This paper by Monsignor Mark Langham, Fine Nets and Stratagems, is a well
written summary of the position of the Roman Catholic Church, with respect to their ecumenical work in Britain.
The paper is divided into three parts and I will summarise what Langham is saying and my reaction to it.
A General Overview
Langham starts with an excellent review of the current achievements of ecumenism in Britain. They are significant, the more so as we tend to take for granted what has been achieved. He goes onto delineate the nature of the "ecumenical winter", concluding:
Four hundred years ago we were butchering each other; now we turn up to each other’s Christmas Carol Services. Should we not be satisfied with that? Should we not recognise that we have come as far as we can, and concentrate on evangelising as far as possible together, rather than ecumenical rapprochement with each other?
Of course, these are rhetorical questions. He certainly supports the need for the churches to move still closer together. He concludes this section by reaffirming the goal of full visible unity.
Fine NetsThis next section is about the problems the Roman Catholics are encountering in their ecumenical dialogues. This is a fascinating section, the more so from my point of view because of the negative feelings almost every point he makes provokes in me. This section underlines the many issues that at present seem unsurmountable. Here are a few examples:
- The real presence or Eucharistic reservation are issues many Methodists would find difficult to accept, myself included. Indeed, the relatively small changes recommended through the Anglican Methodist Covenant are problematic for many of us!
- The Catholics have their Magisterium, which Langham says has a great depth of theological insight. Methodists have Charles Wesley's hymns which are, apparently, rich but sparse. I'm not sure how something can be rich and sparse at the same time but Methodists do know what they think - and that's the nub of the matter, we don't have a Magisterium because we have the freedom to know what we think. How many of us would be prepared to surrender our freedoms to a Magisterium? However, that is not to say many of us do not find material of value within the Magisterium, our tradition frees us to approach such material voluntarily.
- Differences in interpretation of documents such as the creeds or the 39 articles. Again, it is difficult to see how Protestants are likely to surrender the freedom to be, with respect to Catholicism, heretical.
- Protestant churches enter into several agreements with various churches that contradict one another. Some of us prefer mess and would resist everything tied up and logical.
- Langham writes, Methodists, for example, have shown themselves ready to accept the notion of episcopacy and three-fold ministry, but if pressed, would not say they see these things as necessary, only permissible. Absolutely true. If these are necessary that makes my baptism and the communions I participate in invalid. Presumably this means I am not in fact saved. If I accept this point, my only option is to repent and become a Catholic!
- Apparently we need binding interpretations of Scripture. Cardinal Kasper sees this issue as fundamental, and notes with apprehension the re-emergence of ‘historical critical’ methods of biblical scholarship which seek to remove any divinely inspired aspect of scripture, and call into question certain traditional interpretations of it. This is not my experience at all and in my view is a grotesque misrepresentation of historical critical methodologies. Granted these methods have been used to deny Scripture is divinely inspired but this is not a necessary aspect of critical methods. This is an issue about authority and control and has nothing whatsoever to do with divine inspiration.
It is this section where I think Langham illustrates the miracle of ecumenism. Whilst as you will see above I have very strong feelings about most of the Roman Catholic agenda, as he describes it, I can fully endorse his stratagems. Perhaps there is an issue about what they are stratagems for and many Protestants will be mindful of the Fine Nets but in reality, there is plenty of scope for the work of the Spirit in the Stratagems he describes and I for one am willing to take the risks of joining a venture that leads to deeper sharing between our traditions. My differences are not about the content of Catholic faith, much of which I value, but in the nature of authority. Here are Langham's suggestions in summary:
- Exchange of Gifts. There is much I have received and still might receive from the Catholic tradition and so I warmly endorse this. Has Methodism anything to offer the Catholics? I think its emphasis on ordained and lay working together and the way its social innovations have been to the benefit of society is worth exploration.
- An Ecumenism of Ecumenism. This has a two-fold meaning. First, it is a sharing of the fruits of the various ecumenical dialogues. Second, and more important in my view, is the need for ecumenical reception so that the whole church is engaged with dialogue, not just theologians.
- Spiritual Ecumenism is one way to achieve reception throughout the churches.
- An Agreed Statement highlighting the many areas of agreement and successes of ecumenism.
- Friendship is the key and, as Langham puts it, is the heart of ecumenism.