A Crucial Unity
The Grim Realities of Ecumenism Today
by Raymond J. Keating
When I approached the editor of this magazine about covering a conference on ecumenism, he warned that Christian unity was “one of those subjects that sends even the most articulate to Cliches ’R Us.” Good point, I thought, having been guilty of shopping there on occasion.
So, as I set off in mid-September for Princeton, New Jersey, for a conference titled “In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity—An Ecumenical Conference on the Problems and Prospects Facing Church Unity,” my radar was up for any Pollyanna-like talk that glossed over today’s formidable obstacles that not only stand in the way of broader Christian unity, but to unity within various Christian denominations.
Sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and held at the Center for Theological Inquiry, the conference built on The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, which was hammered out over some three years and signed by sixteen theologians and scholars. That declaration was published in book form by Eerdmans in 2003 as In One Body Through the Cross.
Among the signers were the Methodist theologians William Abraham and Geoffrey Wainwright; Catholic theologians Brian Daley and R. R. Reno; an Orthodox theologian, John R. Erickson; one Episcopalian, J. Robert Wright; and several Lutherans, including George Lindbeck.
Several of the signers spoke at the conference, including Vigen Guroian, an Orthodox theologian and professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College; Susan Wood, a Roman Catholic and professor of theology at Marquette University; and David Yeago, professor of systematic theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. The speakers offered their views on the state of the ecumenical movement, and therefore, the opportunities and obstacles facing the Princeton Proposal.
As it turned out, the conference was not a case of ecumenical cheerleading. Instead, it was firmly rooted in the grim realities of ecumenism, but with obvious trust in the redemptive and transforming power of Jesus Christ, and emphasizing the necessary role of Christian suffering in the effort for greater unity.
The Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson, the outgoing assistant director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, noted in his opening remarks that the theologians who worked on the Princeton Proposal insisted that the title include “through the Cross.” Jenson noted that unity would “require churches to suffer” the “loss of things they rightly value.” He called it “penitential.”
That idea echoed the actual document In One Body Through the Cross, which declared: “Significant aspects of our traditions must be rethought if they are truly to witness to the one apostolic faith rather than to our divisions. . . . The disciplines of unity are penitential. As St. Paul teaches, for the sake of unity we must be willing to suspend gospel freedom and conform to the limitations of the weak.”
It continued: “It will also require our churches to embrace a spiritual poverty that has the courage to forego genuine riches of a tradition for the sake of a more comprehensive unity in the truth of the gospel.”
The idea that ecumenical reconciliation required suffering was evident at varying levels and degrees throughout much of the conference. David Yeago spoke of “labor” for unity that “testifies to the fullness of salvation for which there is no substitute.” Jenson suggested the need for churches to send “ministers of unity” for stays in other church bodies, “even if sacramental deprivation is needed.” Susan Wood told me that simply “to stay at the table” and offer the financial commitments and the necessary patience with “glacially slow” progress were “penitential practices.”
Perhaps the strongest call to suffering came from Philip Turner, who is vice president of the Anglican Communion Network. Regarding the deep conflict within the Anglican Churches, particularly since the Episcopal Church ordained the openly homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop, Turner called on individual believers not to leave, not to foster factions, and not to just lie low until one’s time is up. Instead, he emphasized the need to “stay this path” and “maintain your witness.” One conference attendee summed up that Turner was calling for a kind of martyrdom.
What about suffering possible losses of valued things? I asked Jenson what his fellow Lutherans might have to sacrifice. He mentioned that looking “only” to the Augsburg Confession and justification was “bogus,” and that autonomy among Lutheran bodies would have to give way to a “permanent magisterium.” In his earlier comments, Jenson had argued that without a magisterium, division fights against reunion.
When asked what Roman Catholics might give up, Wood noted that the historic episcopate would not go, but raised the issue of “a more nuanced view of apostolicity.” She asked: “Can we acknowledge imperfect apostolicity?”
But why all of this suffering in the name of greater church unity? Many Christians wonder if it matters, while some declare it impossible. Besides, others ask, wouldn’t the energies and resources now devoted to ecumenical activity be better channeled into spreading the Good News, for example?
Those gathering in Princeton in September countered that unity is a Christian imperative. Princeton Theological Seminary’s Bruce McCormack, a Presbyterian and another signer of the Princeton Proposal, who called himself “a reluctant convert to ecumenism,” noted that unity is “not a luxury,” but a necessity that “belongs to the mission of the church.”
The speakers argued in different ways that Christians must pursue visible unity as an intrinsic good and a necessary service to the church’s mission. As In One Body Through the Cross declared: “In its origins and at its heart, ecumenism is a penitent awareness that our divisions contradict and jeopardize the gracious gift of God, who has already joined his children together as one body in the Spirit of the Son (Eph. 4:3–4). The bond that joins each other, though grounded in the interior working of the Holy Spirit, is not meant to be invisible; it must have a visible edge.”
The statement then adds: “To work against the visible manifestation of the unity God has given us, or to accept its absence with resignation, is therefore resistance to God’s Spirit and exposes us to God’s judgment.” One conference attendee speaking from the floor labeled Christian division as “blasphemy,” to which Yeago essentially agreed.
Vigen Guroian, the Orthodox theologian from Loyola College, perhaps best resolved the apparent conflict in ecumenism today. He simply said: “I am by nature”—and, he later added in conversation, by “experience”—“a pessimist. By faith, I am an optimist.”
The website of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, which publishes the journal Pro Ecclesia, can be found at www.e-ccet.org.
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“A Crucial Unity” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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