On the Church and Society
September 16, 2005
"Ecumenism" is a dirty word among many Christians. It doesn't have to be. Some Christians even call it an imperative.
At a conference on the challenges of Christian ecumenism held in Princeton, New Jersey, on September 11-13, one speaker, Dr. David Yeago from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, spoke of his hometown. In Columbia, South Carolina, he noted, there is a Jewish public presence, and various unified secular efforts, but no visible Christian unity exists. Christians don't pray for each other, and offer no joint public presence. Yeago's town is not unusual.
Yet, one conference attendee labeled Christian division as blasphemy, and Yeago essentially agreed. That's pretty different from ecumenism as a dirty word.
The conference focused on an ecumenical effort called "In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity." Examined were the obstacles and opportunities presented by this proposal produced from a three-year effort by sixteen theologians, ranging from Pentecostal to Russian Orthodox, brought together by an independent foundation, the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. "In One Body Through the Cross" was published in book form in 2003.
Of course, Christian disenchantment with the old-line ecumenical movement is understandable. As explained in the Princeton Proposal, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and the World Council of Churches once were "important ecumenical agents," but "have become increasingly irrelevant to the pursuit of unity, as political and social agendas have pushed aside concern for unity in the confession of the faith and in the sacraments."
Theologian Robert W. Jenson, the outgoing associate director of the center, observed, ecumenism was "dead in the water." Looking at Christian denominations being torn apart today over fundamental interpretations of Holy Scripture and biblical ethics, some cannot imagine serious efforts at unity.
Ecumenism certainly has declined in recent times. The key goal was ably expressed back in 1961 at a WCC New Delhi gathering. It noted that unity "is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully-committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people."
The Princeton Proposal amounts to an effort to revitalize this declaration. That's a mighty task, to say the least, when considering the varieties and disputes within Christianity around the world today. Many Christians ask, why bother?
The ecumenists respond that Christianity demands it. Most notably, they refer to Jesus Christ's specific prayer for unity in John 17, including "that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." The implications for the church's mission to spread the Good News are unmistakable.
Jenson declared that church division perverts the process of unifying humanity, and is "sin." Yeago warned that abandoning church unity represented a "catastrophic and continuing failure of love," which denies the redeeming and transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Conference speakers recognized the enormous problems, including distrust and indifference. Jenson looked at the effort as "bread upon the waters," with developments "clearly and drastically dependent" upon the Holy Spirit.
Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, if Christians take Holy Scripture seriously, then it's difficult to see how they can stop striving for the unity prayed for by Jesus Christ.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.