The tale of Francis Chan, or why ecumenism isn’t a waste of time

These past few days, Catholic Twitter has been getting excited as a video surfaced showing Francis Chan, a well-known evangelical pastor, talking about communion and worship in terms that sound very Catholic. As we have plenty of stories of converts who went on a quest for truth and ended up crossing the Tiber, one lately canonised, it is not a surprise how many decided to pray for this outcome in his life.

The trajectory is, after all, quite promising: Chan has attracted plenty of criticism in his religious circles for having fallen away from their version of the true faith and having joined the ecumenical stage with people like us who they deem not truly Christian. This is an aspect of the story that many are either unaware of, or willingly glossing over. After all, it doesn’t suit the narrative that ecumenism is a waste of time that allows liberals to water down the faith when we should “just convert people”. Whatever the reason, I think it is a key piece of the puzzle. I have already written a defense of ecumenism before, so I won’t be repeating myself.

Most people would be happy to support “true ecumenism”, which means the ecumenism of theologians who resolve misunderstandings behind the historic schisms, something that has been going on for a really long time and was a key goal of the Council of Florence in 1438. Still, a lot would look down on the kind of lower initiatives, often lay-led in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, as not being Catholic enough because they move from the presumption that we don’t really know who is in the Church in Heaven compared to the Church on Earth (St Augustine’s two cities), and we might be surprised at how many self-styled Catholics who should be there aren’t, and how many non-Catholics who shouldn’t be there are (for more on this, please see CCC 836 to 838).

I think it’s a pity that we cannot see the value of initiatives which may be, for someone, the first time they are exposed to the true Catholic teachings instead of a distorted view which fits the agenda of creating separation within the Church. Conversion stories are often adamant of when and where the falsehoods about Catholics that people have been taught in their denominations were first shown to be lies, so you’d think we’d be flooding ecumenical events with authentic Catholic witness instead of letting the Protestants run the show and accuse us of not being true Christians. Even better, we should be hosting them in our churches…if I had a penny for every Protestant who said to me they love to go and quietly pray in Catholic churches because the atmosphere feels different I would have enough money to feast on a bottle of vintage Tig.

Others learning the truth, however, is not even all that there is to involvement in the journey to Church Unity. One of the main accusations Catholics get is that we don’t know our Bible, and that we, therefore, hold doctrines that are unbiblical and if only we read the Bible we would realise the error of our ways. That’s partly a reason for 2020 being declared the Year of the Word in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Being involved in ecumenical settings has pushed me to up my game on where doctrines can be found in the Bible, and I have pretty strong arguments for controversial doctrines using just the canon accepted by them (you can’t really convince people convinced we added books to support doctrines that are unbiblical by using the books they think we added…). In order to be able to give an apologia, you need to know the Faith, so it is a great incentive to learn more about what we believe and why we believe it. It may also give you a broader vocabulary to talk about the kerygma and matters of the heart as well as those of the mind (maybe it’s just me, but I’ve learnt all that in charismatic settings).

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that we are so unwilling to engage in work for the unity of Christians when even within the Roman Church herself we are divided all the time, and are impressively quick to jump against people whose experience of religion differs from our own. We dug up trenches and look down on people from our posts. Rather than celebrate the diversity of journeys to faith, from solemn TLM to charismatic worship, we pit it against one another and judge it from our own preferences rather than their fruits. The attitudes that are bred in certain circles alone should be a warning sign that for as long as such differences become a cause of division the fruits in our lives will not be the fruits of the Holy Spirit (and mea culpa, I’m not innocent of a great deal of snark in retaliation either). This is true without even looking into all of the other sources of bitterness that rear their ugly heads day in and day out on Catholic Twitter.

I’m not a prophet and I don’t know if Francis Chan will be received into the Church and when, but his words will have an impact on the people who respect him as a pastor and listen to what he has to say. The ripple effects can go beyond our wildest dreams. I hope that people will not only be moved to prayer for him but also to becoming involved in ecumenism (or if they want to stick to prayer, that fruitful ecumenical efforts will take place). We’re less than 10 days away from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so there couldn’t be a better time. Maybe the resources created for the week do not speak to your heart, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you can’t pray for this intention.

You can pray whatever traditional prayer suits you best for this specific intention, or write your own. There is a beautiful one which is part of the Mass, around which one of my favourite Twitterati is building a novena for the feast of the Conversion of St Paul on Jan 25th. In John 17 we are shown Our Lord, towards the end of His earthly life, praying that the Church would be one. There are few prayers He prayed that have been recorded in the Gospels, so we should have no doubt about how important it is. The enemy thrives on our disunity so this month, if you are not invested in this already, really give this mission your prayers and your presence.





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