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  • Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism
  • John T. Ford
Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism. Edited by Paul D. Murray, with the assistance of Luca Badini-Confalonieri. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. Pp. xxxv, 534. $99.00 cloth; $45.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-199- 21645-1 cloth; ISBN 978-0-199-58798-8 paperback).

The origin of the modern ecumenical movement is conventionally dated to the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. During the twentieth century, ecumenism waxed and waned, reaching a zenith in midcentury with the establishment of the World Council of Churches (1948) and the Consultation on Church Union (1962), along with the convening of the [End Page 337] Second Vatican Council (1962–65). These events produced such an ecumenical euphoria that many Christians anticipated a prompt resolution of centuries- old church separations; accordingly, many mainline church leaders and theologians entered into ecumenical conversations aimed at the achievement of church union in the foreseeable future.

To date, the results of these interchurch conversations have been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, ecumenical dialogues have produced a surprising and substantial number of consensus statements that collectively show that some traditional church-dividing issues are not necessarily as divisive as had long been thought; nonetheless, some issues seem more entrenched than ever. On the other hand, a notable number of churches have entered into an assortment of agreements, covenants, and even unions with due diligence and sometimes with considerable enthusiasm; however, many churches, although ecumenically courteous, have been essentially cautious about formalizing ecumenical partnerships. Some disappointed ecumenists speak of an “ecumenical winter” in which concrete ecumenical progress seems frozen in its tracks.

What should churches in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular learn from decades of ecumenical conversations? This was the guiding question at a symposium at Ushaw College, Durham, on January 12–17, 2006. Thirty-two papers from this symposium, along with five bible studies, are presented in this large volume with a somewhat puzzling title. First, “reception” refers to the process whereby ecclesiastical decisions and theological findings become part of the faith life of churches; such a process can take years, if not centuries; for example, governments in the past often blocked the “receiving” of papal and conciliar pronouncements through the imprimatur and exequatur.

The formidable challenge of “ecumenical reception” is then to translate ecumenical agreements from the theological or notional level to the practical or pastoral level. A major obstacle in this process is that the people who are asked to receive such ecumenical agreements have not shared in the “learning process” of the people who drafted these statements; without a parallel type of experience, such agreements tend to be theoretical at best, misunderstood at worst, and most often simply ignored. This volume addresses the urgent task of a collateral process of “receptive learning” at the levels of theological understanding and practical implementation.

The chapters of the volume are grouped somewhat elastically under five headings: “vision and principles”; “learning through Catholic dialogue”; “receptive ecumenism and Catholic church order”—“order” in the sense of ecclesiastical structures; “the pragmatics of receptive ecumenical learning”; and “retrospect and prospect.” Collectively considered, the chapters provide a rich and varied buffet of ecumenical “learnings”—theological insights, practical suggestions, programmatic possibilities, and prophetic proposals. In contrast [End Page 338] to the unevenness of many collections, the chapters are, with a few exceptions, of notably fine quality; in addition, the papers are often helpfully cross-referenced with dialogue evident between the participants. There is an extensive bibliography (pp. 469–513), along with an index of names and another of subjects.

In sum, this volume provides an insightful panorama of the current ecumenical scene and so is quite useful both to ecumenists and to anyone interested in ecumenism. This book, although not a textbook, would make an ideal companion piece for university-level courses on ecumenism.

John T. Ford
The Catholic University of America