Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Paris, Rome, Jerusalem: An Ecumenical Journey

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Paris, Rome, Jerusalem: An Ecumenical Journey

Article excerpt

My ecumenical journey began a year after my arrival in Paris at the age of twenty-six. I had not previously been the least interested in ecumenism, yet my whole life had been preparation for the concern for Christian unity that has since been central to my work.


This preparation started with my birth in China as the fourth and youngest child of American Lutheran missionary parents. The influence of an interdenominational, international, pan-Protestant missionary culture pervaded the boarding school that my siblings and I attended as well as the hill resort where missionary families escaped the summer heat. This interdenominationalism, despite appearances, was not in the least ecumenical, and that has greatly influenced my ecumenism. I have, in short, rebelled against it.

Let me explain. The denominational spectrum in that missionary culture ranged from Anglicans (who were classified as Protestant in the China setting, even though they were high church) to an occasional Pentecostal, and it included all the mainline denominations in between. The nationality of the missionaries was also diverse, although the majority were from English-speaking lands. Yet, these denominationally and nationally divided Christians got along famously, and some of the missions were themselves interdenominational and international, most notably the China Inland Mission of Hudson Taylor fame, the closest neighbor to the west of the Lutheran mission in which my parents served. One nearby China Inland Mission missionary, an elderly Swedish woman, founder and head of an orphanage, made a lasting impression on me when I was a teenager. She struck me then, and still does, as no less worthy a candidate for sainthood than Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and for not dissimilar reasons--except that, in her case, the news media never discovered her.

Comity arrangements assigned specific territorial areas to each mission, thus preventing competition and "sheep-stealing." This was an essential precondition for the mutual goodwill that made possible much cooperation, shared worship, and even intercommunion. As far as intercommunion is concerned, there may have been some Lutheran and Anglican holdouts, but, if so, they kept a low profile, and I was not aware of their existence. All of us have heard reports, and some of us have memories, of the interdenominationalism of the Billy Graham crusades in their heyday when they were endorsed not only by evangelicals of the revivalist variety but also by Anglican archbishops and Roman Catholic bishops. If that interdenominationalism were generalized into a widespread and taken-for-granted way of life, it would approximate the church setting in which I grew up, except for the lack of a Roman Catholic presence.

Nevertheless, this setting was not in the least ecumenical. The sense of Christian oneness was intense, but so also was the commitment to denominationally divisive doctrines and practices. I remember arguing at my boarding school with two Southern Baptist students about infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. Our discussions were at least as lively and considerably better informed than when we debated whether Union or Confederate soldiers were the better fighters; all three of us had great-grandfathers who had fought in the Civil War. We could not cite chapter and verse in reference to Civil War history, but we could do so when it came to the Bible--and when our memories failed, we knew how to use concordances. I had the further advantage of having had to memorize Luther's Small Catechism before confirmation. We were, in short, well indoctrinated in our respective traditions, but it did not occur to us to question the Christian authenticity of one another's central beliefs: The language of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone is, after all, as much a part of the vocabulary of Baptist conversionist evangelicals as it is of Lutheran sacramental pietists (who also, of course, call themselves "evangelicals"). …

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