The Next Ecumenical Movement

By Heim, S. Mark | The Christian Century, August 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Next Ecumenical Movement

Heim, S. Mark, The Christian Century

NEARLY A CENTURY ago, the modern world ecumenical movement was born. Its effect on our religious landscape is hard to overestimate.

Much that we take for granted, from community Thanksgiving worship, to state or city councils of churches, to amicable cross-denominational marriage services, to the existence of "united" churches on every continent, stems from that movement. Though ecumenism was predominantly a Protestant event at first the Vatican II--impelled participation of Roman Catholicism and the consistent contributions of Orthodox churches gave the effort impressive breadth.

Today some speak of the movement's malaise or hint at a more terminal condition. Others insist the work goes forward, even if certain high-profile projects rest on eroding plateaus. Either way, those inside and outside the traditional ecumenical movement increasingly sense that something is missing. New divisions separate Christians--divisions that are often more intractable than anything inherited from the fourth or 16th century. Incremental change in existing ecumenical vehicles is not enough. Something like a new movement is in order.

Two things stand out about the existing ecumenical movement. First, its original passion flowed largely from the vitality of the modern missionary effort. Christian unity was seen as an imperative means toward evangelizing the world overcoming unseemly, wasteful competition and making a common witness. Just as important, a new form of Christian formation took place in interdenominational, parachurch groups like the world Student Christian Movement. Drawn together by the challenge of the mission task, young people formed bonds across old confessional divisions.

Second, ecumenism defined its challenge in terms of the historical confessional differences among Christian churches. Christians failed to cooperate because they regarded each other's communions as seriously defective or, in extreme cases, as not Christian at all. They differed over the definition of religious authority, over the validity of each other's sacraments and ministries, and over a myriad of particular theological issues. In these areas there have been very real achievements in recent decades. Sometimes two by two and sometimes in multilateral discussions, Christian churches have reconciled many of their historical divisions.

But at the same time, it is increasingly clear that the ground under the movement has shifted. Rather than a passion that draws Christians together, the question of mission itself has become one of the sharpest issues dividing them. A related result is that organizations--particularly youth organizations--which once nurtured ecumenical leaders have faded away. Councils of churches in many parts of the country have become broad interreligious structures, altering and in some cases polarizing their roles among Christians. As the churches clear away old doctrinal disputes, they often find new conflicts taking their place.

TRADITIONAL ecumenical institutions--most prominently the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and the World Council of Churches--have in various ways reached a practical ceiling far short of their professed v sign. This is particularly true in the United States, where the proportion of all Christians who belong to communions within the National Council continues to decline. The most dynamic growth is elsewhere--among Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and independent churches. U.S. "ecumenical" denominations generally register losses or levels of growth below that of the general population.

The situation is less dramatic in the WCC, but there too huge numbers of Protestants (including most Pentecostals) remain outside, and the sometime dream of Roman Catholic membership is recognized as unrealistic. Traditional ecumenical organizations include only a limited sampling of actual Christian diversity. If the ecumenical movement is where Christians come together to overcome their deepest differences, these organizations cannot be that movement. …

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