A good question: Has the ecumenical movement failed?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Has the ecumenical movement failed?
‘It has not failed and will not fail’
A 16-year-old, HIV-positive Malawian, a Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan, a Canadian indigenous leader, a disabled Brazilian pastor, a Korean theologian; the faces and voices of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) testified to the rich and beautiful diversity of that fellowship, and demonstrated the power and potential of the ecumenical movement – a movement in which all may bear witness to faith, where all may join their yearnings for a unity based on justice and peace for all. A movement in which there are no margins; a movement with a purpose.
Delegates at the Assembly adopted a statement on unity. Called “God’s Gift and Call to Unity – and our Commitment”, it addresses the contemporary reality facing our prayer “that all may be one”. While the drafters did not ask themselves: “Has the ecumenical movement failed?” they needed to seriously probe the relevance of the call to unity in our time. The resulting statement captures the need, the vibrancy and the gift of the ecumenical movement, and is the means through which I would like to assert that the ecumenical movement not only has not failed, but will not fail…
‘Church can be a terrible choice between integrity and compromise’
It’s tough out there, no doubt about it. As general secretary, I have been shocked to discover that where the United Reformed Church naturally says: “We should be doing this together,” our partners are apt to put their own wellbeing first and ask: “Is there any advantage in doing this with others?” The implication is that the disadvantages of ecumenical working may outweigh the advantages; but, commitment to unity requires that you see ecumenism as an integral part of your mission responsibility. Sometimes I think the URC may be almost alone in seeing it that way.
My commitment to the unity of the Church is not an optional extra. If Christ is one, then unity is what’s real, and our divisions represent brokenness in the Body which we can never be complacent about. Nevertheless, if I’m honest, I find our internal unity as a Church every bit as challenging as the inter-Church work I do. Tensions between believers grow according to the passion with which they hold their faith. Where I’m lukewarm, I don’t worry about sharing church life with someone of a different viewpoint. But where I am sure that I have heard the call of the Spirit, living in the Church can feel like a terrible choice between integrity and compromise. I have been accused of the arrogance of speaking and acting as though I am right and that in time other people will catch up and see things as I do. I recognise the truth of the criticism. I don’t think it’s any accident that the Reformed tradition breaks into schism so often. If you believe in a living God calling you to constant reformation, you will find unity an encumbrance. Somehow, the Spirit never seems to call us all at once…
‘We have more churches than ever’
In assessing success or failure, it’s a good idea to remember what we were trying to do in the first place. And the early ambitions of the ecumenical movement were rather large. Most prosaically, the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 (by common consent the starting point of ecumenism) sought to facilitate worldwide evangelism by calming inter-denominational bitterness — or at least declaring the mission fields a ceasefire zone. But wider goals included the institutional unity of the worldwide church and a quest for world government, bringing wars between nations to an end.
It is arguable that the most modest of these goals has been achieved, or at least approached. But even that success has been rendered largely redundant during the past century by the growth of the missions themselves. Christians in the global south now outnumber those of the West by a long way; now they are masters in their own houses, it is not at all clear that (for example) Catholic-Pentecostal relations in Latin America are an edifying example of smooth, brotherly accord.
As for the unity of the churches, which the WCC once confidently predicted for 1980, that has gone the way of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ predictions of the date of the Second Coming: Unfulfilled; passed over in silence for a long time; and then (should anyone be tactless enough to mention it) it is quietly explained that that was not quite what was meant — all an unfortunate misunderstanding of terms…
‘Formal unity is too demanding and probably not worth it’
Ecumenism hasn’t failed; it’s just that our aims and understanding of what could and should be achieved ecumenically have been changing. Across the denominations, budgets are tight, and it is no secret that one of the areas of work that can be cut without bringing down the whole edifice of any individual church is ecumenism.
For years, many church members across the mainstream Christian denominations have been privately expressing their views that formal unity is too cumbersome, too demanding of time and resources and probably not worth it. Not like that, anyway. Instead, we should all be getting on with being disciples of Jesus Christ, dual citizens of both planet earth and the Kingdom of God and joining with others who share that vision as and when that is possible and helpful.
If, for most church members, the energy has largely gone out of the pursuit of formal ecumenism, where is the energy now flowing? Where are the signs of organic ecumenism?..
This is an extract from the March 2014 edition of Reform.