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Ecumenism: Unstoppable work of the Holy Spirit

BISHOP Michael Putney feels Christians should find ecumenism exciting. He says we should find it as exhilarating as a surfer finds riding a perfect wave.

‘It’s as if there’s a great wave of God’s grace – the ecumenical movement,’ he said.

‘When will it achieve its goal? I don’t know and I don’t need to know.

‘I’m glad to be along for the ride.’

Bishop Putney of Townsville will lead the Bible studies at the fifth national forum of the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA).

The forum is held every three years. The 2004 forum will be at Lincoln College, North Adelaide from July 9-13.

Michael Putney is sometimes called ‘the ecumenical bishop’.

He is certainly very involved with ecumenism. He is a member of the Uniting Church in Australia-Roman Catholic dialogue and of the NCCA executive. He chairs the Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. He is a co-chair of the Methodist-Roman Catholic international dialogue.

In March he was appointed to a top Vatican body, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

‘I’m not a politician of ecumenism,’ he said. ‘I’m not an administrator of ecumenism, or a technician of ecumenism. I’m a servant of a movement of the Spirit.

‘I have to keep playing my part to enable the Spirit to free us to reach new levels of visible and tangible expression of a relationship that’s in God and of God.

‘That requires constant conversion, constant reassessment of who we are and who the other is.’

Bishop Putney said some people talk of an ecumenical winter, a slowdown in ecumenical initiatives and endeavours.

‘I honestly don’t agree with that,’ he said.

‘I think the achievements on the global scale have been extraordinary, even in the past 20 years.’

This year, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches will celebrate the fifth anniversary of their Joint Declaration on Justification.

‘That declaration put to bed the decisive issue of the Reformation,’ Bishop Putney said.

‘That doesn’t mean there haven’t been other issues in the last 400 years. But the foundation problematic of the Reformation has been healed in a considerable way.

‘That’s an extraordinary achievement.

‘At the moment the World Methodist Council is dialoguing to see if that declaration can become a tripartite agreement.

‘If there could be agreement on this, not just between Lutherans and Catholics, but between Protestant and Catholics, the main issue of the Reformation could be largely resolved.’

Bishop Putney said there have also been significant agreements between the Catholic Church and pretty well all the Oriental Orthodox Churches – including the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches – on the Christological issues of the Council of Chalcedon.

‘We’ve reached agreements on issues that have been a cause of separation,’ he said.

‘This is an issue 15 centuries old. It has finally been resolved.’

Agreements like this establish a new starting point, a new foundation, for relationships.

‘I had a meeting yesterday with the local Lutheran pastor on how we’ll celebrate the fifth anniversary here in Townsville,’ he said.

‘He and I now belong to two world communions which have reached a level of agreement which was unthinkable 20 years ago – and certainly 300 years ago.

‘So we’re starting everything we do together in terms of a new relationship.’

For Bishop Putney, the starting point for ecumenical relationships is to ask: ‘What is our relationship in Christ, through the Holy Spirit?’

‘Clearly there’s a rupture in our relationship,’ he said. ‘But, because of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we belong inextricably to each other.

‘The work of ecumenism is to keep building the visible and tangible expression of that indelible relationship we have in Christ – to enhance its visible expression.

‘Every time we do that we’re enabling Christ, as it were, to claim us more fully, to draw us together.

‘There’s something unstoppable in the ecumenical movement – the work of the Holy Spirit, the initiative of Christ. All we are is players.’

The driving engine of ecumenism, he said, is spiritual.

‘What matters is prayer. What matters is attentiveness and openness to the Holy Spirit in the other.

‘We make a terrible mistake if we think the ecumenical movement is a practical, strategic planning initiative of the Churches in an institutional way.

‘It’s a movement of the Holy Spirit.

‘One can be part of it only if one prays oneself into it and through it.

‘It’s only through prayer that one will be aware of the doorways that the Spirit opens. Otherwise one misses them.

‘We can think the achievement is our own – God help us! We can think that the achievement is purely intellectual or purely institutional.

‘It’s not. It’s about becoming more fully who we are in Christ,’ Bishop Putney said.

‘The rupture between us damages our identity. We have to heal it.

‘The striving force is the Spirit, not us.’

Bishop Putney sees ecumenism as a spiritual journey.

‘Mind you, I’m engaged in the intellectual journey of dialogue,’ he said.

‘But dialogue isn’t simply an enterprise of theologians.

‘Dialogue is an enterprise of lovers – people who love God and love each other in God.

‘If it’s not an enterprise of lovers, it won’t work. It will achieve too little.

‘But if people love God and love each other and engage in dialogue, anything can happen.’

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