If our love has grown enough that we can be truly honest with one another, we will inevitably have to face our sins against others as well as their sins against us. And all Christians know what they have been commanded to do with sins: forgive them. Forgiveness is spiritually essential to ecumenism. We have to ask for it and we have to grant it. The former is hard because it means we have to repent of our evil ways. The latter is even harder! Especially when we have been the victims, forgiveness might look like excusing the misdeeds of the past and possibly even losing our identity to the one who has hurt us.
In cases like this we must call to mind the central importance of forgiveness in the Scriptures. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’… ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22). “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Such forgiveness does not apply only to the past; it also applies to the present. In ecumenism itself we make mistakes, we fail in charity, we indulge in dishonesty: and so we must repent when we have done so, and we must forgive our neighbors churches when they have done so.
But what if these neighbor churches still recoil in suspicion instead of drawing near in love? What if they only report tales of success such that we suspect they are not being fully honest with us? What if they refuse to forgive? What if they are just not interested in the whole ecumenical task? For that matter, what if members of our own churches share these feelings? What if we find them in ourselves? In such cases we can only do as the psalmist did, and “wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).
Patience is another spiritual discipline vital for ecumenism. In some cases we are talking about estrangements that have lasted a thousand years—half of the church’s entire history! In the long view, the progress of the past century has been truly remarkable. It does nothing to improve the situation if we lose patience and become angry with one another for moving slowly. Love and trust are built over time, not in an instant. For long-separated brothers and sisters, only the test of living life together, day by day, year by year, can overcome the hostility or ignorance that stands between us. None of us knows ahead of time what God will grant us to see in our own lifetimes. All we can do is pray, love, speak the truth, forgive one another, and wait.
The final spiritual discipline we undertake in ecumenism is conversion. This does not mean converting from one church to another—that, in fact, is often the enemy of ecumenism. No, every Christian has to be converted more fully to the Christ who commanded us to love one another and to be one as he and his Father are one. Ecumenism can only succeed when we seek not the success of our own church or tradition above all else, but when all Christians together seek God’s will.
Sometimes that will mean faithfully adhering to what our individual traditions have given us. Sometimes that will mean facing our failures head-on and admitting to them. Sometimes that will mean considering something that never even occurred to us before. All of us can and should grow into a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jesus’ disciples and children of the heavenly Father, aflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit.