As followers of many faiths joined yesterday to mark the 25th anniversary of Baltimore's Ecumenical Institute, the dean of the theological school called on religious leaders "to recapture the imagination and the vision" of a generation ago.
While the progress of past and present was celebrated, the loss of the sense of urgency that brought the institute's quarter-century of interfaith study and cooperation into being was lamented by Dean James Brashler at an ecumenical prayer service at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, where the institute is located.
The worship in the large and imposing seminary chapel was led by clergy of five Christian denominations. They included Roman Catholic Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Episcopal Bishop A. Theodore Eastman of Maryland, who pronounced the benediction together.
Adherents of at least seven additional religious faiths took part.
Despite this reaffirmation of the worth of local interdenominational efforts, Dr. Brashler reminded the congregation, "The causes of Christian unity and interfaith understanding no longer have the luster of novelty, the excitement of newness, they generated in the heady days of the Second Vatican Council a generation ago.
"The first challenge of the ecumenical future is to recapture the imagination and the vision which gave birth to the Ecumenical Institute and to the ecumenical movement in the first place, even if that vision now comes into sharper focus at the local, grass-roots level than it does at the institutional level of ecclesiastical structures."
Archbishop Keeler also pointed to the "positive work at the neighborhood level" of religious people of different faiths, and he cited as one example the Nehemiah housing rehabilitation project in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
But the archbishop painted a rosier picture of ecumenical relations on the international level than is generally acknowledged. "While some of the excitement may have passed," he said, recent progress in the "bilateral dialogue between the Catholic and [Eastern] Orthodox churches" is proof of a continuing "depth of commitment" to institutional Christian unity.
What is at stake in the high-level Catholic-Orthodox discussions is "the eventual full communion of 80 percent of the Christian family," Archbishop Keeler said.
The Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary, briefly traced the history of the Ecumenical Institute since its founding in 1968, recalling that it grew out of the failure of a hope that several Protestant seminaries would relocate in Baltimore and enter into a close relationship with St. Mary's and Johns Hopkins University.
The emergence of the Ecumenical Institute as a strong alternative to that plan was largely the result of the far-seeing imagination of three forerunners of churchmen taking part in yesterday's service, Father Leavitt said.
They were the Rev. John Dede, one of his predecessors as
president of the seminary; Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, who like Archbishop Keeler was the head of Baltimore's Catholic archdiocese; and Bishop Harry Lee Doll, one of Bishop Eastman's predecessors as the head of the Episcopal diocese.
Also singled out for praise by Father Leavitt were two educators who nurtured the idea of ecumenical study at St. Mary's: the late Professor William Foxwell Albright of Johns Hopkins University and the late A. Vanlier Hunter Jr., a Presbyterian minister who joined the institute's faculty in 1972 and "really launched the ecumenical spirit within these halls."
Dr. Brashler, a Presbyterian who became dean in 1984, warned the audience of institute students and supporters that "religion is being trivialized in America as it has been in much of Western culture."
He observed, as other academics in the field of religion have, that "most mainline religious groups are not coping very effectively with this cultural development while a bewildering variety of cults, sectarian groups and religious extremists are filling the void -- often with disastrous results, as the recent debacle at Waco, Texas, so sadly illustrated."
The dean said that "the challenge of emphasizing what unites us rather than what divides us . . . can best be met by setting aside any illusions of cultural, religious, racial or gender-based superiority."
One of the unfortunate realities of present-day organized religion, Dr. Brashler said, is that "a rising spirit of particularism" -- a narrow view of the worth of one's own faith to the exclusion of others -- "threatens to divert energy and resources from ecumenical concerns."
Some of the "seemingly intractable problems" causing denominations to "look inward as they struggle to put their own houses in order," he said, are shrinking memberships, worries about the quantity and quality of ordained clergy, shrinking financial resources and social, political and moral disagreements.
"Without a vision that looks beyond the immediate and the particular," the dean said, "the people will perish."