Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism

By Harmon, Steven R. | The Christian Century, May 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism


Harmon, Steven R., The Christian Century


Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism

By Michael Kinnamon

Eerdmans, 175 pp., $24.00 paperback

Lament over the current "ecumenical winter" and analysis of the factors that have contributed to it have become commonplace in recent ecumenical literature. As he considers the future of ecumenism in Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Michael Kinnamon gives four reasons for why the ecumenical movement stands in need of renewal: "loss of commitment among church leaders to the goal of Christian unity," "divisions and other signs of weakness within the ecumenically supportive churches," "an increasing split between two sets of ecumenical priorities," and "diminishment of key instruments of the ecumenical movement, including councils of churches."

Kinnamon is ideally positioned for proposing answers to the questions he raises about ecumenism's future. A theological educator and veteran ecumenist, Kinnamon retired as general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA in 2011. He had previously served as executive secretary of the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order and as general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union. As a writer he has long been reflecting critically on ecumenical praxis.

Another passionate advocate of ecumenical renewal, George Lindbeck, previously explored conflicting ecumenical visions in the pages of the Century ("The Unity We Seek: Setting the Agenda for Ecumenism," August 9, 2005). As Lindbeck sees it, one faction considers ecumenism's Life and Work emphasis on cooperation in seeking God's justice for the world to be coequal with the Faith and Order emphasis on convergence toward visible ecclesial unity; the other faction contends that the Life and Work concern for cooperative justice--though indispensable--must be properly related to the Faith and Order emphasis, which should be seen as primary but which has been marginalized in the ecumenical movement. Both paradigms agree that the unity of the church is an end in itself and that the theological basis of such unity is God's action in Christ for the world's salvation.

Kinnamon, whom Lindbeck points to as a proponent of the view that Life and Work is coequal with Faith and Order, construes the split differently. As Kinnamon sees it, some ecumenists prioritize justice and see visible unity as an impediment to achieving it, and some fear that the ecumenical pursuit of justice has politicized the ecumenical movement to the point that progress on Faith and Order is much more difficult. But both parties weaken the ecumenical movement if they shun the integration of the impulses for justice and unity that Kinnamon commends. As he notes in a chapter on environmental protection as a proper locus of ecumenical cooperation, not everyone can be fully involved in all expressions of the multifaceted ecumenical movement, but all expressions of the quest for Christian unity should be viewed by everyone as inseparable.

In my judgment, Kinnamon's call for the integration of unity and justice makes them not coequal ends so much as coinherent expressions of the singular end of the church's unity. …

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