Faith & Reason: Ecumenism collapses on all fronts at once

Cardinal Hume, the Pope and Europe's Protestants all seem hell- bent on a policy of estrangement
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The Independent Culture
IT IS always difficult to know whether churches are before or behind their times. On the one hand they are famously conservative institutions in their dress, their language, and their organisation; at the same time they are enormously sensitive to changes in the world's agenda, and some part of them will always react to such changes long before the cruder instruments of the media have detected them.

A very nice instance of both these tendencies simultaneously is provided by the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, which have changed as little as possible since the ninth century and still admit no female animals to their territory, least of all female humans.

Yet these monasteries were one of the earliest barometers of the changes in Eastern Europe and the rise of Slav nationalism. First they registered a sharp increase in postulants; then the newly invigorated monasteries started to return to a more traditionalist view of the Roman Catholic Church: by the early Nineties, 15 of them were once more preaching that Rome was the Antichrist, the Great Whore of Babylon. The connection between this change of religious mood and the Yugoslav civil war or the fall of Communism is not one of simple cause and effect in either direction. They both are related expressions of the same current of thought, and religion was one of the most sensitive barometers of change.

This is why I find so depressing three items of news this week. The first, perhaps the most trivial, is the confirmation that the Pope intends to go ahead with the beatification of Archbishop Stepinac when he visits Croatia next week. No matter how much heroism he showed when persecuted by his enemies, the Communists, Stepinac showed rather less when his friends, the fascist nationalists, were the ones running concentration camps. Of course, to protest then against a regime which seemed to embody all his ideals, and which also seemed to be winning, would have required truly heroic virtue of a sort of which very few men are capable - but heroic virtue is the one quality unconditionally demanded of saints.

To beatify him, then, is to pull up the drawbridge away from the Orthodox world, which is not what the Pope intended his pontificate to do when he started.

That is not the only quarter from which has come the sound of creaking windlasses hauling the drawbridge more tightly against the gatehouse wall. Cardinal Hume's announcement of the newly invigorated policy on intercommunion (Executive summary: "No. Go away. You're not proper Christians after all") was made with all his customary grace and charm in defending of the indefensible.

Whether it will be any more widely observed than the strictures against remarried divorcees taking communion, I do not know. But it is certainly, in intention, a retreat from other forms of Christianity, and intention has an importance independent of outcome: even religious pronouncements which no one believes can be signs of the times: there is a sense in which Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae with its insistence on "natural" methods of birth control might be thought of as prefiguring the green movement and the general revulsion against science and technology. So this seems to me another thoroughly ominous sign.

Finally there is the curious announcement of its own futility from the World Council of Churches. In advance of its meeting in Harare, the general secretary announced that the dream of full visible unity between churches was now dead.

One might think of this as an example of someone strikingly behind the times, since the ideal has been ridiculous for years to anyone not actually employed by the World Council, or with ambitions to end up there. It is a body which now represents only house-trained Protestant opinion; it was founded 50 years ago, in an earlier period of Catholic exceptionalism, and the Southern Baptists, the largest and most influential Protestant denomination in the United States, have never joined either. But now the Orthodox are withdrawing too. They will send no bishops to the assembly in Harare, though there will be assorted lower-ranking delegates.

In one sense this doesn't matter because nothing the WCC has done for years actually matters; but in fact it is an important development when people stop paying even lip- service to an ideal.

The decline of the WCC may be understood as part of Christianity's general shift of influence and importance away from Europe and towards the countries of the South and East, just as the recent Lambeth conference was run by a tight coalition of American, Asian and African evangelicals. It is a telling detail that the council has had to extract from the rabidly homophobic government of Zimbabwe an undertaking not to harass any homosexuals attached to the conference. The WCC stands for Western European Christianity: this shrinks every year and so does its influence in the world.

But the lessons of Western Europe this century are not ridiculous, and chief among them is the remark by the gay Anglican W.H. Auden that "we must love one another or die". In its clumsy bureaucratic way, the WCC was an attempt to embody that insight, even when it applied to other Christians. We should worry if it has gone. To say that "we must love one another or die" should not be misunderstood as an ideal. It's a prediction.

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