Toward Ecumenical Unity: An Analysis and Preliminary Proposal

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Introduction

This essay examines the prospect of ecumenical unity in light of issues pertaining to ecclesial identity, mutual accountability, and hospitality. I offer a hypothesis that, apart from the trajectory of hospitality, the constructs of ecclesial identity and accountability as ecumenical categories pose more problems than they would assist in the separated churches' process toward full and visible communion. After an analysis of the current taxonomy of ecumenical proposals, I hope to re-engage the ecumenical project by proposing a theological rethinking of "recognition" in an interdisciplinary discourse.

I. An Analysis of the Taxonomy of Ecumenical Proposals

Traditionally, ecumenical accomplishments are achieved through recasting the vision, (1) clarifying the scope of unity, (2) creating a dialogical openness toward conciliarity fellowship, (3) constructing models of ecumenical ecclesiology, (4) revisiting the processes, (5) and strengthening the embrace of ecumenical reception. (6) Methodologically, ecumenical dialogues seek convergences on some foundational and/or fundamental doctrinal and practical differences across different ecclesial traditions and denominations. (7) Yet, the pursuit of ecumenical convergences in the dialogieal process has gone through several rounds of recalibration, from "legitimate diversity" to "fundamental convergences," "agreed consensus," "differentiated consensus," "differentiated participation," and "consensus for commonality or for compatibility." (8) There is, of course, a rich history behind the pursuit of consensus, dating back to Vincent of Lerin's famous dictum, quod ab omnibus, quod ubique, quod semper creditum, before the modern ecumenical movement. (9) Despite remarkable ecumenical progress throughout this century, ecumenists have time and again recognized that, with each major breakthrough, new and old obstacles have resurfaced with greater intensity "enlarging the areas of possible disagreement," as if to underscore the reality of deeper levels of disunity existing between the churches than the "the unity we share" amid impaired communion. (10) It is as if the "winter of ecumenism" never dies. (11) While much more can be said, that will suffice for now. (12) Are there ways to break out of the ecumenical impasse? We shall return to this question below.

The invitation of the North American Academy of Ecumenists (NAAE) for students to submit essays on ecumenical unity reflecting on the trajectories of ecclesial identity, mutual accountability, and hospitality is a much anticipated annual event for junior and senior scholars and theologians in the field. Like the platform created by the Ecclesiological Investigation Network under the leadership of Michael A. Fahey and Gerard Mannion in 2006, the NAAE, founded in 1957, presents one of the most esteemed avenues for creative engagement with this recondite issue of whether and how there can be new ways of conceiving unity in creative fidelity to each confessional consciousness, even as ecumenists continue to repair the damage done in the history of Christianity's internal division. (13)

The modern ecumenical movement would not have made much headway if not for the founding members' persistent pursuit of rethinking ecclesial identity, accountability, and hospitality--paradigms that remain fashionable in ecumenical language today. (14) For instance, in Reshaping Ecumenical Theology, Anglican Paul Avis exemplifies the contemporary use of rethinking ecumenical unity in the trajectories of ecclesial identity, accountability, and hospitality. He recommends that churches apply a "hermeneutics of unity" (15) for the embrace of "a robust [or chastened] sense of ecclesial identity." (16) Avis calls Christians to re main faithful to their own respective historic "confessional consciousness." (17) He also asks Christians provisionally to recognize the consciences of other Christians in their respective traditions without anathematizing or stigmatizing alternative versions of Christian truth-claims (18) He then proposes what he considers to be a realistic process on the way to communion in the pastoral economy of God's church. …