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Grassroots Ecumenism

What pitfalls and what possibilities await the Catholic evangelist who works with an ecumenical group? Most of us have probably had—indeed should have had, if we are taking our Catholic commitment seriously—some experience of working together with other Christians in some community enterprise. For many of us, this will have included pro-life work and perhaps related efforts connected with promoting Christian marriage and the unity and integrity of the family.

In fact for me, and I suspect for many Catholics who grew up in the post-Vatican II era, it just seemed automatic and natural to be working with other Christians on these issues. Such ecumenical effort had no particular sense of novelty about it. We took for granted the times of prayer together, the sessions of letter-writing or envelope-packing, the organizing of meetings, the training sessions in public speaking, the meetings with elected officials (and, often enough, our own despairing discussions together afterwards when the politicians had disappointed us).

Usually, it is not difficult to insure that membership in such a group in no way compromises Catholic belief and practice. Confident and committed Catholics tend to rise to leadership of such groups, especially on the pro-life issue. It is true, too, that many conversions to the Catholic Church have arisen as a result of such ecumenical efforts. I know of two people who joined the prolife crusade with no well-defined religious beliefs but simply a commitment to the value of human life and who have since joined the Church and are exercising considerable leadership within the Catholic community.

There can be pitfalls, especially for the younger Catholic. Sometimes zealous “Bible alone” Evangelicals will seize on the unwary and the unprepared. Too many well intentioned but confused young Catholics will have no answers to the standard argument beginning, “But your Church contradicts the Bible on . . .” Indeed, Catholic Answers was founded precisely in response to this challenge, and has helped many Catholics to be better equipped as a result. But it would be a pity just to leave the matter there. As things develop in Western society into the new century, Christian ecumenical effort in defense of the family, of life itself (the euthanasia debate is hotting up), of marriage, of sexual integrity, of even a semblance of respect for modesty and chastity in the mass media will be more vitally needed than ever. This is not to say we must all make such work a priority. Our commitment to our family, to our own Catholic work (and there are many fine new opportunities there, with new groups and movements that are have sprung up in the last twenty years), to our particular parish if appropriate, and so on, have their claims on us. But for some of us this particular apostolate may be a calling, and, in line with the teachings of the Church and the authentic message of the Second Vatican Council, we should respond to the particular needs of our age and recognize in certain work the “signs of the times” which should not be ignored.

For several years I have been active with a London-based group bringing together representatives of the mainstream Christian churches to work together in areas concerned with family life, education, and medical ethics. My husband is chairman of this group, having taken over from a retired Anglican bishop. Our experiences have been almost uniformly positive. We have found that under the banner of this ecumenical group we have been able to help with a number of useful projects. These have included the publication of several headline-hitting reports on the tragic results of sex education schemes and the distribution of contraceptives to teenagers, work to promote marriage and to challenge the culture of divorce, and a great deal of anti-euthanasia activity ranging from conferences and distribution of leaflets for schools to the presentation of detailed legal arguments.

We have found that certain ground rules help to insure that pitfalls are avoided. We start committee meetings with a simple prayer that is printed in our handbook. There may also be a Scripture reading. Sometimes other short prayers are added—specific requests or mentioning people who are ill. There is a general recognition that prolonged sessions of “spontaneous” vocal prayer are inappropriate. This is something that I have found awkward in one or two other groups—some Evangelicals assume that lengthy perorations from everyone represent the only evidence of spiritual life and that there are no alternatives. Catholics—and in our case traditionalIy-minded Anglicans too—have helped to foster a different understanding, in which it is recognised that silence, Scripture reading, formal prayers, and perhaps a concluding doxology (“Shall we all say together ‘Glory be to the Father . . .’?”) can be just as genuine and perhaps less intrusive or intimidating. Sometimes Evangelicals do not recognize how off-putting their forms of prayer can be for newcomers. Catholics, on the other hand, are usually extremely well aware of the importance of seeking common ground and will (and must) avoid contentious prayers and invoking of saints in an ecumenical setting.

Are we, then, betraying our beliefs? Definitely not, in my experience. There are, of course, some non-negotiable areas. If we are at a weekend event, then Sunday Mass is an absolute obligation from which no ecumenical prayer time can release us. This also applies to holy days of obligation. I invariably have found that non-Catholics respect and even admire this. Untold damage has been done by Catholics who imprudently and wrongly decide that they are released from their Sunday obligation because they are at some ecumenical gathering. No, whether it’s a weekend away with non-Catholic friends or a conference at which few Catholics are present, the rules are the same, and you check out beforehand just where, when, and how you are going to get to Mass. If your commitment to this encourages a non-Catholic to come along too, that’s splendid—and just pray that it won’t be a clown liturgy or some other idiocy that will put them off the Catholic Church for life.

Often there will be good opportunities for us to clear up misunderstandings or to clarify what the Catholic Church really teaches. At one small ecumenical committee, we needed a Bible reference, and I reached for a pocket New Testament that I had in my bag. An Evangelical lady on the committee looked genuinely pleased—I don’t think she knew that Catholics might carry such things (and indeed I wouldn’t have been carrying it, but for a fairly recent revival of interest in the biblical foundations of our faith—thank, you Lord!). Later, I was able to answer this same lady’s inquiry, when we were visiting a Catholic cathedral, about the various symbols on an ornate crucifix, and she was visibly impressed with the atmosphere of prayer and the fact that innumerable people were quietly coming in and out to make their devotions.

A major part of our group’s work has been in education. In Britain, unlike America, school prayers are meant to take place each day in each school, and there is a legal commitment to religious education with Christianity as the central feature of the curriculum. (This is in normal County schools—Catholics of course have their own, separate, publicly-funded schools with their own religious education.) In practice, this is not nearly as good as it sounds. Many schools simply ignore the requirement for daily worship. Others offer a sort of vague spirituality based on an unspecific deity or a version of Christianity drawn from liberal Anglicanism of the dreariest and most feminist kind—ugh! In many of our major cities, there are schools that are more than fifty percent Muslim, with a good Hindu representation and virtually no children from even nominally Christian homes.

But this does not mean that Christians should retreat and leave the field. Both in school worship and in religious education, there is quite a lot that a good ecumenical group can do. We recently sponsored a useful conference on school worship, in which speakers offered practical ways of insuring that Christians and Muslims could have their own separate gatherings for prayer, with integrity and goodwill (one of the best speakers was an Islamic teacher). We gave examples of how local Christian churches could link up fruitfully with schools and showed how most parents do want and expect that their children will be introduced to Christianity at school in Britain and taught how to pray.

In religious education, we have found that it is possible to help ensure that Christianity has a real place in the classroom by simply putting it there. We run an annual Bible essay project for schools, in which pupils in every secondary school (i.e. high school) in Britain are invited to take part. It’s called “Project: I was there . . .” and pupils have to imagine that they were actually present at a major event in the New Testament (we list six such events, with Bible references) in which Christ did something extraordinary. Thus, you could be present at the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or when Christ walked on the water, or when he healed Jairus’s little daughter . . . we vary the theme slightly each year. 

It would be idle to pretend that most schools in Britain take part, but a number do, and we get over 4,000 essays from across the country. One of the best crop of essays came when the theme was “Christian feasts and seasons.” Pupils had to imagine themselves present at one of the great events now marked in the annual Christian calendar, such as Epiphany, Candlemas, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday. There were many moving and beautiful essays from pupils writing as Mary Magdalene or as the centurion at the foot of the cross. Very rarely, incidentally, do we get a modernist interpretation of Scripture in these essays. Left to themselves, children will draw the obvious conclusion that the Gospel writers recorded authentic descriptions of true events and will write accordingly. In fact, I have to report, tragically, that the only “Modernist” set of essays we received about Easter Sunday came from a Catholic girls’ school, all parroting the line that the Resurrection was essentially an inner feeling in the minds of the apostles. (You can imagine what impression this made on the Bible-believing Evangelicals among the judges.)

Working with other Christians under an ecumenical banner, we not only can run a major nationwide schools essay competition—with all the work that this entails, including fundraising and running a small London office—but we can involve Church leaders in some of the attendant publicity and give good opportunities for public witness. One year, we even had the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster presenting the prizes. His friendliness to the children and his excellent little talk to them, in which he urged the importance and centrality of the holy Scripture, were a wonderful witness to our Catholic faith and will have created a lasting memory for everyone present.

Such ecumenical work gives the Catholic “street credibility” when doing other work. Many times, I have been able to say, when arguing with some Catholic Modernist, “but that will only confuse people at the ecumenical level.” In my experience and this has proved valuable and useful in convincing others (though not the Modernist himself!) of the importance of standing firm for Catholic truth. I can say with absolute conviction that the Catholic Church’s stand on not ordaining women, on recognizing the evil of abortion, on insisting on the lifelong nature of marriage is no barrier to authentic ecumenical action. It is only when these issues are watered down or become confused that problems arise. 

We need to be well informed about our faith. We have to have the Bible quotations and other information at hand so that, if necessary, we can seize the opportunity to give voice to “the hope that is in us.” We must be prepared to explain our faith, to dispel myths and ignorance about it, to show its truth and its role in history. We must make use of the traditional Catholic ability to laugh and to get along with people without being priggish. We should recognize that there is also a certain heritage: People vaguely know of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and, though we might be no Chesterton, Newman, Knox, or Waugh, we should feed our brains and nourish ourselves on what is good so as to be ready to give a reasonable account of ourselves.

And of course we should pray. For the work we are doing, for ourselves that we may not fail the Church, for our friends, and for our enemies, that whatever we are trying to do to make a common stand for what is good and true and wise will somehow be used by God for his good purposes.

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