I have a love/hate relationship with ecumenism. On one hand, I have personally benefited from a range of ecumenical efforts that have resulted in my now being a member of the Catholic Church through the generous provisions of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus that allow former Anglicans to retain the gifts of their patrimony as treasures to be shared with the wider Church.
The ecumenism I love is centered on the Truth, on Jesus Christ and involves meeting fellow believers who may come from differing traditions on the grounds of what ‘mere Christianity’ is held in common, and prayerfully trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide us all into the fullness of Truth.
Back in the 1990s, when I was an evangelical Christian in the process of being purged from some heretical beliefs I had picked up in my searching, I came across a group of professors and graduate students who used to hold a breakfast seminar once a week to discuss various readings. They came from various backgrounds: Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Orthodox and they specialized in a range of different subjects from medicine, to statistics, to English and Medieval literature and more. They also came from several different educational institutions in Ottawa. What they held in common was a concern for the loss of the old idea of the university, where students were educated in foundational and universal truths and were taught the interconnection of all knowledge. They lamented the silos around each discipline that gave those studying them lots of knowledge in their particular field, with no idea how their field connected with others or with western civilization in general.
Needless to say, this was like the Medieval rack stretching my ill-educated brain. They read John Paul II’s encyclicals, Cardinal Newman’s The Grammar of Assent, and St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. The discussions were wonderful and enlightening. Each person brought their perspective without watering down the distinctives of their respective faith traditions.
It was at one of these breakfast seminars that a group of professors sketched out on a napkin the vision for Augustine College’s one-year program designed to integrate an understanding of science, art, Scripture, Church history, mathematics and philosophy, grounding them in the foundational principles of western civilization.
David Lyle Jeffrey was Augustine College’s first president. Then a professor of Medieval literature, a brilliant man, Jeffrey went on to be provost of Baylor University during a time when the university attempted to do something similar to Augustine College’s combination of education within a community of faith, albeit an ecumenical one.
Anyway, many years ago, David Jeffrey gave a lecture that was held in an Anglican Church, then called St. Alban’s, and I remember this distinctly from the lecture: Why do we call God Father? Because Jesus did, and thus we have no other option.
I had gone to the lecture with my late friend Mary who was always up for an adventure of a spiritual sort. There were some young men—not quite young enough to be our sons but close–that we met after the lecture. We had such an animated conversation with them that we continued it at a Vietnamese restaurant where we spent the rest of the afternoon. It was glorious, like being back in college. One of the young men, Glenn, and I kept in touch afterwards, and one day I got an email from him saying, “I think I have found my church home.” He had stumbled upon Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I went to check it out and I was hooked. I invited Mary and she was hooked.
I think I would have found out about Annunciation eventually, however, because soon Fr. Doug Hayman was chaplain of Augustine College and teaching Scripture there. He is our priest now at Annunciation.
The other day, I went to visit a friend of mine who discovered Augustine College because his eldest daughter, who is home educated, was studying Latin and found she could take the Latin course at the college. My friend became involved as a volunteer, helping the college in a number of ways. He mused with me how odd it was that he, who used to run a Catholic apologetics site, would be involved in an ecumenical project since, as I have found, many devout Catholics are leery of ecumenical projects because they fear they will water down the faith. With Augustine College he discovered this is not necessarily the case with good ecumenism.
Now that I am Catholic, I have come to understand the concerns related to “indifferentism,” and to settling on some kind of lowest common denominator ecumenism that treats the distinctives of the Catholic faith as optional.
I hate that kind of ecumenism. There is a difference from using the basics of ‘mere Christianity’ as a starting point for meeting people and treating those basics as if that was all that matters.