Friday, January 19, 2007

Is the Ecumenical Movement Dead?

In recent weeks, I have read in a couple of places gloomy prognostications for the future of the ecumenical movement. In my very local and limited experience, the exact opposite is taking place. Whether the ecumenical movement is a reality or not depends on how one defines it, I suppose.

If the ecumenical movement is primarily 'top-down', involving officially deputed members of different groups studying historical disputes and issuing joint statements, well, there is still some activity there. We regularly hear, for example, from Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The general reaction to these sorts of things is ennui, unfortunately. I recall towards the end of my seminary days when Catholic and Lutheran theologians issued the joint statement on Justification by Faith. This should have been a momentous occasion: the issue that had separated the two had been basically eliminated. The total lack of excitement that greeted the statement astonished me, especially as I was deep into a Master's thesis on Romans.

The lesson is that while there was a time when the culture of the Church in the West, while showing some local customs, was essentially predictable whether one was in Prussia or Spain (I'm thinking of ca. 1511 A.D.). Theological disputes sundered Christian from Christian, and these divisions eventually led to genuinely different cultural expressions of faith. It is perhaps worth noting here, too, that the fact that theological disputes could split the Church has more often been a concern of bishops and emperors than of the street (though there is the great exception told by Gregory Nazianzen about fish sellers quoting the Christological disputes). Not to gainsay theology at all, but that is not the level at which most Christians operate day-to-day. It is no wonder that in our market-driven worship today, few take notice of the ends of these disputes, while the heat is really on when it comes to controversies in the liturgy (especially music!) and ethics.

To return now to the more positive aspect of the ecumenical movement: one of the more rewarding things about life in an urban monastery is that all kinds of people are drawn here. Already this calendar year, we have hosted in our guesthouse a couple from Moody Bible Institute, a Mennonite, and a Presbyterian minister (a Jewish friend has also been by, though that poses a somewhat different set of thoughts). The monastic charism, with its emphasis on Scripture, good singing, table fellowship and hospitality, has a way of bridging cultural gaps between denominations and getting at the heart of discipleship in Christ. My sense is that here, at 'street level', the ecumenical movement is making great strides: Christians are simply making friends and working partners with other Christians, learning about each other in a manner that would not have been possible even twenty years ago. I will not make any predictions about where this is going, only to say that I see in this clear evidence of the Spirit at work, Christ in the world reconciling us in our common baptism.

I alluded to theology above in a way that was perhaps too flippant. I have promised a post on ecumenism and apologetics, but have not yet written it, perhaps because I feel less qualified to speak in that area. What I wish to make clear in closing is that belief in particular doctrines is not something that can be disassociated from practice, and that full unity of Christians depends in essence on orthodoxy of creed. But that is one level abstracted from the day-to-day awareness of the average Christian. The world will know we are Christ's disciples by our love for one another; perhaps unity in doctrine will flow from this love.

1 comment:

Edith OSB said...

I appreciate the term ennui for the response to the official documents that resolve the theological differences that separated Christians. They do not provoke resistance, but neither do they create unity.

For many Christians in the U.S. and Europe, the individualism of the rest of the culture has affected the claim (or lack of claim) they recognize in anything pronounced by the head of their religion. Few know all that much about the source of the division, or see that as the primary reason to continue being a Lutheran, or a Catholic. Many accept or ignore the teachings of their religion according to self-determined standards. In this context, the top-down statements are seen as neither relevant nor effective.

Street-level Christianity involves, for the most part, people who do recognize some claim of faith on their daily activities. In spite of the theological differences, they often recognize the same claims: feed the poor, care for the sick, work for justice. They can share prayer and effort with anyone who recognizes Christ's claim on their lives.

I wonder how it happened that the Church through which Christ comes to us has come to seem irrelevant to many good and active Christians.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
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