As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
In a 1992 interview, Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, reminisced about the founding of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research a quarter-century earlier. Ecumenism, he said, “has to have a human base. We can sit down in our own houses and universities and read each other’s books, but ecumenism is not going to happen that way. You need trust and friendship.”
Evangelical Protestant Richard (Rich) Mouw, Roman Catholic Margaret O’Gara, and Ukrainian Orthodox Anthony (Tony) Ugolnik first met in the Collegeville Institute’s consultation on “The Meaning of Ecumenism” (1982-84) and were then on the program at the June 1985 conference on “Christian Identity, Mission, and Unity Today.” Their remarkable relationship is an icon of the “trust and friendship” at the heart of the Collegeville Institute’s identity.
The friendship flourished through service on the Collegeville Institute’s Board of Directors. Mouw and Ugolnik both served on the Board from 1985 until 1997. O’Gara joined in 1990, and served until her untimely death from cancer in 2012. They overlapped for seven years of semi-annual Board meetings.
Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary for twenty years (1993-2013) and thus one of the world’s most prominent evangelicals, learned through sustained contact and conversation with the likes of O’Gara and Ugolnik that people in other churches are not as scary as he once thought. “Now when I speak about other groups of Christians, I remember that I have friends in those groups,” he said. Indeed, “I have built up new loyalties to Christians from those other traditions. I have very much needed them to help me explain who I am as a Christian.”
This was not just general, but personal. “Tony Ugolnik has been a key influence on my own thinking during the past decade,” Mouw wrote. “This influence has occurred primarily under the auspices of the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. There I’ve experienced an ecumenical ‘conversion’ of sorts, and Tony has been a very important element in that process.”
O’Gara, who was professor of theology at the University of Saint Michael’s College in Toronto, created the phrase, “the ecumenical gift exchange,” that has become common coin in conversations around the world. Ugolnik, Ukrainian Orthodox priest and recently retired professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College, who highlights “co-knowing” as a contribution of Orthodoxy to ecumenism, welcomes “an increasing openness to the historical resources of the Christian East.”
In their subsequent interactions, Mouw, O’Gara, and Ugolnik helped each other explain who they are. In so doing, they demonstrated commitment to the challenge posed by the Collegeville Institute’s then-recently-retired executive director, Robert S. Bilheimer, in his sermon preached at the 1985 conference, where all three were in attendance: “We still have the opportunity of making a far more telling witness than we are now making, granted the imagination to make it together.”
Copyright © 1990 by the Christian Century. “Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness” by Richard Mouw is reprinted by permission from the Apr. l I, 1990, issue of the Christian Century. The excerpt was slightly edited for length. The same passage is also cited in Esther Byle Bruland, Regathering: The Church from “They” to “We” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), pp. 98-99.
As a teenager I read J. B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small. Though I can’t remember any of the book’s contents, the title has served me well as a reference point for thinking about the doctrine of God. Throughout my adult life I have regularly asked myself what variation on Phillips’s title best summarizes how I and my closest spiritual kinfolk are limiting the deity. In the 1960s I came to see that my understanding of God had been too interwoven with racism and nationalism. During the next decade I thought much about how my concept of the deity had been too North Atlantic. The 1980s have given me opportunity to think about how patriarchal assumptions have distorted the doctrine of God.
If I had to choose the variation on Phillips’s title that best captures my most recent exercises in corrective theology, it would be your God is too fast.
The importance of “God’s pace” became strikingly clear to me over lunch during an ecumenical consultation a few years ago. The small group at my table consisted of evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Somehow the question of “creation science” came up. While none of the evangelicals present promoted the idea of a literal six-day creation, we all had close ties to people who held literalist interpretations. So we tried to explain the phenomenon to our Catholic friends, putting the best face that we could on the literal-creationist perspective.
The Catholics had a difficult time generating any sympathy for the position we were outlining. Finally one Catholic scholar threw her hands up in despair, exclaiming in an agitated voice, “Don’t these people realize that God likes to do things slowly?”
Her rhetorical question brought the issues into sharp focus for me. What she took for granted is precisely what many of my evangelical kinfolk do not realize; they insist that God likes to work fast. They think the only proper way to honor God as the creator of all things is to assert that God created everything quickly. And what holds for the deity’s “macro” dealings with the universe applies also to the “micro” issue of individual salvation; if a person has genuinely been “saved,” she would have known when it happened—there is no mistaking the salvific activity of a God who is fond of doing things quickly and decisively.
I am convinced that one reason evangelicals have such difficulty taking questions of racial and economic justice seriously is that the problems in those areas seem so intractable. If God works quickly and decisively, then the fact that these problems haven’t been solved yet must mean that God doesn’t care very much about these particular areas of human concern.
I have not sworn off everything associated with the theology of quickness and decisiveness. I celebrate the sudden conversions that many have experienced, and those signs of God’s active intervention in human affairs force me to accept the possibility of sudden conversions of social structures as well. But I don’t expect them simply as a matter of course.
Kiss of Peace
Excerpted and edited from Margaret O’Gara,“The Meaning of Ecumenism,” delivered at the annual Board of Directors dinner on October 8, 1987, and published as Occasional Paper 28 in the Collegeville Institute’s newsletter, Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers (November 1987), pp. 13-16, 25.
It was the end of the spring semester in a class on Christology. Our discussion had been deep. Students turned to somewhat more personal conversation.
Two of them found family roots several generations back in Nova Scotia. One, a Roman Catholic man from Toronto, was entering the Augustinian monastery as a young monk. The other, an Anglican woman about the same age, was a candidate for ordination. Two Christians, a Roman Catholic and an Anglican, facing a common future in ministry though in two different communions.
As they talked, the woman mentioned the name of her great-grandmother. The man’s great-grandmother had the same name. The two began firing a series of questions at each other about names, marriages, families, children, as the rest of us looked on in surprise, until at last one of them leaned across the seminar table and gave the other the kiss of peace.
Then the story came out.
Long ago, two sisters had grown up in an Anglican family in Nova Scotia. One had become a Roman Catholic and then married a Roman Catholic. Her Anglican family was so upset with this decision that they banished her from the family and cut off all further contact with her. This was common in Nova Scotia at the time—exclusion if a family member left the communion or married someone from another communion.
So these two sisters, parted in life for conscience’s sake, never saw each other again.
Gradually their families lost all contact with each other. What remained was the knowledge that a branch of the family was missing.
Those two sisters were the grandmothers of my two students. Each student, raised in a fervent religious home, had been drawn by the love of Christ to seek ordination. And now, at last, the two branches of this divided family had found each other again—through a course on Christ.
That summer there were two ordinations. Each of my two students and their families attended the ordination of the other and shared in reading from the Scriptures. Each included a prayer that their ministries would be an instrument of reconciliation, not only for their families but also for their churches, so that they could again live as sister churches.
Each has made ecumenical work central to their ministry.
To reconcile the many families, the many traditions in the Christian church: this is the work of ecumenism, and this is the work that these two young students suddenly found themselves called to. Their call came as they prepared for their vocation of evangelization: suddenly it changed and took on a whole new meaning in their lives, and in the lives of their families.
To nurture the changes that ecumenism demands: this is their call now, and it is the vocation, as well, of the [Collegeville] Institute.
People of the Book
Excerpted and edited from Anthony Ugolnik, “Jacob’s Ladder: Jaroslav Pelikan and the People of the Book,” Occasional Paper 61, Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers (May 2003), pp. 6-12, subsequently published in Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on his Eightieth Birthday, eds. Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), pp. 65-84.
The [Collegeville] Institute has been for me a series of bungee jumps—the leaps involve an act of faith, and they take you further than you ever imagined—but half the exhilaration is the surge of returning to your place of origin, forever changed.
Pavel Florensky, an Orthodox theologian executed by the NKVD in 1937, based his religious thought not on the particularities of Orthodoxy but on its universals. And the most universal attribute of all he saw as consciousness, so-znanie in Russian. So-znanie is, he said, not merely awareness or knowing; it is a “co-knowing,” a “co-awareness” together, of that which is most precious and valuable to us all.
We are called to an interrelationship between three traditions—Christian, Jewish, Islamic—and I add to these a fourth and very important constituency originating from all three: those who come from a tradition but who for some reason, embedded in their rationality or our secular culture, can no longer say they believe. These secular children are born of all three of us. Separate as we are, stained as we are by the blood we have shed in offense and hatred against each other, we share an increasingly fragile and shrinking world. And as a constituent of that world, even as the lens through which we see it, we share even more-stories, a web of tales, common reverence for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have been called, in fact, the People of the Book.
In Orthodox ritual there is no single bound Bible with that thumping solidity found on a Protestant pulpit. We place Evangelions (Gospels) on the altar. Apostolarions (Epistles) are a different book, given ritually to a reader. Psalters and Prophets and Wisdom texts are all separate volumes on a spinning lectern.
For so many of us, when the sacred text becomes one thing, a bound object (product, actually, of the invention of the printing press), it can take on the quality of the idol which the Book in its genesis condemned. The new incarnation into a bound solidity neglects the nuance, the variation, even the internal tensions.
Theology has been the prisoner of rhetoric in the West; it is enmeshed in declaration. We should empower our artists as well as, or perhaps even more than, our rhetoricians. It might be more productive to look to those who imagine, and image-forth, and suggest things. This is the most subversive of Orthodoxy’s possibilities.
To rediscover the art of being perplexed, and even of praying in the midst of perplexity, is a part of unlocking the Word to the growing audience of those who call themselves agnostics, unbelievers, doubters, and searchers. The apologetics and preaching of recent centuries have been declarations of certainty. The texts ceased to be a tissue of testimonies in dialogic harmony, but instead became a single certainty embodied in the object, a Book.
We need to be perplexed together. We need to rediscover the humility to be puzzled, the courage to engage the ambiguities and conundrums in our texts and look to each other to find the flashes and refractions of answers in places we least expect them.