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Ecumenism: A brief history
Ever since the beginnings of the history of Christianity, there have been profound divisions within the faith regarding the best and right way to profess one's belief in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul speaks of the division between those who believed that it was necessary to follow the practices of the ancient Hebrew in the form of Mosaic Law to be a Christian, versus those who did not; there were also divisions between the Gnostics (who believed that the material world was inherently evil) versus what we would call today the more orthodox Christians who rejected the Gnostics as heretics. Although the intensity of these controversies (such as the notion of whether God was conceptualized as a trinity, the legitimacy of particular popes, and eventually the split between Western and Eastern Christianity) waxed and waned in the Middle Ages, divisions once again were ripped open with the Reformation, and what developed into a schism between Protestantism and Catholicism. Divisions were further exacerbated as Lutheranism began to bifurcate, and with the establishment of the Church of England as distinct from the Roman Catholic Church.
Ecumenism was not built into these ideological divides. There was no real tolerance of differing ideas, on either side of the debates. The concept of heresy suggests there is one truth, not a multiplicity of truths. "In the early history of Christianity, the church established the basic teachings of the faith. Those basics can be found in the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed. Over the centuries, however, theologians and religious figures have proposed doctrines that contradict established Christian beliefs. To keep those beliefs pure, the church singled out people who taught or believed ideas considered a threat to Christianity" (Zavada 2013). The Gnostics regarded those Christians who believed that a good God created the world to be fundamentally in error just as much as their opponents viewed them as heretics. Luther began his life as a monk but then decided that the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church advocated the practice of the faith was a perversion of the true nature of Christianity, which was justified by faith alone and should be a religion of the book, not of a priestly hierarchy.
Christians have disagreed with -- and persecuted -- other Christians just as much as they have members of other faiths. The ecumenical movement was an attempt to stress the similarities rather than divisions between Christians. Many date the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement to the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh of 1910. What was so unique about the conference was the degree to which "it tried to mirror the world it convened to discuss. This is not to say that the countries or even the churches of the world were equally represented at the conference. Of the 1,200 official delegates sent by church bodies as representatives at the conference, 500 were from the United States and another 500 were from Great Britain. European countries other than Britain sent 170 delegates to the conference. Twenty-six delegates came from the colonies" (House 2010). The Roman and Orthodox churches were not represented. Still, the Conference represented the first all-encompassing and far-reaching attempt to represent a variety of Christian denominations and stress inclusiveness, rather than exclusion.
Gradually, the ecumenical movement would begin to embrace Christian faiths beyond that of Protestantism. According to the Eastern Orthodox Research Institute, common characteristics of the ecumenical movement are:
1) & #8230;the acceptance of all the great Christian feasts on the same day by all the Churches, 2) by the exchange of brotherly letters on the great feasts of the ecclesiastical year, when it is customary to do so and on other exceptional occasions, 3) by a more friendly intercourse by the representatives of theological science, 4) by the exchange of students between seminaries of the different Churches, 5) by the convening of Pan-Christian conferences to examine questions of a common interest to all the Churches, 6) by the impartial and historic examination of the doctrinal differences, 7) by mutually respecting the custom and usages prevailing in each church, 8) by allowing to each other the use of places of prayer and of cemeteries for the funeral and burial of persons belonging to other confessions dying in foreign lands, 9) by the settlement of the question of mixed marriages between the various confessions, 10) by the mutual support of the Churches in the work of strengthening religious beliefs, love and the like ("A historical sketch of the ecumenical movement." Orthodox Research Institute, 2013).
The common principles of ecumenicalism are thus both procedural and doctrinal and also philosophical -- the common nature of all Christian holidays of worship are honored; the need for some commonality regarding the rituals of burial, funerals, and marriages; and also the mutual support for shared Christian beliefs. However, thus does not mean the obliteration of differences between all Christian churches. In most expressions of ecumenism, the intention of the movement is not to negotiate away differences or to propose a union between all Christian churches, but rather "to bring Churches into living contact with one another and to study the issues of church unity" ("A historical sketch of the ecumenical movement," Orthodox Research Institute, 2013).
Within America in particular, the concept of ecumenicalism has received a great deal of support. While European nations tend to be much more homogeneous and have official 'state faiths' (even nations which practice toleration and are very pluralistic like Great Britain), America famously has the establishment clause, which creates a wall of division between the government and people's religious, personal lives. This has not made America less religious -- far from it, according to most polls, which suggests that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and profess some sort of formal or informal religious faith. However, most Americans seem to believe in the principles of toleration, not only of fellow Christians of different traditions but also of non-Christians. In one poll in 2007 it was found that in response to the question if people of different religions could go to heaven: "most Americans who belong to Christian faiths told us that they believe non-Christians can go to heaven. Of those who said that people of other faiths could attain salvation, 89% of Catholics, 82% of mainline Protestants, and 100% of Mormons say that salvation extends to non-Christians. The percentages are noticeably lower for black Protestants and evangelicals, at 69 and 65%, respectively, but still constitute a clear majority" (Campbell & Putnam 2010). While the ecumenical spirit is far from limited to Americans, the ecumenical movement seems to be uniquely harmonious to certain American belief structures, such as placing a great deal of value upon the virtues of tolerance and pluralism of all faiths, not even Christian faiths alone. The concept of interfaith dialogue, although not synonymous with ecumenism, can be seen as an outgrowth to some degree of the ecumenical movement
It should be noted, however, that while ecumenism is common to all Christian faiths, certain Christian denominations have shown greater enthusiasm than others for the concept. Indeed, certain Christian churches have more openly promoted reconciliation and eventual unity of all Christian churches than others. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the similarities between the Churches in terms of their hierarchies and rituals are very resonant. One of the reasons the Puritans so violently opposed the Church of England in the 17th century was what they saw as evidence of 'Popery' in the Anglican Church, versus the pure form of Protestantism which they felt was ideal.
To advance reconciliation, in a controversial move, Pope Benedict "established a new legal structure for Anglicans who wished to keep their Anglican identity but who wanted to enter into full communion with Rome and the…[continue]
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