Ecumenism Today

(This is Neil.) I’m very happy that Todd is presenting Unitatis Redintegratio in a serial format. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and, like last year, I will post the biblical reflections and prayers for each of the eight days on this blog.

Today, I would like to take a brief look at where the ecumenical movement is today. I want to draw your attention to an October 2006 lecture delivered before the Benedictine Women of Madison by Michael Kinnamon, a noted ecumenist and Disciples of Christ pastor. Reverend Kinnamon identifies seven developments or trends in ecumenism, after helpfully reminding us that “Christians are not optimists; we are people of hope.” We should still be ecumenical even if should presently feel pessimistic about the state of ecumenism.

First, in the words of the distinguished theologian and ecumenist George Lindbeck (written in 1989), “the most noteworthy feature of the past twenty years is the growing dissociation of two different ways of being ecumenical.” Kinnamon describes these “different ways”: “One way is defined by the goal of visible church unity – rooted in the church’s apostolic heritage, centered in the eucharist, and proceeding through painstaking theological conversation. The other thinks of unity primarily as inter-denominational collaboration and is interested in it to the extent that it contributes to peace and justice.” Historically, this “dissociation” has been observable in the relationship between the two relevant World Council of Churches commissions – Faith and Order, and Life and Work. Kinnamon himself believes that dialogues seeking theological consensus and cooperative work for peace and justice can actually be combined. Others – such as Lindbeck – are more pessimistic. They suggest that social justice always steals the limelight from theological consensus and threatens to turn the ecumenical movement into a pious form of politics.

Secondly, Kinnamon notes that the ecumenical movement has been affected by “a growing appreciation of diversity, a growing uneasiness with models of unity that minimized distinctive heritages and gifts.” Thus, in place of common structures and theological agreements, some churches have entered into “covenant relationships.” This is true of many mainline Protestant churches in America. They have agreed to live and work together without losing their confessional identities. Kinnamon sees some good in this – it even draws on Roman Catholic “communion ecclesiology” which envisions the church’s unity as a community (koinonia) of local Eucharistic entities. But can wholeness be reached without our confessional identities being transformed by the corporate repentance that must be part of seeking forgiveness for the sin of Christian disunity? And don’t we need common structures of mutual accountability? Kinnamon writes, “In the absence of structures of mutual accountability, commitments, no matter how solemnly made, can be treated lightly – leading to what Albert Outler once called ‘Ecumenism without the status quo.’”

Thirdly, we are all more aware of religious pluralism than we once were. Some theologians wish to collapse ecumenism into interfaith relations. Kinnamon is skeptical of this, writing, “In my judgment to move from Christian ecumenism to interfaith relations, as if we were simply widening the circle, misses the biblical call for the church to be an instrument of God’s healing purpose for all humanity, all creation.”

Fourth, the institutional structure of ecumenism is changing. The World Council of Churches is struggling. New organizations are forming. In the US, a new ecumenical organization including Catholic representatives, was formed in September, 2001. Christian Churches Together in the USA claims to be “a new forum growing out of a deeply felt need to broaden and expand fellowship, unity, and witness among the diverse expressions of Christian faith today.” Sometimes these new groups are less structured and less demanding. They also mark a more general shift to more lay participation: the former moderator of the WCC’s Central Committee, Aram I of the Armenian Orthodox Church, has claimed that institutional ecumenism is in crisis, but a “people’s ecumenism” is becoming more prominent.

Fifth, Kinnamon points to new understandings of mission. Mission and ecumenism have always been related. Jesus prayed to the Father that his followers be united “so that the world may know that you sent me” (Jn 17:23). The 1910 Edinburgh World Mission Conference is usually seen as the beginning point of modern ecumenism. Kinnamon describes a new paradigm in missiology, which echoes the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa:

Robert Schreiter, well-known Catholic scholar, was a major speaker in Athens and spoke of reconciliation as nothing less than a new paradigm for mission. As he put it, the church is called beyond political action to participation in the healing work of God – creating safe, hospitable spaces where truth can be spoken and heard, helping to rebuild relationships, and fostering the sort of tough-minded forgiveness (not forgetfulness) that makes a different kind of future possible.

Ecumenism must then be related to speaking this word of reconciliation.

Sixth, we see new lines of division and new challenges. Some of these have to do with the welcome emergence of Orthodoxy after the end of the Cold War. John Erickson, Dead of St Vladimir Seminary, once said at Kinnamon’s own Protestant seminary, “1989 marked the end of the old ecumenical movement. Orthodox in the east are now free to be Orthodox.” The character of Western Christianity is changing as well. Kinnamon writes, “If present demographics continue, within twenty years the three hundred fifty churches of the World Council of Churches will represent little more than ten percent of World Christianity.”

Within churches, some foresee possible divisions between Christians in the West and Christians in other parts of the world. And, most unavoidably, there are divisions between conservatives and liberals within churches, most notably the Anglican Communion. This affects the ecumenical movement.

Seventh, and most fundamentally, Kinnamon says that he detects, “a loss of theological depth and conviction in many churches, and, therefore, in the ecumenical movement over the past twenty-five years.” Without this depth, ecumenism is inevitably reduced to a secular and less compelling message. “The idea that God has called forth a community, centered in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be an embodied expression of God’s reconciling power and purpose is completely absent.” A necessary condition for ecumenism is that a church “still affirms that the gospel is the truth about reality,” but that “its reading of the gospel is impoverished without the perspectives of others.” We might be very aware of the dangers of exclusivism, when a church arbitrarily disregards the perspectives of others, but we should also be aware of the poisonous consequences of a church’s failure to cling to the gospel. Ecumenism then becomes irrelevant.

We might keep all of this is mind during the coming week. You may also wish to read my post about spiritual ecumenism, which Michael Kinnamon doesn’t explicitly address.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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