Recently someone suggested I drop in on an ecumenical conference held by conservative members of divided communions. I have participated in a number of these, and found them by and large to be good things, but the goodness in them is not something that can be planned or programmed. Rather, the conferences were given in hope and prayer, and the goodness was visited on them from beyond the operation itself, no thanks to some of the people involved.
As a rule I cannot get excited about ecumenical conferences, even conservative ones, because I am convinced that too many are given on the presumption that if only people get to understand each other (to eliminate prejudice born of ignorance) better relations will ensue. Not necessarily. Closer examination of other people’s thoughts and way of thinking, even though bathed in good will and high expectation, may well lead to stronger conviction than ever that they are fools, and probably damned fools at that–in wondering how anyone professing both faith and reason can be tempted to hold to the pernicious nonsense these people do, and the fleeting thought that the world would be better without them. I have seen this happen–in myself.
Of course, I am all for eliminating prejudice born of ignorance, and conferring can, if blessed, be good for that. But most of the conferences in which I have been most intimately involved are not places where much ignorance has been dispelled because there has been very little ignorance in them of the other Christians’ beliefs; indeed, many of the principals have been converts from the churches the others represent, and know them very well indeed. There is little chance, therefore, they are going to learn something they do not know, but a strong possibility that o. theologicum will raise its head to devour whom it can. I have seen more than one close call, for the beast always comes to the fair, and knows his way around the booths.
For this reason I am not much interested in dialogues between learned Christian conservatives with the ostensible purpose of improving understanding. There is less of this to be done than one might think. Rather, what has always interested me is meeting on the basis of agreement that we already have–or have good reason to believe we have–for purposes related to our common interests as Christians, in the house of what has been called “mere Christianity.”
Now granted, Catholics and Orthodox don’t think such a house really exists, at least in the way C. S. Lewis described it: Christians are Christians because they are sacramentally members of the True Church, which (no offense intended) c’est Nous. I leave the reasons they might wish to cooperate with members of mere ecclesial societies honored with the name of Christian to them, but am glad so many of them can see their way to doing it. Surely we have some things to do together before hell freezes over and two-thirds of us get straightened out.