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From the Fall, 1997 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>A Porch to Talk On by S. M. Hutchens

A Porch to Talk On

We at Touchstone have been criticized more than once for calling our magazine “A Journal of Ecumenical Orthodoxy.” I cannot think of a better name for what we are interested in here, but I understand that not every Christian will be able to resonate well to our call. Not everyone has an instinct for what the expression tries to describe, nor are all who do have this intuition able to sense its boundaries or see the importance of its cultivation. My own experience leads me to expect ambivalence or hostility towards the idea in Christians who are angry at some other segment of the Church, or among those who practice their religion mostly “at home.” The impressions that make “ecumenical orthodoxy” a plausible idea most frequently arise from encouraging contact with believers of fellowships other than one’s own, and the conviction gained in these experiences that genuine and robust Christianity can exist in these places, too.

On this we cordially agree with those who (mistakenly, we think) accuse us of minimalism—watering down the faith to make it go further: A hail-fellow-well-met ecumenism infected with the desire to be well-spoken of by all is cowardly, uncharitable, and futile. The kind we seek arises from discovery of the appearance that Christians of other communions, in accordance with their level of understanding, believe in and confess the same Jesus Christ—yes, that is the center, and is why the ecumenical creeds are important to us. The perception that this belief and confession is that of the Christian Church as a living, historical entity, rises like a mountain of light above our many disagreements. We are dealing here, as C. S. Lewis said, with “no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.”

That, however, is insufficient basis for a reunion celebration. You will find none of that nonsense in Touchstone. We are realists who never have had the intention of reducing Christian belief to the lowest common denominator so as to include as many as possible, rejoicing when we can expand the periphery enough to let yet another odd duck slip in. We do not require the hope of better agreement, much less union (on this earth) to keep us going. Rather, we begin with the vision of an already existing family, divided so far that it has become difficult even to understand each other’s speech. Like brothers who have quarreled in our youth and gone our separate ways, we are now getting older, finding the world cold, stale, and hostile to the name we share, wondering whether we might now be able to at least sit on the porch and try to talk, our differences notwithstanding.

And we have come at least this far in our discussion: agreement that it’s better to hang together than hang separately, since the same mob is after us both. I am a Protestant who hasn’t heard anyone attack my Catholic brother (or my estranged father in Rome) lately for anything involving our old disagreements, but only for pointing to the splendor of the truth before which the whole Family bows. If I hear that his house is being attacked for this, what sort of misbegotten knave would I be if I didn’t pick up my arms and stand with him? After we’re done beating off the army of sodomites, abortionists, pornographers, corrupters of youth, family-haters, feminists, modernists, cultists, and the rest of them, maybe we can get back to arguing with one another on whether Christians are obliged to believe our Lady’s body was assumed into heaven or the pope can speak infallibly. And maybe we’ll be too tired (or dead) to bother. No, for this alone we reject the entreaties of our correspondents who would, in the name of an unadulterated faith or the impossibility of our task, put us off what we are doing.

Besides, none of us here has the intention of yielding an inch of conviction to gain anyone’s favor. Those who head this organization have undergone numerous trials for the common faith and have given up much comfort, security, favor, and preferment to preserve their consciences before God. Most of us have become alienated from loved ones, been denied or forced out of excellent jobs—or, if allowed to stay in our places, censured or exposed to ridicule and more subtle forms of exclusion—made to leave denominations in which we might have been able to keep our positions if we had been able to rationalize or stay quiet about the evil and the corruption we were seeing in high places. Perhaps worst of all, we have been suspected by orthodox brethren who haven’t the desire or capacity to understand what we are about. We have endured being patronized as peevish, eccentric, or unrealistic, when we are not that at all, but very normal people who like to be liked and entertain no perverse desires to eat strange foods or swim against the stream. We are not idealistic novices here, but experienced campaigners, full of scars and sorrows, with eyes on ultimate things.

There is a threshold of recognition below which others will not be able to understand what we are about or to join our labors. Likewise, we ourselves have limits outside of which we would consider someone else’s version of ecumenical orthodoxy either too constricted or promiscuous. It is the exploration of these frontiers and survey of the ground that lies between that is the main business of Touchstone and the Fellowship of St. James. What may seem an exceedingly odd combination of breadth and narrowness is required for enthusiasm about this project. In our defense I also will say that we do not think we invented all this. Rather, the fellowship and its journal are the products of our attempt to discern and cooperate with a work we perceive God already is doing in many other places, and will continue to do whether or not our organization is here to appreciate, interpret, and advance it.

My maternal grandfather was a fundamentalist minister. While making his pastoral rounds he frequently stopped at the farm of an elderly Roman Catholic widow to buy eggs, and over the years they got to know each other quite well. A few years before Grandpa died, he was overheard saying, “You know, I don’t think Catholics can go to heaven—but if they could, Mrs. Kowalski would be right up at the head of the line.” And there is little doubt Mrs. Kowalski felt the same way, mutatis mutandis, about her friend the Baptist priest. We at Touchstone think that there is reason for their hope, reason firmly based on the faith that has been held by all Christians, everywhere, and at all times. We are a kind of counterpart to the porch on which Grandpa and Mrs. Kowalski sat and talked of Christ and of his Church.

—S. M. Hutchens

Reprinted from Touchstone, Winter 1994.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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“A Porch to Talk On” first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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