Few things are more crucial to the church in our day as this: that we find a way, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to live in unity. We need to find a way, both locally and globally, to know the grace of genuine Christian fellowship across the divide of diverse Christian traditions. When I say crucial I mean that our capacity, as Christian communities, to witness in word and deed to the reign of Christ requires that we live in demonstrable unity, evident, of course, to the communities and cities in which we live. In other words, ecumenicity has always mattered. Always: as something basic to what it means to be the church. But what I am suggesting is that this is particularly important in a post-Christian world, in societies in which secularism is increasingly the norm. The church in the West will only have credibility in its mission and witness if and as it learns what it means to live in unity.
Thus the newest publication from ecumenist Paulist Father Tom Ryan is so very timely. Ryan is the director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, having previously served with Unitas in Montreal for many years — a vibrant centre that fostered ecumenical connections in that city. Christian communities need resources by which to live out the call to Christian unity, and, in that regard, Ryan is uniquely positioned to offer a valuable contribution to what it means to seek unity and live in Christian unity. This guide to Christian unity, from his pen, is particularly valuable for many reasons. I will highlight but four.
First, Ryan articulates, in a timely way, the very meaning of the unity we seek. He speaks of the dynamic of unity and diversity. We are past longing for or actively seeking any kind of monolithic structural or organizational unity. Rather, what we seek, interestingly enough, is a unity that transcends anything institutional; we are not after an administrative structure that will somehow hold us together. Rather, the unity to which we are called, in our generation, is one that values diversity and difference and yet, through all that diversity, finds an uncanny unity that is a source of strength and vibrant missional witness. Indeed, for Rev. Tom Ryan, our diversity is not a problem, but something in which we should actually rejoice.
Second, this publication is particularly valuable in that it offers practical insight into not just why but also the how — the specifics, with suggestions and good advice, for both individuals and Christian communities: what we can actually do to foster genuine Christian unity in the midst of all of our diversity. While he provides a compendium of suggestions for local congregations and parishes, he also has a whole chapter on interfaith families, providing guidelines for what is increasingly common: couples who share a common faith, but need to manage the reality that they have chosen to marry across denominational lines.
Then also — thirdly — I appreciated the helpful reminder from Ryan that thinking and acting ecumenically needs to be a vital dimension of theological formation for clergy. I am the president of a university that includes a graduate level program in theological formation. And reading this chapter forced me to ask the question: does our seminary anticipate the challenges and opportunities for ecumenical connections and do our graduating students have the requisite vision for ecumenism and the capacity for fostering Christian unity? When they accept a new pastoral or ministerial appointment, will they on arrival at their new assignment, early on, consider the ways in which they could be a positive agent for fellowship and learning across denominational lines? Individual or local faith communities will not likely actively pursue Christian unity if their clergy are not on board.
And fourthly, I have appreciated in other contexts the emphasis that Ryan makes on the potential for shared learning — for how we need to learn from one another and be attentive, as he puts it so well, to the gifts the other tradition or traditions might bring to the table of Christian unity. And it is no surprise to see this theme emerge here as well. What he does is suggest what Catholics can learn from Protestant Christians, and vice versa, and what both can learn from Eastern Orthodox communities and Pentecostal Christians, all to the end of stressing, in a powerful manner, that we might actually need one another.
For these four reasons and no doubt for more, Rev. Tom Ryan’s book is invaluable. It is an accessible guide for pastors and lay leaders to how they can, within their communities and cities, actively pursue Christian unity with Christians from other faith traditions. Ryan has extensive experience working with local Christian communities and that experience and the wisdom gleaned from so many local workshops and conversations — the wisdom of years — is distilled for the reader in this new publication.
Smith is the president and professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary.