Reclaiming an Ecumenical Vision
I am an ecumenist at heart. That’s probably due to my rather eclectic denominational background that has run the gamut from Episcopal to Pentecostal. I’m also a pastor within a denomination that made the pursuit of Christian unity its “polar star.” While ecumenism is one of our denominational commitments, in my experience, interest in ecumenism has lost steam within our tradition and many others. We give lip service to the calling, but does it really matter to the way we live as Christians? As churches are we willing to truly invest in this work?
I’m not sure we are? In my denomination, the organization tasked with ecumenical and interfaith work is underfunded and understaffed (I know because I’m on its board).
So, why is this true? Perhaps, as Michael Kinnamon, a Disciple theologian and ecumenical leader suggests, it’s theological. He writes in a book about renewing the ecumenical movement:
If our churches no longer believe or can articulate that God has acted in Christ for the world’s redemption, then the idea that God has given us a new community in Christ of Jew and Greek, Protestant and Catholic, black and white, gay and straight, Iraqi and American will seem like pure idealism — impossible and ultimately irrelevant. In the absence of such theological conviction, ecumenism will become simply another arena for pursuing political agendas or another set of agencies engaged in cooperation. And who can be passionate about that? [Kinnamon, Michael. Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? (p. 150). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.]
As Kinnamon notes in the book, cooperation is fine, but it’s not enough. Ecumenism should be about commitment to engaging in life together with other Christians. It should empower us to engage in world-changing ministry together across traditions and even religions.
My friend Dr. Jose Morales challenged us at General Assembly a few years back to look closely at what it means to pursue Christian unity. He pointed out that “unity is difficult. It’s inconvenient. It’s difficult work that rarely materializes fully. Any attempt at a convenient or safe unity is in reality no unity at all” [“Heresy of Heresies: ‘From Deadly Unity to Life-Giving Unity,’” in Preaching as Resistance, p. 41]. That may be why we have let it slide. As Jose notes our founders probably didn’t realize how difficult this work would be. It’s also true that not all forms of unity are a good thing. Forms of unity that leave in place forms of oppression are not true unity. If we are to pursue the kind of unity that is life-giving, we’ll have to start thinking theologically. We will need to consider closely who this God is whom we claim to embrace.
Maybe the pursuit of true unity is too difficult for us. But, perhaps it is a task to which we’ve been called. For me, one of the core theological values is rooted in the call of Abraham, with whom God covenanted, to bring blessings to the nations. The task before us then is to discern what these blessings look like here in the 21st century when division is rampant. Yes, ecumenism is hard. Results won’t come easily. Several denominations spent several decades working through the Consultation on Church Union in the hope that we might find a way of coming together as one church. In the end, that faltered. So, now we must find other ways of not only cooperating but embodying the unity that Jesus prayed for (John 17). So, “Why care about Christian unity when there is so much other stuff to worry about? Because nothing less than the credibility of our faith is at stake! [Kinnamon, Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? (p. 161). Kindle Edition]. Indeed! What does the world see, when it sees a church divided into competing brands that care more about the brand’s survival than the world around it? As we answer that question it's clear why Michael Kinnamon reminds us that ecumenism can't simply be left to the professionals.
In the end, while the pursuit of unity can lead to the renewal of the church, that can't be the end point. Rather, this calling has to do with living into the realm of God.