It seems only fair to tell you that I started out not being at all enthusiastic about ecumenism.
This was not because I doubted the true Christian-ness of other Christians. That was never particularly a problem for me. It was the concerted efforts that made up ecumenism, and quite often ecumenical enthusiasts themselves, that deterred me.
I always somehow imagined that the chief goal of ecumenism was the bureaucratic forging of a super-church, based on lowest-common-denominator principles, suppressing local variety and distinctiveness. This was, to say the least, unappealing. It has always seemed to me that communities can’t do at all; what they can do is specialize, and ecumenism was asking for the end of specialization. And yet at the same time, the official ecumenical agreements that got put into place rarely had any effect on church life at all. They were peace treaties for the sake of PR but did nothing to address the remaining differences between us.
Another misperception I had was that ecumenism placed little value on truth, or that it somehow put truth and love at odds with each other. Perhaps on some level I felt that the people I knew who were most enthusiastic about ecumenism were also least concerned with questions of truth. It was all “why can’t we get along with each other?” plaintive activism. It is a very good question why Christians are so remarkably poor at getting along with each, but I think this question is best answered by an unflinching gaze at truth and fact, not gentle sentiment about unity.
On the flip side, though, I also couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who were the most passionately committed to their own tradition also tended to be the most impatient with others’. There was an alarming tendency to rely on hearsay, exaggeration, or oversimplification—all of a kind that they would never tolerate in a description of their own tradition. It was as if the passionate commitment to their own heritage required the failure of every other. It was parasitic in a way, and ultimately did no better to serve the cause of truth—what kind of truth is so easily deflated by someone else knowing something true too?
In all this it never seriously occurred to me that the discipline of ecumenism rejects both of these extremes. It insists on truth and love in equal measures. It is hopeful and realistic at the same time. It looks forward to a day of full public and visible unity among the churches but admits it still doesn’t know the path that will take us there. It is also vastly more complex than I ever imagined, certainly not a mass effort at reducing and simplifying. It is a good place to be.