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Editorial: Ecumenism in the Time of Coronavirus

As our readers are well aware – increasingly so as the media inundate us with the escalating death toll of COVID-19 and the increasingly aggressive efforts to mitigate the medical and economic crisis caused by the spread of the disease – we are living through a time of enormous uncertainty and fear. And, due to the recommended social distancing that experts claim is one of few measures that may slow and diminish the disruptive force of the pandemic, we are living through it increasingly alone. Though more connected than ever online (for better and for worse, given the cruelty and falsehood that seem increasingly dominant on social media platforms), we can acknowledge the clear risk that our physical isolation will yield not only widespread and intense personal loneliness but also a decay of public exchange, not least among and between religious communities. By this we mean not only the temporary closure of churches (although we celebrate the generosity of parishes who are live-streaming worship services!) or the postponing of formal gatherings (including major conferences like the National Workshop on Christian Unity), but rather the greater likelihood that, in times of crisis, we succumb to the temptation to hunker down morally as well as spatially, contracting our concern around ourselves and our inner circles and leaving others outside those circles to fend for themselves. This is a natural and forgivable impulse, but it is contrary to the ecumenical vision that the Graymoor Institute works to advance.

The visionaries and agents of ecumenism in the time of coronavirus need to communicate clearly that initiatives to gather people (digitally, as need be) and cultivate dialogue across lines of ecclesial and political difference about the urgent moral and theological issues that we face are more, rather than less, important in such times of fear and instability. Ecumenism is not primarily a celebration of pluralism, an option for recreational togetherness that can be jettisoned when the going gets rough. Rather, it is a promise of solidarity with one another in times of disaster as well as those of prosperity, a promise of care for one another even and especially when we disagree, a promise of prayer for peace and flourishing on one another’s behalf, and a promise to challenge one another’s better angels in light of Jesus’ great and holy prayer “that all may be one.” As John Mackay memorably put it (in his Editorial for the first issue of Theology Today in 1944), our time may prove to be “one of God’s springtimes, albeit one of His terrible springtimes.” As our political environment is incentivizing hate, fear, disrespect, and disregard of one another, and our medical environment is demanding distance from and sacrifice of many of the things we hold dear, religious communities have an opportunity and an obligation to articulate, together, a way of compassion, generosity, and unity even in the face of historic fragmentation and despair. Let us pray for one another, though we may be separated—now physically, as well as spiritually—and let us take heart that this separation will be overcome.

This editorial originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.