do you do that in your community? On what grounds? Why can’t I do that/believe that in my own church? Or can I? 

Now, the classroom becomes a real ecumenical space, an image of the “one household of God” in all its diversity. We have become believers who seek to strengthen each other in faith by sharing doubts in the presence of the other. Can we receive together that which is of God?

Receiving the gifts

For me, it is always a miracle how the spirit changes, how gently the students behave toward each other, how cautious they are in pointing to the strengths of the other’s tradition.

Having been involved in official ecumenical dialogues and institutions over decades, I realize that becoming receptive to the other is quite different from trying to convince others why my way is not only legitimate, but superior. Unless I make myself vulnerable to the other – trusting that he/she will not destroy my faith, but become a companion in growing it – I will not be able to receive the gifts of a global church that celebrates its reconciled diversity as a blessing from God.

Besides, isn’t this approach exactly the wisdom of the peace-church, which teaches non-violence as yet another essential mark of the church of Christ? Being nonviolent to another opinion, culture, mentality, tradition makes my own faith vulnerable. As we know from our own history, this takes a lot of courage and deep trust in God’s guiding Spirit.

I am proud of my students for their confidence! And I learn a lot from them.

Fernando Enns is a member and vice-chair of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden (Mennonite church) in Germany. Professor at the Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands and at the University of Hamburg (Germany), he has participated in MWC’s trilateral dialogues with the Lutheran World Federation and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2020. Click here to read other articles from this issue.

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