The Unity We Seek: Setting the Agenda for Ecumenism

By Lindbeck, George | The Christian Century, August 9, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Unity We Seek: Setting the Agenda for Ecumenism


Lindbeck, George, The Christian Century


A BIT OF HISTORY is needed in order to understand the present-day ecumenical options. I all start with the year in which my own ecumenical involvement began. Fifty-five years ago, in 1950, there was general agreement, at least in France where I was then studying, on the goal of ecumenism and how to attain it. The goal was a visibly united church, but this goal would not be reached by the conversion of individuals or groups from one ecclesial allegiance to another. Rather it would take place in God's own time by means largely hidden but that can be pointed to by such words as convergence, rapprochement and integration. Each of the uniting bodies would have to change profoundly in order to enter into full communion, but they could do this, it was believed, without rejecting what is essential to their own identities.

The degree to which this quest would be successful before the eschaton God only knew, but to the degree that it was, the resulting ecumenical, catholic church would be richer and more variegated than anything we could imagine, and yet it would be genuinely one. This outlook is basically that of what can be conveniently named "convergence" ecumenism, which later became temporarily dominant.

Convergence ecumenism, insofar as it is understood as including Roman Catholics (and not just the Protestants and Orthodox who had organized the World Council of Churches in 1948), was in its beginnings when I encountered it. Those who were open to it were few in number and, on the Roman Catholic side, were suspect by church authorities. Yves Congar, O.P., author of Chretiens desunis (1937; published in English as Divided Christendom), the first and, in some respects, still the greatest catholic ecumenical manifesto, was officially silenced in 1954, but his work set the tone for the discussions in which I was one of the Student auditors. The air was electric with hope and excitement despite suppressive measures.

The next decades brought far greater progress toward that goal than those who were active in 1950 had dared to hope. Congar's trajectory may be taken as representative. His silencing was lifted; he greatly influenced Vatican II, became a cardinal, and is reported to have been the favorite theologian of Pope Paul VI.

Convergence ecumenism came to dominate the ecumenical establishment (by which I mean those who to one degree or another are professionally engaged in ecumenism, whether as students, teachers, bureaucrats or active participants in relevant meetings, commissions and assemblies). Three of the high-water marks of 20th-century ecumenism reflect this dominance: the WCC's New Delhi statement on "the unity we seek" (1961), Vatican II's Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism, 1964) and the WCC'S Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which, though not given its finishing touches until just before its publication in 1982, reflects in its substance agreements that had been reached a decade or more earlier. In short, it took only until around 1970 for convergence ecumenism to reach its apogee.

Since then, ecumenism has been in decline. Significant convergences on doctrinal issues have not ceased, as in, for example, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), but these convergences tend to be the outcome of discussions already well advanced in earlier decades and are to be attributed more to institutional inertia than to continuing enthusiasm.

Nonconvergence strategies for moving toward visible unity have also weakened. Beginning already at the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968, the emphasis started to shift from the concerns of Faith and Order toward those of what ecumenists called Life and Work. It is almost as if the social activism of the 1920s and 1930s, summed up in the 1925 Life and Work slogan "Doctrine divides but service unites," were once again ecumenically triumphant.

A MAJOR CHANGE from 1925, however, is that since Uppsala it is the unity of the world, not that of the church in service to the world's unity, that is more and more the direct goal. …

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