Formation of an Ecumenical Consciousness

Phyllis Anderson

Published in the 2004 Seattle Theology and Ministry Review, the annual journal of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry.

The historic ecumenical agreements of the late 20th century have given us glimpses of the unity of the church for which Christ prayed. In 1982, after 50 years of effort, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches proposed to the churches a common statement on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Pope John Paul II issued Ut Unum Sint in 1996, a far reaching document full of vision and hope that all Christian people and all their respective churches and ecclesial communities indeed might be one. In 1999, Lutherans and Roman Catholics signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, coming to essential agreement on the fundamental issue that divided them nearly 500 years ago.  In this country, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has entered into full communion with the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, the Moravian Church, with dialogues that will hopefully lead to full communion in progress with the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The scholars and ecumenical leaders who were able to forge these agreements wonder who will carry on their work. So do the thousands of men and women who lead the local ecumenical organizations that mobilize Christian people across denominational lines to advocate for justice and serve the needs of the community. Where will the next generation of ecumenical leaders come from if they are not being formed now?  How will reception of these historic ecumenical agreements ever be achieved if an ecumenically responsive and interested and informed church membership is not being formed now? How do we pass on the mission of making visible the unity of the church?

If the church is going to participate in God’s mission by manifesting the unity given to the people of God, its members and its leaders will need to be converted to this larger vision and be formed in an ecumenical consciousness. The Roman Catholic Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism expresses this vision clearly:

The concern for unity is fundamental to the understanding of the Church.  The objective of ecumenical formation is that all Christians be animated by the ecumenical spirit, whatever their particular mission and task in the world and in society.[1].

An Ecumenical Consciousness

To form people of faith with an ecumenical consciousness requires first being clear on what we mean. By ecumenical consciousness we certainly mean being open to and accepting of our brothers and sisters who experience the faith very differently and being willing to work toward greater understanding and cooperation among Christian denominations.  But a benign tolerance, or a cooperative spirit, or even a deeply Christian commitment to respect and honor those who are different from us does not exhaust the meaning of ecumenical consciousness.  Beneath or along side of this movement toward overcoming our divisions is the profoundly theological understanding, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, that the Church already is one and that its unity is a gift of God.  The ontological unity of the Church is an article of faith that we confess whenever we confess the Nicene Creed.  So an ecumenical consciousness includes both a compelling vision of the unity of the church as gift and also a commitment to the task of making that unity more visible, more functional, more real.

My colleague James Eblen has used the complementary language of “catholic” and “ecumenical” to describe these two poles of ecumenical consciousness: the gift and the task. In Eblen’s paradigm “catholic” is associated with the essential reality of unity and “ecumenical” pertains to the task of more fully realizing this unity.

…we can characterize “catholic” as rooted in the experience of divisions overcome in Christ, and “ecumenical” as rooted in the awareness, even at the moment of becoming one, that not everyone is present.[2]

Eblen associates the word “ecumenical” with the imperative to keep enlarging the circle because no part of the church can be fully the church without all the other parts.  I think that an equally good case can be made for saying that this sense of the all-encompassing extensiveness of the church is corollary of our confession that the church is “catholic.”   The catholicity of the church is always a reminder of its universality, its global and historical scope.  So then “ecumenical” and “catholic” become synonyms, or at lease close cousins.

But how these words are used is not as important as the point we are both affirming. We have found different ways to say that there are two movements to this ecumenical consciousness: one which reaches out to bring others in and the other which insists that they are all related to the core, all one in Christ.  One focuses on diversity and inclusivity; the other focuses on unity.  Both are essential to an ecumenical consciousness.

The First Movement:  Embracing Ecumenical Diversity

The movement of greater openness toward and acceptance of those from different theological and denominational traditions happens at least in part through exposure to diversity, especially in a context in which that diversity is reflected upon and affirmed.  Embracing diversity involves getting out of one’s own capsule far enough to actually see others as they are, as they hope to be seen. A very sheltered Roman Catholic student wrote in a paper on ecumenism this spring:  “I need to chew my way out of my cocoon from the inside.”  This kind of change requires courage, imagination, respect, and humility.  

Respect and acceptance of “the other” can be developed as a discipline. One can learn to follow the rules of ecumenical etiquette.  One can learn to listen with the ear of the heart.  Rooted in the example of Christ and the best of the Christian tradition, people of faith can learn to check the very human impulse to prejudge what is different.  Despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, Christians can grow in their ability to welcome the stranger and love their enemies.

This kind of formation occurs through many life experiences, which may or may not be specifically religious.  Our worlds are inevitably enlarged when we go off to college or worship with a friend from another tradition or grow up in a home with a Catholic father and a Methodist mother. Meeting strangers through travel, moving to an ethnic neighborhood, marrying someone of another race, all of these encounters with difference contribute to breaking down the sense that my way is the only way.  An embrace of ecumenical diversity can develop as an extension of the acceptance of other forms of diversity.

The reverse is also true. A greater appreciation of other Christian denominations will hopefully grow into a greater openness to other religions, to the awareness of the beauty and strength of other cultures, to a sense of awe and respect of all the creatures of earth.  Those who develop an ecumenical spirit become catalysts for peace and harmony in the world.

The Second Movement: Receiving the Gift of Unity

Conversion comes through experience and reflection upon experience. We learn to recognize the diversity within the church through our encounter with difference. What are the experiences that shape the consciousness of the church not only as diverse, but specifically as one unified body?  Over the last couple of years I have asked at least a dozen groups just that question. I invite them to describe a time when they had some kind of heightened sense of the unity of the church.  The stories they tell are as varied as the people, but they are beginning to fall into patterns.

A consciousness of the unity of the church seems to happen when people come together as church.  Most often they mention worship. They site either an intentionally ecumenical service or a time when people of different denominations were brought together for a funeral or wedding or ordination. They also talk about sensing unity when churches work together for the common good in disaster relief or demonstrations for peace and justice.  Sometimes they talk about bonds of affection and fellowship they experience at Bible camp or on retreat or at a potluck with a neighboring congregation.  On occasion a person talks about an educational experience where people of different denominations studied together, learned to appreciate their distinctions and commonalities, and were in real dialogue with one another.  Something beyond the encounter with diversity is at work.

Ecumenical Formation in Theological Education

Many theological schools and seminaries encourage the first movement, the embrace of ecumenical diversity, simply because the schools themselves are ecumenically diverse in their make-up.  Even those seminaries that are closely affiliated with a particular denomination are finding themselves enlarging their circle to accommodate students of other traditions who cannot or choose not to go off to the seminary of their own denomination. Given the pressure to maintain enrollment and tuition income, few seminaries turn such students away. 

Where this kind of ecumenical diversity is not occurring due to natural or market forces, some theological schools intentionally incorporate ecumenical diversity and awareness through ecumenical visitors, field placements, or relationships with other school in consortia or global partnerships.  In this country theological schools are encouraged or even required to do so by the accrediting body and by many churches. The Association of Theological Schools in North America, the accrediting body for some 240 theological schools, includes among the standards for accreditation one on globalization:

Theological teaching, learning, and research require patterns of institutional and educational practice, that contribute to an awareness and appreciation of global interconnectedness and interdependence, particularly as they relate to the mission of the church. These patterns are intended to enhance the ways institutions participate in the ecumenical, dialogical, evangelistic, and justice efforts of the church.  The term globalization has been used to identify these patterns and practices collectively. [3]

In its 1993 Report on the Study of Theological Education, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) challenged its eight seminaries to fulfill eleven imperatives, including one on Ecumenical Interdependence:

People preparing for leadership in the ELCA need to learn how to work and study together with people of other traditions.  It is vital that theological education in the ELCA build ecumenical understanding and model patterns of dialogue and cooperation among Christians and adherents of other faiths. [4]

The Roman Catholic Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism states clearly that those engaged in pastoral work should be formed in such a way that they “acquire an authentically ecumenical disposition” [5](p. 45).  But actually this Catholic document goes far beyond encouraging an ecumenical ethos and openness.  It calls for more intentional focus on ecumenical issues in the content of courses. Theology and history are to be taught “with due regard for the ecumenical point of view, so that they may correspond as exactly as possible with the facts.” [6].  While ecumenical perspectives should permeate all of theological formation, a specific course on ecumenism should not only be included but required.[7]

Models of Ecumenical Formation

Contemporary models of theological education provide their students with different kinds of ecumenical experiences with varying results.  I have personally participated in the four different models described below. Looking at these models can give us some insight into ways in which all Christian people can grow in their ecumenical awareness and commitment, whether they are participating in formal programs of theological education, in faith formation in a local parish, in shared ministries among congregations of different denominations, in ecumenical agencies and commissions, or in efforts to understand the ecumenical agreements their churches make.

1.      The Princeton Model:  “Major Ecumenical Seminary.”

Princeton Theological Seminary is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church, but because of its stature, its diverse faculty, and its long tradition of attracting outstanding students from many denominations, it is regarded as one of the major “ecumenical” seminaries in this country, a distinction it shares with Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago Divinity School. My experience of Princeton goes back to the early seventies, and surely much has changed, but the description of this type of  ecumenical school remains essentially valid.

I began my M.Div. studies at Princeton because I lived there, even though as a Lutheran I was strongly encouraged to attend a seminary of my own denomination. At Princeton I encountered a wonderful diversity of people and theological perspectives. I gained a sense of the Reformed ethos and was edged out of my Lutheran cocoon.  I learned to articulate my Lutheran perspective against a non-Lutheran backdrop. I would describe Princeton and schools like it as ecumenical melting pots.  The diversity existed, but neither the distinctions nor the concept of unity were specifically explored.  One’s denominational affiliation was a non-issue. The president at that time, James I. McCord, was a prominent ecumenical figure on the world scene, but those interests and activities did not affect students.  The resources were there to pursue ecumenical interests, but I did not even know I had them yet. I had not experienced an ecumenical conversion.  The Princeton experience moved me along in terms of ecumenical openness, but not very far.

2.      The Chicago Model:   “Ecumenical Consortium”

The Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS) brings together the faculties of twelve denominational schools to create the largest concentration of theological minds outside of Rome.  I taught in this consortium at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the mid-eighties.  Like other major ecumenical consortia in Berkeley, Boston, Washington, or Atlanta, ACTS provides all the resources one could ever hope to find for ecumenical learning and formation.  The potential is certainly there. Cross registration is easy and free. The combined libraries have whatever you need. Whether or not you actually take a class at a school of a denomination other than your own, however, is largely optional.  And the course will not deal intentionally with the denominational distinctiveness, although it is there if you can sort it out. The assumption is that ecumenical awareness, competence, and passion come through osmosis, by exposure to difference. Because the consortium is there, each school is free to be as denominationally focused as it chooses, without taking on responsibility for ecumenical formation. It was very difficult to get a critical mass from the various schools together for worship or fellowship. As a faculty member in that context, I expanded my circle of ecumenical friendships and certainly my scholarship was enriched by interaction with faculty of other schools, but the effect on the students was definitely hit or miss. 

3.      The Dubuque Model:  “Ecumenical Consortium with Intentionality”

I finished my Master’s of Divinity and earned a PhD in a less well-known consortium:  The Schools of Theology in Dubuque, Iowa (STD).  For about fifteen years, the three seminaries in Dubuque—one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, and one Catholic—did all the things the big consortia do, but with greater ecumenical intentionality.  It might have been simpler and more engaged because there were just three schools involved.  It might have seemed more exciting because of the particular people in leadership or the fact that there were few distractions in Dubuque. What I remember is that the interdependence was very intense.  For short periods of time we shared buildings.  Deep friendships developed across denominational lines.  We participated with delight in one another’s worship.  The most distinctive and effective ecumenical strategy was to combine faculty and students from all three schools for the first required courses in scripture and in pastoral care.

The Dubuque model exposed us all to diversity.  The combined classes had the effect of making explicit the differences among the traditions. Faculty was on hand to assist with the integration. The Schools of Theology in Dubuque was an example of the consortium model, but with more intentionality, more intensity, and more opportunity to process what was going on. We learned to encounter and respect other traditions at a greater depth than we did at Princeton or Chicago.  Our high degree of cooperation and interdependence, however, was not presented explicitly in terms of Christian unity.

4.      The Seattle Model:  “Ecumenical Seminary with Intentionality”

At Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry (STM) we have all the intentionality of the Dubuque model combined with the greater diversity of the Chicago Model, all happening under one roof like the Princeton model.  Within a Jesuit Catholic university, STM is formally committed to serve eleven Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and Unitarian denominations. One member of the faculty with extensive experience of the ecumenical consortium in Berkeley has said, “The difference is that at STM you can’t go home at night.”

The School of Theology and Ministry has a single faculty, administration, and student body, all fairly well balanced ecumenically.  It has a common curriculum and formation program for each degree program.  To honor the particularity of each denomination, STM provides additional courses and formation experiences as required by each participating denomination, particularly for the Master’s of Divinity students. Faculty members have adjusted their classes to meet the needs of students from many denominations. They regularly acquaint students with the worship resources and social statements of their respective denominations. They ask students to address denominational issues in their written assignments. Students are expected to speak up and reflect perspectives from their denominations.  We have made significant investment in programs that have increased the ecumenical competence of the faculty. We have regular ecumenical worship and also worship in the traditions of our respective denominations.  One visiting ecumenical theologian observed: “You have achieved an ecumenical culture where no one theological position is privileged and all are respected.”

To a greater or lesser degree, these elements were present in the Dubuque model. The added ingredient at STM is the explicit focus on ecumenism and the unity of the church as topics for teaching and discussion.  We regularly bring in visiting faculty and guest lecturers whose specific expertise is in ecumenics.  Perhaps most significantly, we have developed a required course on Ecumenical Theology, which helps our students reflect theologically on the ecumenical diversity that they unavoidably encounter at STM.  The course compares the major denominational traditions at some depth and also traces the major themes and documents in the modern ecumenical movement. It explicitly focuses on the theological understanding of the ontological unity of the church as a gift. The course is team-taught by a Catholic and a Protestant.

I do not want to make a case for this particular course. The course could be organized many different ways. What seems to be essential for forming an ecumenical consciousness is that there be such a class or some other serious, non-optional arena where ecumenism itself is the topic. This seems to be what it takes to move from ecumenism as tolerance of diversity or practical cooperation to a sense of unity as a theological conviction about the church and a commitment to work towards it.  Combined with the experience of diversity and the attention to particularity, this intentional theological reflection often becomes the context for the conversion to an ecumenical consciousness.


I think we are learning something at the School of Theology and Ministry about the formation of an ecumenical consciousness.  We are learning that the development of an ecumenical consciousness necessarily builds on genuine experience of both the diversity and the unity of the church.  It is better when those experiences are not left totally to chance or choice. The structure of the program should ensure significant and sustained interaction among people of different traditions and among the churches themselves.  Exposure to denominational diversity, however important, is not enough. The diversity itself must be broken out into its particularity. Each denomination must be known and its gifts acknowledged.  And finally there needs to be something that gives expression to the experience of unity in the language of faith, that connects it to Christ and the unity of Christ’s church. That something likely involves reading or dialogue or conversation or lectures or a class or a sermon or a prayer or a hymn. 

We have identified the following components in the formation of an ecumenical consciousness:

  1. The experience of denominational diversity and indeed all kinds of diversity.  A person needs to get out of her cocoon and encounter the other.  He needs to learn the art of dialogue and discover how much he has in common with those who come to us initially as strangers. Each must move beyond the point where all goodness and truth resides in his or her own tradition.
  2. The experience of encountering the particularity of denominations, including one’s own. The person needs to be grounded in a particular tradition as well as open and adaptive to others. He needs to take the time and trouble to discover that these various strains within the body of Christ really do think differently.  She needs to gain some sympathy for what was at stake when churches made the painful decision to divide. They need to learn that these points of difference may be the growing edges of renewal. In our “different-ness,” we have something to learn from one another and we have gifts to give.
  3. The experience of reflecting specifically on the unity of the church. To gain an ecumenical consciousness, a person needs to get in touch with the oneness of the church as an expression of faith and as a theological, ecclesiological proposition.  This happens in classes, in preaching, in reading, in dialogue, in worship.  It requires an encounter with the tradition.  The source of our unity is Christ, whom we know through revelation. Ecumenical consciousness comes through the alchemy of human experience is informed by revelation.

I am not saying that the components must come in this order or that they must come together in a specific course. Neither am I proposing that ecumenical formation requires the complexity and intensity of the School of Theology and Ministry, where eleven specific traditions in all their particularity are honored partners under one roof. What I am proposing is that, whatever the context, these three ingredients seem to be essential in ecumenical formation, particularly ecumenical formation that actually leads to a compelling, life changing vision of the unity of the church.  And this is the consciousness that we need to develop in our leaders and among the faithful if the churches are going to live into Christ’s gift of unity and fulfill the promise of the astounding ecumenical breakthroughs of the last fifty years.

[1] Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1993), 39. [back]

[2] James Eblen, “Being Catholic and Ecumenical,” Seattle Theology and Ministry Review  3 (2003): 36. [back]

[3] The Bulletin of the Association of Theological Schools in North America, 2002, “Standards of Accreditation,” Standard [back]

[4] Mission Leaders for a Changing World; ELCA Study of Theological Education, 1993, 16. [back]

[5] Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 45. [back]

[6] Ibid., 46. [back]

[7] Ibid., 47. [back]