Feeling Our Way Forward
Lessons from a Common Life
Daniel A. Keating

I am what is often called a “cradle-Catholic,” raised in a veritable Catholic ghetto in the western suburbs of Cleveland. Growing up I knew exactly one Protestant family, my next-door neighbors, who were Lutheran. With precocious theological acumen, I grasped quite quickly that the main ecumenical difference between us was that I had to go to church on Sunday, while my friend Andy did not. (It seemed to us then that he had the better deal.) There was, however, one shaft of ecumenical light that penetrated my Catholic world on a weekly basis: every Sunday at dinner my family would pray a special prayer—a Hail Mary!—for the cause of Christian unity. My parents had imbibed the ecumenical impetus of the Second Vatican Council, and several of their children (myself included) have since blamed them for our active participation in ecumenical ventures.

My Catholic hothouse experience changed dramatically when I enrolled at the University of Michigan. Following the lead of two older brothers, I began to participate in a student group on campus that was linked to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, but that had a wide representation of students from various Protestant churches (and even the occasional Orthodox). My near total ignorance of other Christians was quickly transformed into a reasonable knowledge of and exposure to a cross-section of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Reformed Christians. Rooming with a Presbyterian my second year and a black Baptist my third year enormously heightened my lived experience of ecumenism, and cultivated within me what has come to be a lifelong commitment to seek Christian unity.

 In my early twenties, my own sense of calling led me to explore and then join a brotherhood of men, called the Servants of the Word. From its origins it has had an ecumenical membership, even though most members are Catholic. When in the early 1990s we passed through a season of trial that included the questioning of our ecumenical life, I helped write a statement of our ecumenical approach and served as the main editor for it. During three years of theological study at Oxford University, I was thrown in with fellow doctoral students from a wide variety of Christian backgrounds. Together we actively discussed and debated every possible issue (it seemed), while meeting together regularly for lunch and Bible study. Finally, as a faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, I was asked to draw up and then teach the course on ecumenism for master of divinity students. I have taught that for the past ten years. I am presently involved in a national Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue, mutually sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the various participating evangelical denominations.

 All this is meant to give just a sketch of how a fellow from a Catholic ghetto found himself enmeshed in ecumenism. It has shaped my adult life and continues to provide an exhilarating (if challenging) adventure in Christian living. How dull things would be without the complicated excellence of real ecumenical engagement!

Receptive Ecumenism as a Strategy

 For the past twenty-five years, a chorus of voices has identified our present time as an “ecumenical winter.” I recall in the mid-1990s how many were bemoaning the retreat from ecumenical engagement and the loss of confidence to press ahead. While times have certainly changed, the conviction that we are living in an ecumenical ebb tide continues to persist today.[1]

 The idea of “receptive ecumenism” emerged as a positive response to this ecumenical impasse.[2] The general view was that bilateral dialogues and efforts at “convergent ecumenism” had largely run their course.[3] Other tides, especially a resurgent confessional identity-seeking, were coming in even as the older ecumenical tide was running out. Given this situation, what should be done? Paul D. Murray of Durham University pioneered a vision for moving forward, what he called “receptive ecumenism,” and many joined with him to advance this approach among the churches. In Murray’s words, receptive ecumenism begins, not by asking others to become more like us, but by asking ourselves this question: “What can we learn, or receive, with integrity from our various others in order to facilitate our own growth together into deepened communion in Christ and the Spirit?”[4] Murray explains that “the primary aim is not the promotion of increased mutual understanding and appreciation between traditions but of continuing ecclesial conversion, deepening and expansive growth within traditions.”[5] Thomas Ryan helpfully situates receptive ecumenism within our contemporary context as an interim strategy:

Receptive ecumenism offers itself as an interim strategy to keep some wind in the sails. It’s a remarkably simple but far-reaching strategy that now places at center stage a value that has already been implicitly at work in all genuine ecumenical encounters: What can we learn and receive from the other that would enrich and strengthen our own faith and practice?[6]

Peter Leithart insists that receptive ecumenism does not mean watering down our respective ecclesial identities, but demands a posture of humility and the willingness to learn from the other.

Receptive ecumenism is an ecumenism of hospitality, welcome, and listening, an ecumenism of gift exchange. It is rooted in our acknowledgement that we do not know or possess everything we need in our own branch of the Church…. Receptivity does not involve diluting or abandoning our identity. In receiving from others, we are enriched as the particular kinds of Christians we are.[7]

To sum up, receptive ecumenism makes two concessions that open it up to fruitful exchange and real growth. The first concession is to admit that we face real, significant, and often intractable differences among our various churches, and that we will make the best progress by acknowledging these differences and working with them. The second follows from this, that it may be a long time before we are able to find our way to the full unity in faith and practice that we seek. The aims of receptive ecumenism are more modest: not to reach for full, visible unity but to encourage each church to examine what it can learn from others, and then to find a path to work toward real change from within. The conviction is that if we all are doing this within our own churches in humble confidence before God, we will in fact grow toward greater unity.

Though I have not seen this connection made in the literature on receptive ecumenism, there are striking similarities between this revised strategy and the recommendations of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) who offered his views in the context of the same season of ecumenical winter. Benedict consistently points to the need for each church and tradition to press into Christ Jesus more fully, and to aim for greater holiness and purification. His conviction is that if we all do this, we will necessarily grow closer to each other because we are each growing closer to Christ ecclesially. While this is not the same move made by receptive ecumenism, Benedict’s proposal also puts the onus of responsibility on the individual churches to work for their own renewal and reform. At the same time, Benedict pleads for the necessity of what he calls “intermediate goals” if we are to find our way forward together toward unity:

The actual goal of all ecumenical endeavors must naturally be to convert the plurality of the separate denominational churches into the plurality of local churches which, in reality, form one church despite their many and varied characteristics. However, it seems to me that in a given situation it will be necessary to establish realistic intermediate goals; for, otherwise, ecumenical enthusiasm could turn to resignation or, worse, revert to a new embitterment which would place the blame for the breakdown of the great goal on the others. Thus the final days would be worse than the first. These intermediate goals will be different depending on how far individual dialogues will have progressed.[8]

By realistic intermediate goals, Ratzinger means things like common charitable works, common witness to Christian morality, and common witness to the Gospel to the wider culture. If we pursue these together, he believes, then all this would have to lead to a point where the common features of Christian living are recognized and loved despite the separations, where separation serves no longer as a reason for contradiction, but rather as a challenge to an inner understanding and an acceptance of the other which will amount to more than mere tolerance: a belonging together in the loyalty and faithfulness we show for Jesus Christ.[9]

What Ratzinger points to here is a common work done together, whereas receptive ecumenism emphasizes each church bringing renewal to itself through reception of the other. Nonetheless, the two proposals have much in common. For both, full unity is simply too far away to reach; in the meantime real progress can be made “on the ground” as we work together, or work to receive from the other, and so grow in genuine unity. In both cases, we are not required to fully agree with each other in order to benefit from one another and see the overall work of unity increase. I believe both proposals share a common viewpoint and seek to fill this present ecumenical space with a spiritual labor that can bring us forward on the path to unity.

Experience of Lived Ecumenism

The kind of ecumenism that I have been involved with for many years involves living a common life together with people from churches not in full communion with each other, and in that common life seeking to express the fruitfulness of what we share in common while respecting our differences and leaving ample room for individuals to experience and express their church commitments and practices. What we have sought to express in our celibate community was not framed at our origins in terms of “receptive ecumenism.” We simply experienced a call and impetus to join together in a common life and to give common witness, and we felt our way forward.

When I present the work of ecumenism to my students, I offer a typology of five connected but distinguishable avenues to unity available to us. These are: (1) unity of the faith believed and confessed; (2) unity expressed through common prayer; (3) unity expressed in common action; (4) unity expressed in common witness to the gospel; and (5) unity expressed in common life. Though the ecumenical life of my community expresses something of each avenue, we are especially an expression of what Cardinal Walter Kasper calls the “ecumenism of life,” meant to complement and bring to fruition the “ecumenism of truth” and the “ecumenism of love.” Here is how Kasper says this:

We have to fill the interim stage that we have reached (of a real if not complete church communio) with real life. The “ecumenism of love” and the “ecumenism of truth,” which both naturally remain very important, must be complemented by an “ecumenism of life.” We have to apply all that we have achieved to the way we actually live.[10]

 How might the common life of my community appear through the lens of receptive ecumenism, as actively drawing on the resources and riches of various traditions in the crafting of a common life together? To begin with the people involved: we are predominately Catholics, but have members from a variety of mainline Protestant churches (Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist). We have had people from both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions participate in our life for a season but none have remained longer-term. Our common life could be described as a blend of Vatican II-inspired Catholic renewal and the experience of the Holy Spirit gained from the Pentecostal movement, with other important things added along the way. I sometimes describe our DNA more specifically as a blend of the Cursillo movement and the Charismatic Renewal. While helpful, this is too simplistic. Along with these is a strong influence from the Protestant world, especially a scripturally-grounded spirituality and a focus on mission. Many of the books that circulated in our founding years came from traditional Protestant authors as well as Free Church charismatic leaders.

Our prayer life is a hybrid of traditional and contemporary elements. We have developed a simplified form of morning, evening, and night prayers that draws on the patterns found in the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. But following this more structured prayer, we engage in free prayer with singing and praying in a Pentecostal-Charismatic style. In the center of our common prayer is a daily meditation and reflection on the scripture, and each member is encouraged to make scriptural reading and study the core of one’s spiritual life, supplemented by other sources.

Two other influences deserve mention in this context. The Orthodox tradition and spirituality has not had a founding influence on our common life, but we have always held the East in high regard and regularly read (and draw upon) Eastern writers and theologians. Finally, there has been a subtle but very real Jewish influence in our common life, mediated by the presence of Messianic Jews in our midst. The most notable impact of this is a service we have developed for our common life that adapts the Jewish Sabbath prayers for the celebration of the Christian Lord’s Day. Most weeks we pray these prayers and set aside the Lord’s Day in the home, following the pattern learned from the Jewish community. This influence has also led us to grow in a deeper appreciation of the Old Testament as an active and important part of the scriptures that we read and meditate upon.

At a certain point in the 1990s, in part due to challenges and crises in our own community, we recognized the need to set down with greater clarity the principles and practices of our ecumenical common life. We worked on this statement over several years, seeking commentary and correction from pastors and theologians of the main church families: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (we invited Lutheran, Reformed, and Free Church advisors to comment on the document). No statement like this can ever be fully complete or finished: it is always a work in progress. But it has served us well for the past twenty years.

The statement of our ecumenical approach begins and concludes with a call and vision statement that guides our ecumenical spirituality. This orientation places our call within the wider ecumenical movement among the churches and explicitly states that we desire to follow the leading of the Spirit and the wisdom of our pastors in how we carry out our ecumenical life and witness.

In the first main section, we position our ecumenical practice within the wider field of ecumenical activity. Distinguishing what we do from ecumenical dialogue and official church relations, we characterize our model as a type of cooperative ecumenism that involves a form of common life together. Crucial to our approach is the welcome reception of distinctive elements from the various church traditions that can enrich our common life. We say explicitly that we are not seeking a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, a kind of stripped-down spirituality, but instead we aim to incorporate elements of various traditions that can help bring about a richness in our common experience. The limits to this are plain: we cannot include elements or expressions where there is a clear disagreement. We can draw from the riches of each tradition and express them in our common life, but we cannot put things in common that are not accepted by some of our members (for example, the veneration of Mary). Otherwise we would be asking members to participate in a common life involving things that they do not believe and cannot support—and this is not good ecumenism.

Such an ecumenical spirituality has real limitations. We are not attempting to design a new synthesis different from any of our churches, which would amount to some version of the future church. We are looking instead to live in the interim a compelling and spiritually nourishing way of life that can include members of various churches and help them live fruitfully as members of their own churches. We also recognize the inherent ecumenical asymmetries that we can’t and shouldn’t ignore. We differ in how we approach ecumenism and its goal, and we have to leave room for these different approaches in the way we carry out our life together.

Much of our common statement describes ecumenical practices: the wisdom for this derives from many years of experience and testing. This includes elements such as the content of our common teaching, the use of authorities in our common life, daily life practices, and how to engage in discussion about differences among us. In order to ensure that our members are able to do all this with adequate knowledge and background, we provide in our formation period a three-part ecumenical studies course that supplies historical and theological background to the major church traditions, and that gives each member an opportunity to study his own tradition in greater detail.

Challenges and Opportunities

In summary, I am sobered by the many challenges and obstacles that lie before us but animated nonetheless by the opportunities, and even more by a hope that the Lord God is invested in this work and will bring about fruitfulness despite the challenges.

The first challenge I see is the fact that the outcome of ecumenical activity is often shaped more (perhaps much more) by changes in the world around us than by any itinerary that we provide or prescribe. We rightly seek to address issues that have divided us in the past: disagreements over the content of the faith and failures in charity toward one another. But even as we do this, more or less successfully, the world we all live in races ahead, provoking new issues that threaten to overwhelm not only our ecumenical engagement but the very life and unity of each of our churches. A few examples. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe profoundly affected the ecumenical movement, and since the 1990s has made it more difficult for the Orthodox churches to engage freely and constructively in ecumenical matters. Due to the influx of Catholics and Protestants into Eastern Europe, Orthodox leaders perceived a serious threat to their existence and so pulled back from the ecumenical movement. It was like a tidal wave that swept over the ecumenical landscape.

A second example: the effects of postmodern thought have produced a reaction to “branding” especially in politics and religion, such that we find a wider societal movement that inclines young people especially to identify as “spiritual” or “religious” but to eschew denominational affiliation and identity. As a minority counter-reaction, the tendency to what we might call hyper-confessionalism is often strongly present in our most committed circles of church members. And between these two tendencies it becomes more difficult to forge a healthy church identity that is also open to Christians of other traditions. It is a season of extremes; we didn’t create the extremes but we have to work with them.[11]

A third example: the wider gender movement, in all its variety, has brought enormous challenges to all the churches and opened new and deep fissures over issues such as women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and so on. While we make progress on ancient issues of disagreement, new fissures are emerging that are triggered not so much by inter-church problems but by developments in the modern world. New and intractable issues arise even as we try to deal with older ones, and we are not in charge of the agenda.

 The second major challenge that I see can be stated as follows: Is there any real hope for ecumenical reception in our churches, given the internal dynamics and challenges that our churches face? When I present to graduate seminarians what the Catholic Ecumenical Directory (of 1993) proposes for ecumenical education and formation at all levels of the church, the response is a glazed look and a shake of the head. How are we to provide solid and sound ecumenical formation to Catholics at all levels when they have not received, and are not receiving, sound formation in the basics of Catholic doctrine in the first place? When identity-formation is already at a critically low ebb, when it seems that the patient may be dying on the table, the thought of helping Catholics understand and receive an orientation to other Christians and to Christian unity seems unrealistic and unrealizable.

 To sharpen the challenge we face: if ecumenical work remains largely at the level of dialogue—of discussion and activity among selected experts—it has little or no chance of making a lasting impact on the life of the churches. In a chapter from a volume on receptive ecumenism, Ladislas Örsy states the problem acutely: “Dialogues among experts (or among delegated officials) are not enough to lead to reunion—not even if they produce an agreement. This warning should not be construed as an argument against dialogues; they should continue. But their limits must be recognized. Only a unified community can create an authentic process of learning and receiving.”[12] Our churches possess real cultures and patterns of living, confessing, and worshiping, even if those cultures are being gravely eroded in our time. To make an impact on the life of the churches, ecumenism has to penetrate to where people actually believe and live. It has to take shape within a real, lived community. But even when this occurs, it is a great challenge to communicate this “receptive way of life” to the local churches that are heavily besieged and struggling to maintain a positive identity capable of attracting people to Christ and the way of life practiced by its people.

Where, then, can we find grounds for hope? Where do we draw strength for the profound challenges that beset the ecumenical venture? First and foremost, our hope has to be in God: that the Father is acting to unite the body of his Son through the work of the Spirit, and that our efforts are, at root, simply joining and cooperating with what God is already doing. If this is not the case, then our efforts are hopeless and pointless. But in fact, there are many people from across our churches who are convinced that God is acting to bring about greater unity—this witness itself is a source of great encouragement.

Secondly, ecumenism has to be joined with mission if it is to have the energy and attractive power to make a genuine difference. The sheer conviction that Christians should be one and united is a marvelous truth that deeply motivates many of us all by itself. But given the enormous challenges faced by Christians today, unity for its own sake is unlikely to provide a compelling motive for most Christians. To become fully relevant, ecumenism has to be wedded to mission in both its positive and defensive aspects. This is not to create a pragmatic or functional linkage between ecumenism and mission—the two belong together by their very nature. By “defensive” I mean a common sense of threat to the Gospel and its way of life. We don’t need to invent these threats—they are fully there for all who have eyes to see. It is often the experience of common threats that brings people together and energizes them to work together when otherwise they would not.

Still, the sense of threat cannot predominate in a healthy ecumenism. The positive sense of mission—of bringing the life and ministry of Jesus to the world, of introducing people to friendship with God and true freedom in the Spirit—must be the primary motive force. Granted, some of our deepest disputes concern just what this mission is and how to advance it. But without the positive sense of mission, ecumenism is destined to remain an enclave of the few and have little impact on the churches.

Finally, from my own experience of a common ecumenical life, I would propose that real communities of people are essential for a robust and receptive ecumenism to flourish. In the words of Walter Kasper: “The churches did not diverge only through discussion, they diverged through alienation, i.e. the way they lived. Therefore they have to come closer to each other again in their lives; they must get accustomed to each other, pray together, work together and live together.”[13] These communities can and should take many forms, but without the expression of real life on the ground, without the experience of personal commitment to other people and the real cost of sharing some measure of life together, the idea of a robust and receptive ecumenism is likely to remain just that—an idea. It needs a location within a genuine community of believers, joined by their commitment to work for unity together, if it is to germinate, grow, and bear the fruit (thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold) that we hope and trust that God intends.


Daniel A. Keating is professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. This essay is adapted from his plenary address for the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Hope College on October 13, 2018.

[1] For example, in the October 2018 issue of First Things, see “Ecumenical Winter?” by Michael Root.

[2] There were other responses to the perceived impasse facing traditional ecumenical activity. As one example, in 2001 Touchstone Magazine sponsored a conference entitled “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain,” launching what they called a “new ecumenism” that brought together creedal Christians who acknowledge real differences but who seek to work together for the sake of the gospel and the common good in society.

[3] For example, see Sarah Timmer, “Receptive Ecumenism and Justification: Roman Catholic and Reformed Doctrine in Contemporary Context,” Ph.D. dissertation (Marquette University, 2009). “Convergent Ecumenism” emphasizes the churches growing closer together in faith and practice and seeks for eventual full communion on this basis.

[4] Paul D. Murray, “Preface”, in idem., ed., Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ix-x.

[5] Murray, “Receptive Ecumenism as a Catholic Calling: Catholic Teaching on Ecumenism from Blessed Pope John Paul II to His Holiness Pope Francis,” paper given to the International Theological Institute, Vienna (Nov. 19, 2014). Available at: https://iti.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/user_upload/News-Events/pdfs/Dr-Paul-Murray-Vienna-Receptive-Ecumenism-Handout.pdf.

[6] Thomas Ryan, “Third International Receptive Ecumenism Conference: A Report.” Available at: https://www.cte.org.uk/Publisher/File.aspx?id=176851.

[7] Peter J. Leithart, “Receptive Ecumenism,” First Things (Feb. 27, 2015); available at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/02/receptive-ecumenism.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, “Luther and the Unity of the Churches: An Interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Communio, 11 (1984), 225-26.

[9] Ibid., 226.

[10] Walter Kasper, That They May All Be One (New York: Burns & Oates, 2004), 72.

[11] Many commentators of our present climate point to these two extremes. Paul Murray, Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning, 10-11, identifies these two opposite trends: the first, a turn away from clear doctrinal expression and identification with a church body; the second, a re-intensification of differences and denominational identity in part because of institutional decline and failures (10-11).

[12] “Authentic Learning and Receiving—A Search for Criteria,” in Paul D, Murray, ed. Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 45.

[13]That They May All Be One (New York: Burns & Oates, 2004), 72.

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