Some Thoughts on Ecumenism and Christian Unity in Honor of the Feast of St. Richard Mullins

Ecumenical scholars are in a bit of disarray in the wake of the Vatican’s move to make it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism. In response to the Traditional Anglican Communion, an disaffected Anglican group opposed to the ordination of women and gay priests as well as the blessing of same sex unions, the Vatican announced the creation of new ecclesiastical structures which would allow Anglicans and U.S. Episcopalians to become members of the Roman Catholic Church while still holding on to their distinctive spiritual practices, including the ordination of married Anglican clergy as Roman Catholic priests.

The ecclesiastical structures would operate by allowing Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world to create personal ordinariates, basically, a diocese not attached to a specific geographical location, to accept Anglicans under the leader of a former Anglican priest who would be designated as bishop. Anglican clergy who are married would retain their holy orders but would be exempt from selection as bishops. Former Anglican seminarians could have separate houses of formation as well.

It’s a remarkable development in many ways because it will require Pope Benedict to release a new apostolic constitution in order to amend the Code of Canon Law. Notre Dame’s Cathleen Kaveny comments on this in today’s NYTimes:

It is worth noting that that the flexible, unity-in-difference that Rome has in mind is in fact an arrangement that is made possible only by the “modernizing” Second Vatican Council, and the new code of canon law produced in its wake.

Reginald Whitt, O.P. who is both a civil and a canon lawyer teaching at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, has shown that Canon 372 of that code makes possible “personal particular churches” which allow distinctive groups with distinctive needs to preserve their identities while remaining in communion with the universal church.

While this canon has been used to meet the needs of traditionalist Catholics, Professor Whitt argues that it could also be used to assist other distinct groups of Catholics with their own needs and cultures of worship — such as African-American Catholics.

The criticism is that the Vatican’s move endangers ecumenical efforts between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church by basically taking sides in a Christian community almost on the brink of schism, and providing refuge for conservative Anglicans who do not see themselves in union with the larger Anglican communion.

National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen counters that the Vatican’s move actually represents a victory for ecumenical efforts because it allows Anglicans to maintain their distinctively Anglican spiritual practices (including the beautiful Book of Common Prayer) whereas previously, Christians from other denominations who wanted to become Roman Catholic had to essentially leave their spiritual heritage behind in order to participate in the distinctively Roman Catholic forms of prayer, worship, and ministry. Allen writes, “Today’s decision instead represents an option for ‘unity in diversity,’ which at least tris to show respect for the tradition out of which these new Catholics are emerging.”

Colleen Carroll Campbell agrees with Allen that the Vatican’s move represents the true spirit of Ecumenical efforts. She writes,

[N]othing in this action by the Vatican contradicts the principles of genuine ecumenism: the commitment to speaking the truth in love, to seeking common ground where it can be found and to honestly acknowledging deep differences — including those differences that have divided the Anglican Communion. . . Genuine ecumenism does not require that the Catholic Church turn away converts knocking on its doors, just as the Catholic Church’s genuine respect for tradition does not preclude the creation of a canonical structure that allows Anglican converts to retain some liturgical riches of their Anglican heritage while uniting with Rome. As the saying goes, “Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and in all things, love.”

This brings me to Richard Mullins, whose birthday is today, October 21. Richard Mullins was a Christian singer and songwriter who not only dedicated much of his career to teaching music on a Navajo reservation, but also donated all the profits from his music to his church and to a charity called Compassion International/Compassion USA. My husband and I like to think of Rich Mullins, who died on September 19, 1997 in a car crash on the way to a benefit concert, as the patron saint of Christian unity and we are celebrating his feast day today. As a couple trying to live out Christian unity in our own lives by worshiping both in the Church of Christ, which is my husband’s heritage, and the Roman Catholic Church, which is my own, Richard Mullins is a source of inspiration for us both, and can also perhaps help us understand the Vatican’s recent ecumenical efforts.

Mullins was Protestant by background, raised by Quaker parents in Indiana and baptized when he was in third grade. He got his degree in music education from Friends University, a private non-denominational Christian university with a Quaker heritage in Wichita Kansas.

Richard Mullins interest in Roman Catholicism was due in large part to his attraction to St. Francis of Assisi. Rich and his best friend Beaker founded the Kid Brothers of St. Frank (i.e. Francis) in the late 1980’s as a ministry to mentor young men in the Christian faith. His family now runs what is called the Legacy of a Kid Brother of St. Frank sponsoring missionaries, interns, and volunteers as well as organizing programs in music and the arts for Native American youth. In 1997, he teamed up with his best friend Beaker and Mitch McVicker to write a musical based on the life of St. Francis in the post-Civil War United States entitled The Canticle of the Plain.

Rich also attended daily mass regularly at the Navajo reservation where he lived until his death. There is much speculation about whether or not Rich was truly planning on converting to Catholicism. Some say that Mullins was scheduled to be received into the church the Monday following his death, after completing the RCIA program under Father Matt McGuinness of the Newman Center at Wichita State University.

Wikepedia cites this quote from a radio interview Artie Terry in Wheaton Illinois in April of 1997:

A lot of the stuff which I thought was so different between Protestants and Catholics [was] not, but at the end of going through an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] course, I also realized that there are some real and significant differences. I’m not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me because, when you grow up in a church where they don’t even put up a cross, many things were foreign to me. I went to an older Protestant gentleman that I’ve respected for years and years, and I asked him, “When does faithfulness to Jesus call us to lay aside our biases and when does it call us to stand beside them?” His answer to me was that it is not about being Catholic or Protestant. It is about being faithful to Jesus. The issue is not about which church you go to, it is about following Jesus where He leads you.

This quote points to something important about ecumenism and the move among the Christian churches to foster Christian unity: the goal of ecumenism is not conversion to a specific church like the Roman Catholic Church, but rather, conversion to Christ. As Christians, we are always in a state of conversion. Rich Mullins was once asked when he was born again, and his answer was “which time?” The way of Christian discipleship is constant conversion to a truer, more loving way of following in Jesus’ footsteps, and this is something I think Richard Mullins realized in his exploration of Catholicism, a realization that is especially reflected in his music.

Roman Catholics officially believe that the unity of the Church, which Christ bestowed from the beginning, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never fully lose, but is nevertheless not fully actualized at present. In order to recover the full unity of Christ’s Church on earth, the Catechism says that a number of things are necessary:

•Conversion of heart as the faithful try to live holier lives according to the Gospel for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions
•Prayer in common, because change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the ecumenical movement, and merits the name “spiritual ecumenism”
•Fraternal knowledge of each other
•Collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to human kind (821)

The reason my husband and I consider Rich Mulllins the patron saint of Christian unity is that his life provides a concrete example of how to live out these elements of Christian unity in our own life, by worshiping together, by learning each other’s tradition, by engaging in service together. Rich Mullins’ life is a reminder that the goal of the ecumenical movement is not to get more Catholics or more Protestants but to get more Christian disciples. Rich Mullins’ life is a clear example of how to live out St. Augustine’s ecumenical model: “Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and in all things, love.” In a concert in Lufkin, Texas, only a few months before he died, Rich Mullins told a concert audience:

Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.

Lest you think that Rich Mullins is another wishy-washy advocate of ecumenism without doctrine, like those who, as Colleen Carroll Campbell writes, are “equated with a lowest-common-denominator approach to doctrinal differences that glosses over serious conflicts and seeks peace at any price,” remember that next to the Bible, his favorite book was Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, who incidentally was a Catholic convert from Anglicanism.

On the unofficial feast of the not-yet canonized St. Richard Mullins, let us pray that Christians of every tradition and background can recognize that the end, the telos, of ecumenism is not conversion to a church, but conversion to Christ. There are a diversity of ways to be a Christian disciple, to worship, to pray, and to serve Jesus Christ in this life. But there is only one Lord. Let us pray also that through the intercession of the “kid brother of St. Frank,” the recent ecumenical developments between Catholics and Anglicans will be a means of realizing how through the grace of God, great diversity can exist within unity. In the words of St. Richard Mullins,

“The Christian faith is not about mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but about a daily walk with this person Jesus. It’s about living in awareness of Christ risen, resurrected, and living in my life. Even though doctrine is important, wisdom in the Bible has more to do with character, and the art of living Christianity is about living out the will of God, and living abundantly.”


2 comments so far

  1. Paul on

    Everyday thomist, I want you to know that your entry on Rich Mullins (I don’t even remember how I was led there) really encouraged me during a tough time. I don’t know where to begin, really 🙂 I would really love to talk with you about your own interfaith relationship and the unity of all believers. I think you could really help me out a lot 🙂 thanks for the blog and keep up the good work!

  2. everydaythomist on

    Thank you, Paul, for such kind and encouraging words. Rich Mullins has been a source of great inspiration for me in my own interfaith relationship, and my struggle to make sense of the process of Christian unity. I would be happy to chat more about my experience and hear about your own.

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