Why Can't We Taste and See? Ecumenical Progress over the Past Half Century Has Been Profound, but Eminent Lutheran Church Historian and Ecumenist Martin E. Marty Mourns the Continuing Scandal of Our Separation at the Lord's Table. Can a New Pope Help?

Article excerpt

For decades, as a historian, reporter, and sometime ecumenist, I have covered scores of meetings of high-level committees debating themes of Christian unity. At these meetings I have often wondered whether the high officials in Protestantism and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic hierarchies keep in mind the hungers of the heart among the hundreds of millions of Christians who do not get to share the Lord's table.

In fact, I've seen enough of what these good and well-meaning people do as they work on concordats and issue declarations that I don't need to wonder much. It seems to me that they show too little imagination, too little readiness to revisit the radical themes of the gospels and the Pauline letters to come up with anything fresh.

So when I reread Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical on ecumenism--especially how it treats the "Petrine ministry" and what it means for common participation at the Lord's table--I join so many others in mourning the existence of a gap between biblical expressions and the realities of Christian life in the world today.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not accusing the late Pope John Paul II and the bishops and theologians of bad faith, though I can't help but think that there is sometimes timid faith. Having been at the margins of ecumenical councils and deliberative assemblies for more than a half century, I have found reason to respect pope after pope, council after council, committee after committee for all that they have achieved since 1958. That's when Pope John XXIII took the chair and began embodying a spirit and sending signals that gave hope for better times.

Those better times have arrived. Today Christians across the boundaries of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism are flee to respond and act in every practical expression that I can think of and in all the spiritual commitments as well except the most important one: We do not come to the eucharistic table together.

Catholic authorities generally agree that many of us--I am speaking from the Lutheran dugout right now--recognize Christ as present in all the dimensions that Catholics do. In fact, opinion surveys of Catholics suggest that many of them have a very wan sense of Christ's presence and might profit from shared Communion. Why? Because when you alter the context of something, you have to think through what it is that you believe.

Some may think I am giving too much importance to a single theme. I don't have other complaints, however. Differences within Catholicism, within Lutheranism, and within Anglicanism and other church worlds are often more plaguing than are the differences between these churches.

Today we engage in social action across the boundaries of church bodies. We pray together, preach and hear and converse and study together, rejoice in each other's victories, and cry in each other's defeats. We are developing a global sense and a global reach together. We read each other's poets and sing each other's songs together. …