Ethics in Ecumenical Dialogues: A Survey and Analysis

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Two perceptions dominate discussions of the topic of this essay. (1) On the one hand, it is widely said that the need for an ecumenical discussion of ethics and ethical questions is ever more important, both because of the need for the church to give a common moral witness and because of the appearance of new, potentially church-dividing or communion-hindering ethical disputes between and within the churches. (2) On the other hand, laments are common that ecumenical dialogues, mired down in arguments over classical dogmatic differences, have generally failed to take up ethical matters. (3)

The first perception is all too accurate. The churches certainly do need to give a common moral witness. The 2008 American presidential election demonstrated the divisive potential of differences between churches over ethics. Many of us, myself included, have been pulled into difficult conversations about the continuing unity or lack thereof of our denominations as they are ripped apart by disagreements on sexual ethics. The second perception, however, that ecumenical dialogues have neglected ethical matters, is less accurate. As the list of dialogues that have addressed ethical matters shows (see appendices to this essay), a wide range of dialogues have taken up the nature of Christian ethics, the place of ethics in the unity of the church, and specific moral questions, and they have done so steadily since the 1960's. The literature is far more extensive than I had anticipated. The list is, I will grant, somewhat misleading, in that many dialogues have taken up ethical matters only in passing. Nevertheless, we should remember that, when the current wave of ecumenical dialogues began to gain momentum in the 1960's, ethical differences were rarely seen as church-dividing. We should not be surprised that dialogues have given more attention to such matters as baptism, eucharist, and ministry, whose role in division is manifest, than to ethical questions whose divisive potential is only now becoming evident.

In this essay I will survey and briefly analyze the discussions of ethics in ecumenical dialogues. To do so in a text of this length means that I must often handle matters quickly that deserve greater attention and will not be able to present the full range of supporting citations. Much of the presentation will be simply descriptive, which I hope will be informative. 1 will end with some comments on to the general question of differences over ethics as church-dividing matters.

I must first, however, delimit the topic. Defining "ethics" is an elusive task. Is the distinct field of "ethics" a modern invention, perhaps bound up with unique aspects of modernity? (4) Even if that is true, some distinction between fides et mores is ancient in the church, and the distinction between the ceremonial, the governmental, and the moral law of the Hebrew Scriptures was important for its appropriation by the early church. (5) I will make a commonsense (but utterly circular) discrimination that ethical matters are those where judgments of ethical right or wrong or ethical obligation are paramount. Ethical matters cannot be separated strictly from others, however. In ecumenical discussions of divorce and remarriage, the ethical and sacramental are inextricably intertwined. In this essay, I will focus only on the ethical side of such questions.

A decision must also be made about the other half of my title: "ecumenical dialogues." I will focus only on official dialogues between the churches and thus will not discuss Evangelicals and Catholics Together, admittedly an important example of dialogue on ethical questions, nor the work of such others as the Groupe des Dombes. I will take up multilateral dialogues (for example, by the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.) when these have the character of a dialogue, that is, an encounter of the churches on an ethical question. …