Frank, uncompromising and at times brutally honest, the debate shows an alternative way forward for ecumenical dialogue

For most people, the word “ecumenism” will bring to mind images of people of different denominations sitting down with cups of tea and saying how wonderful everyone is.

Certainly, inter-Christian dialogue in recent years has tended to emphasise what everyone has in common as if the great theological differences that created the division in the first place have vanished, hushed up like an embarrassing secret.

Last night in London, however, a very different type of ecumenical meeting took place. Frank, uncompromising and at times brutally honest – yet always in the spirit of charity and respect – two very different Christians sparred on one of the central tenets of Catholicism.

Catholic apologist Peter D Williams and Protestant apologist James R White met at the London Oratory to debate whether Catholic teaching on Mary constitutes true Christian doctrine.

The three-hour discussion involved opening statements, rebuttals, cross-examination, more rebuttals, questions from the audience and, finally, concluding statements.

This was not an event for the faint-hearted. Deeply held beliefs on both sides were laid open to challenge and criticism, with both speakers accusing each other of heresy – albeit in the most charitable way possible.

Readers will be impressed to learn no one in the packed room needed any kind of safe space, nor did they fly into a rage about how offended they were at having their religious beliefs challenged and subjected to thorough scrutiny.

Had this been held on a modern university campus, it would no doubt have ended with multiple instances of psychological trauma, various hate crime reports and students threatening to shut everything down.

All in all, the debate was highly insightful and everyone will have left with a better understanding of the opposing side’s position – how often can that be said of modern interfaith meetings?

The format will not be for everyone, of course. The people there were clearly intellectually engaged and sufficiently open-minded to challenge their religious beliefs. Not every member of the Christian faithful, or other religions for that matter, can sit through three whole hours and remain conscious.

But compared to the alternatives – burning one another as heretics or holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” – this is surely the best option.

As both speakers remarked, we are incredibly lucky to live at a time when such a debate can happen – let us hope our religious leaders can take greater advantage of it.