The End of Ecumenism, Part 2
Like Paul Sauer who posted on this topic last week, I’m an under-35 theologian engaged in ecumenical work. He’s right about the decreased interest in ecumenism and the reasons for it, though I think the problem extends upwards from our own generation, too. In my short time doing ecumenical work professionally, I’ve realized two things that perhaps will also shed some light on the issue. Both of them pertain to change...
Like Paul Sauer who posted on this topic last week, I’m an under-35 theologian engaged in ecumenical work. He’s right about the decreased interest in ecumenism and the reasons for it, though I think the problem extends upwards from our own generation, too. In my short time doing ecumenical work professionally, I’ve realized two things that perhaps will also shed some light on the issue. Both of them pertain to change.
It hardly needs be said that churches as a rule do not do well with change, either on the local or national level. Awhile back the old “light bulb” joke was going around on the email with respect to various denominations. The answer to “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” had a response of “Change??” (I personally thought this was uninspired and changed my version of the forward to read “Only one, but he’ll give you ninety-five reasons why it has to change.”) Where ecumenical rapprochement is concerned, no church anywhere is eager to change, whether for doctrinal, moral, cultural, ideological, or financial reasons.
But in the end, ecumenism has to mean change. If change is not an option, then all the results of ecumenical work will be prejudiced from the outset. It will always have to find a result of 1) there actually is no difference between us, therefore we can be in fellowship without change, or 2) there are ultimate differences between us, therefore we can’t be in fellowship at all. The first is simply not true; the second really is the end of ecumenism.
I suspect the way this problem affects the younger generation is that, if young adults get excited about theology at all, part of the excitement is the controversy inherent in theology. Learn about your own tradition, catch the fire, and you want to defend it at all costs. Growth in your own comes at the expense of others. It is an incredibly difficult task to teach genuine difference without engendering a disdain for the other in the process. Practically speaking, if a church seminary only has three years to form people for one of the hardest jobs on the planet and do so in a way to keep them loyal to the mother institution, they’re not going to waste their time in fine points of ecumenical fairness. I have heard reports of seminaries proud in their liberal tolerance who teach students to dismiss various points of view with a simple “That’s Baptist” or “That’s Catholic.”
If ecumenism is going to end up meaning anything at all, it’s going to mean the change of each church towards becoming The Church. That’s threatening, especially as it implies the failure of various churches to be fully The Church. But this is where the other lesson I’ve learned so far comes in. The premise of any ecumenical dialogue is that a church community actually believes in something and stands for something. In other words, before change can even be meaningful, each church has to change into itself first! Ecumenism demands faithfulness to one’s own tradition. What can ecumenical dialogue mean for Lutherans if the majority of Lutherans think they’re justified by their good works instead of by faith? Or to Catholics if the majority of Catholics disregard the authority of the pope? Or to Pentecostals if the majority of Pentecostals don’t speak in tongues?
Ecumenism should be taken seriously by Christians of all ages and vocations because it is really a call to catechesis. Our goal is not to return to a pristine age (that never existed) before some particular date (1517 or 1054 or any other you like). It’s to move towards really becoming The Church, more one, more holy, more catholic, and more apostolic. A better unity lies ahead of us than ever lay behind us, but we’ll only get there if we are more deeply converted to the gospel than ever.