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Christian Unity on the Back Burner?

It’s hard times for the ecumenical movement these days.  Organizations like the National Council of the Churches of Christ face dim futures, issues like same sex marriage and reproductive choice have church leaders snarling at each other, denominational agendas tend toward articulating distinctive identities rather than finding common ground, and a generation of leaders who committed their lives as lay and ordained persons to finding ways to more fully express the unity of the church is passing from the scene.  Seminary offerings in interreligious engagement are growing rapidly while courses in ecumenism are few and far between.  Even things like the mutual recognition of our baptisms, the foundation stone for much of the ecumenical progress of the last fifty years, is re-contested, requiring renewed theological investigation in the face of ecclesial retrenchment.  In some cases churches even expect that a baptism has been done in the “right way” using the “right words.”  One hundred years after the inauguration of the ecumenical movement at the great World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh the passion seems to have waned.

What happened?  Success – or partial success – is partly to blame.  The removal of formal and informal anathemas hurled at each other from Synods and Assemblies or across the dining room tables of interchurch families has made the enduring divisions more palatable, if not less sinful.  Contempt has given way to cooperation or at least to a certain congenial facade.  The institutional collapse of the historic and mainline churches in North America and Europe and the retreat of the Roman Catholic Church in the face of what it perceives to be the theological recklessness of some of the Protestant churches has sidelined the two principal 20th century partners who now bow politely in public to each other but resist meaningful engagement that might require change.  The financial woes of ecumenical donor churches is starving the principle ecumenical institutions at world, national, state and local levels that kept the vision visible and compelling. The alignment of right wing politics with right wing religion has poisoned the environment, both politically and ecclesially. Interfaith work is now causing the buzz.  The woes are endless.

The fact is ecumenism feels old and dated to many.  Post-modern thought has brought themes of particularity, distinctiveness, multiplicity, and diversity to the fore, making ecumenism’s attention to unity look hopelessly modern, outmoded, and susceptible to the hegemony of various kinds of intellectual or political hierarchy.  This is unfair to several generations of gifted ecumenical theologians, but today’s movement has failed to offer a compelling or persuasive counter view to this caricatured critique.  An even deeper challenge is that the sin of the church’s fragmentation no longer feels very troublesome to people ready to measure the church’s fidelity against other metrics of success.  Horace Bushnell wasn’t talking about the ecumenical movement, but his words in the 19th century are apt in this context:  “Sin is here and sin that needs salvation.  But it is sin that has become so thoroughly respectable that we have lost any just sense of its deformity.”

Once the divisions of the church have been rendered merely uncomfortable or inconvenient, the passion to turn the words of the creed – “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” – into something more than lip service fades.  Absent a notion of the sinfulness of our divisions, repentance, conversion, and new practice is easily set aside.  The spiritual urgency of Karl Barth’s words in 1936 – “We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its [disunity’s] reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it” – appears lost on most. Wonderful things are happening here and there, now and then.  Heroic people of faith remain committed to the vision of a church fully catholic, fully evangelical, fully reformed.  But the movement itself is at ebb tide to put it most charitably.

This week begins the annual “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” (January 18-25), observed for over a century around the world.  In many places it was a signature time for Christians to gather for prayer and community, and it is still honored in some places.  It is a time to give thanks for how far we’ve come, to ponder how far we have yet to go.  When I was a young pastor the ecumenical movement seemed poised to fulfill many of the dreams of its inspired founders.  The hope was not misplaced, but the optimism certainly was.  Today we seem further from gathering around the one Table than when I was a seminarian forty years ago.  Today other agendas and other egos are being served.  Or maybe the current situation is the product of the failures of my generation to take the risks necessary for the radical changes required. 

The lament of a disappointed participant and sometime leader in the ecumenical movement deserves only modest consolation.  After all, the vision of unity for the church is not a human dream but a divine gift.  The failure to receive it fully in my lifetime is no excuse for despair or bitterness let alone self-reproach.  That the unity of the church is an article of faith, not simply a precious project, means that it is not an agenda to be discarded for its flaws, but a fact waiting to be recognized, or in Barth’s words, “found and confessed.”  Other generations and circumstances will arise to breathe new life on the embers of this movement. 

Sixty-five years ago the founders of the World Council of Churches defined the ecumenical vocation this way:

It is not in man’s power to banish sin and death from the earth, to create the unity of the Holy Catholic Church, to conquer the hosts of Satan. But it is within the power of God. He has given us at Easter the certainty that his purpose will be accomplished. But, by our acts of obedience and faith we can on earth set up signs which point to the coming victory.  Till the day of that victory our lives are hid with Christ in God, and no earthly disillusion or distress or power of hell can separate us from him. As those who wait in confidence and joy for their deliverance, let us give ourselves to those tasks which lie to our hands, and so set up signs that men may see.

I continue to find those words persuasive, bespeaking fidelity rather than fanfare, persistence rather than spectacle.  Yes, it’s hard times for the ecumenical movement.  All the more reason to continue setting up signs.

John H. Thomas
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2013

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