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From the July/August, 2003 issue of Touchstone


The Emergent Ecumenism by Thomas C. Oden

The Emergent Ecumenism

A Response to Robert P. George

by Thomas C. Oden

Six recent ecumenical gatherings set the tone for what is being called the “new ecumenism.” (1) Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) met recently in New York for preliminary drafting of a new study on the Universal Call to Holiness. (2) Earlier I had attended the Notre Dame conference on Faith and Order, which was essentially a post-National Council of Churches (NCC) planning conference. (3) Then I went to Washington, D.C., for the meeting of the Association for Church Renewal (ACR), which is in the process of creating a theological arm of the confessing movements within the mainline. (4) Then I went to Dallas to meet with the Confessing Theologians Commission with young orthodox theologians from the mainline confessing and renewing movements to draft a statement for the first grass-roots national meeting of the Association for Church Renewal. (5) Then I chaired the board meeting of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, which seeks to ground in classical Christian teaching an ecumenical social witness within the mainline churches. (6) Then came this Touchstone conference on the unity we cannot as yet actualize, facing up to the forms of disunity that we must sustain.

All six conferences represent an emerging post-NCC ecumenism. Meanwhile, the NCC is in desperate financial straits, hanging by a budgetary thread, and probably will not be around much longer, except as a grandfathered ghost in the museum of dead modernity.

The Holy Spirit is forming a new configuration of movements deeply grounded in classical ecumenism. These efforts must not be viewed as anti-ecumenical, even though they have emerged out of a widespread disillusionment with the recent corruptions of bureaucratic ecumenism. These movements are quintessentially ecumenical, far more so than the modern ecumenical movement.

But in order to explain them, we need to grasp a working distinction between modern ecumenism and ancient ecumenism. Modern ecumenism began in 1948; ancient ecumenism began with the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 46. Ancient ecumenism is defined textually by the documents of the ancient ecumenical councils, the texts of the conciliar process, and the great consensual teachers of the first millennium. Modern ecumenism is fixated on accommodating to modern consciousness, which itself is dying. Ancient ecumenism, which is patient amid historical turbulence, and confident within and beyond history, presents a penetrating critique of the very modernity to which modern ecumenism wishes to accommodate. Hence the irony: Ancient ecumenism has become the bearer of a probing examination of modern ecumenism. We stand at a nexus of history where the Holy Spirit is acting to bring together many who are realizing this, to help us learn from each other and rediscover our unity in the risen Lord.

The Notre Dame conference on Faith and Order was called by William G. Rusch, who has been for many years the ecumenical officer at the NCC in charge of Faith and Order concerns. Faith and Order is the best thing that the modern ecumenical movement did, yet it has been treated like a stepchild. The modern ecumenical bureaucracy, focused on revolutionary pretenses of enabling massive social change, has not known what to do with Faith and Order, which had almost withered on the vine. The Notre Dame conference signals unmistakably that Faith and Order is absolutely detaching itself from any identity with or traces of reference to the old ecumenical movement—the NCC and, to a lesser extent, the World Council of Churches (WCC). We heard, for example, from one of the key Pentecostal representatives at Notre Dame that they wanted to be involved in Faith and Order, but they would not be involved if there were any visible traces of the NCC’s control. This is where we are. No one would have predicted it a few years ago. This is the surprising road we are now traveling under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our time.

Lingering Suspicions

Those expecting me to provide a searching critical review of Robert P. George’s paper may be disappointed, since I am in complete agreement with his intention and with almost all of his specific conclusions. Nonetheless, I would like to sharpen up a few nuances that flow from his important contribution.

Prof. George has provided us much wisdom in the last decade, with his careful and astute argumentation on questions of natural law, on dilemmas of legal enforcement of moral truth and value. He has helped us immensely to understand extremely difficult theological and ethical concepts, especially of the most nuanced of Catholic moral teachers, Germain Grise. We have benefited from the astute argumentation he has applied to constitutional law, to moral equivalency claims, and to the notion that every screwball idea has an absolutely equal status of respect and concern for people of good will.

Now he has turned his attention to the analysis of the new configuration of ecumenism and how that new configuration must be grounded not in negotiation or corroborated interests but in truth. Any alleged unity that is not based upon the truth, whether revealed or reasoned, is destined to collapse. We indeed are currently witnessing many familiar forms of alleged or pretended unity that are collapsing, since they have lost touch with the question of truth. One of Dr. George’s most astute observations has to do with the critique of the appearance of unity, the affectation of unity, the description of the pretense of unity not grounded in the living Body of Christ. Unity grounded in truth is neither a sentiment nor a negotiating position nor a rhetorical achievement. It is doctrinally grounded and accountable to Scripture and classical ecumenical reasoning.

Prof. George notes that in the emerging ecumenical context, previously prevailing mutual suspicions have simply vanished. This is so, and we are blessed in this. But many suspicions and divisions remain in our historical memories, clinging to the contours of our dreams. Though many suspicions have largely disappeared, the Spirit is still wooing us with the love of unity. Stereotypes that have held ground for centuries are melting. The Spirit is leading us to a deeper inward recognition of our actual oneness in Christ.

Metropolitan Maximos has aptly pointed the way: We must reground the contemporary ecumenical dialogue in the apostolic testimony, as received by the consensus fidelium of all times and places, embracing that continuing, generation-by-generation discussion of where boundaries are to be made and where the center lies. This new recognition does not dodge the difficult task of making clear distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy.

In our recent ECT discussions, we have been examining questions relating to our common confession of the communio sanctorum. This requires careful distinctions between “the community of the saints,” “community with the saints,” and “the community of holy things,” that is, sacramental communion. This brought Catholics and Evangelicals into serious differences of perspective over such issues as whether we pray to the departed faithful, and whether the saints pray for or with us, and whether we pray with or for the saints. This is an arena in which Evangelicals have very little experience. I made a suggestion—and I still think it’s right—that there is a very simple, four-fold way of approaching the amelioration of these issues:

1. Go to the scriptural loci, just as did the ancient Christian writers.

2. Look at the exegesis of the ancient Christian writers on those contested passages. Let them speak with their own voice.

3. Listen for a plausible and believable consensus of the ancient Christian writers, despite cultural and language differences.

4. Then, and only then, ask the question whether it is possible for Evangelicals as well as Catholics to consent to those deeper levels of ancient ecumenical consent.

Candidly, that suggestion went absolutely nowhere in the ensuing discussion. ECT is a forum where you might have expected that it would, but it didn’t. It appears that ECT is not yet prepared to take on that sort of task. We lack confidence that such a consensus even exists in the history of exegesis. We are still a work in progress.

The Dangers of Affected Unity

I want to underscore another point that Prof. George made, about the enormous harm, destructive power, and consequence of much that has paraded under the flag of Christian unity. Most of us are keenly and painfully aware of some of those consequences. I have not heard anyone but Prof. George talk about this so clearly. The point he made about the affectation of unity being itself a major danger to the cause of Christian unity is very pertinent. We have seen many efforts that appear on the surface to be efforts at union: efforts at negotiating an organic union, efforts at sensitivity training and good will hunting, and big tent “interfaith ecumenism.” Often these apparent efforts at unity conceal intensely competing moral conceptions and political agendas.

The problem here is that these so-called ecumenical efforts have sometimes given us a perfunctory excuse for covering over our actual lack of unity in the body of Christ, and our real recalcitrance, our lack of repentance, our modes of defensiveness grounded in our particular historical memories of the consensus fidelium, which remain as yet uninformed by ancient ecumenical exegesis. All this amounts to a feigned “ecumenical” covering over of the question of truth in the name of chic ecumenicity.

That is precisely where the emerging ecumenism is taking a new path. It is becoming more courageous. It is learning how again to grasp the classical consensus, and regain the capacity to distinguish faith and heresy. This is what the ancient ecumenists learned how to do within the vicissitudes of cultural conflict, even at great cost. They sought to define the consensus fidelium on the basis of Scripture as commonly received in all times and places. They developed a rigorous ecumenical method that was exegetically grounded. We have not yet learned how to do that. Modern ecumenism has deceived itself with the fantasy that we are somehow united, while we really have been engaged in this counter-ecumenical process of pretending to tell the truth.

I am appealing, as Prof. George has, for a stringent effort at ecumenical truth-telling grounded in ancient ecumenism. As we actually walk in the way of truth, we will behold more clearly the varieties of gifts the Holy Spirit is giving to the Body of Christ in our diverse cultures. So there is a charism that comes from this kind of conversation and walk in the world—a charism of recognition of the variety of gifts in the providences of history, even in our divisions. This indeed is the theme of this conference.

No conference like this, to my knowledge, has ever been held. We are all concerned about Christian unity. We all feel the call of the prayer of Jesus that we may all be one that the world may believe. We exist in the midst of long-standing historical differences.

Yet even within each of our communions, as Prof. George has pointed out, we have this Kulturkampf going on, and we have a continuing ideological battle in which, up to this point, it appears that the forces of secularization are in ascendancy. Wrong, but so perceived. That is an illusion that we ourselves have prematurely accepted. The Holy Spirit is doing something quite different in our time: nurturing and eliciting incarnational truth, from vine to branch.

Prof. George has rightly challenged believers to take up the discussion of Ut Unum Sint. Protestants have not done this, nor have I heard much talk about it since Ut Unum Sint was issued. Avery Cardinal Dulles and Richard John Neuhaus have helped me understand the decisive importance of this Vatican document for future Evangelical and Catholic interaction. In it we have been boldly invited by Pope John Paul II to share in the reformulation, study, and re-conceptualization of the Petrine office! While some may think the framing of the invitation is prejudicial, I think it is seriously made in good faith. Few Protestants have responded to this encyclical, and it has been out there for some time. This is an important challenge that Prof. George has laid before us. I hope we will not ignore it.

A Reversal in the Power Structures

Another of Dr. George’s caveats focuses on the inordinate influence that defensive bureaucracies have had in the modern church. What they lack in populist numbers, the bureaucrats make up for by their deft control of elite structures. They comfort themselves with the fantasy that unity is best acquired not by truth but by shrewd conflict analysis. They imagine that history is on their side.

Although in the short run such may be the case, in the longer term a basic reversal is occurring—from modern bureaucratic to classical ecumenism, from ecumenical panhandling to the truth of the gospel that engenders the unity of the body of Christ through the Spirit. This is already occurring in the Catholic tradition. It didn’t, in many ways, need to occur in the Orthodox tradition and arguably in some Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist communions. But within the liberal Protestant “mainstream” (so-called), where I come from, it needs desperately to occur, and is in fact occurring. There are renewing and confessing movements in every mainline denomination. There are four in the United Church of Canada, more than a dozen in the United Methodist Church, and half a dozen in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA). These are pivotal movements signaling to the controlling bureaucracies that they can no longer take seriously their presumed hegemony.

It seemed at first that the faithful within PCUSA took a huge defeat in 2001. The Presbyterian bureaucracy vastly overreached on the decision called Amendment A (which would delete the provision upholding traditional standards of sexual morality), which was being referred to the presbyteries. It went down to defeat by a two-to-one margin, to the astonishment of the liberal elite establishment.

Bureaucratic ecumenism nurses a fantasy of control on the assumption that it holds the moral high ground. But this is proving to be a defensive and despairing illusion. If you read the criticism by the liberal elites of the renewing and confessing movements in the mainline, you will see how frightened and hysterical some of their defensiveness has become. We have not yet turned the huge ship of the mainline around, but we have beheld evidences of new life in orthodox Christianity. This new life is not due to our ingenuity or strategic astuteness, but to the work of the Spirit changing even those denominational bureaucracies that appeared so invulnerable only a few years ago. Those leaders have been overconfident, and now are suddenly feeling the heat of the reversal. That is indeed occurring, and it is what we are calling the “emerging ecumenism” or “new ecumenism.”

Why do we call it new when it is really, of course, the ancient ecumenism? Is this merely a rhetorical strategy? No. It is indeed a new ecumenism when viewed in relation to the prevailing modern ecumenism, which feeds on the assumption of modern chauvinism that if something is new, it’s got to be better than whatever came before. What we mean by the “new ecumenism” is the ancient ecumenical teaching held fast by the faithful of all times and places. This ancient teaching is taking on new life amid the collapse of the NCC-style, bureaucratic, liberal ecumenism that was hegemonic from 1948 to 1998 (Amsterdam to Harare). That 50-year period represents for both the NCC and the WCC the whole narrative of their beginning, their apogee, and their abrupt decline. On its fiftieth anniversary the NCC had a party, and spent $270,000 for the celebration. Anyone who looks at the financial records of the NCC for the last five years will see that each year, they have promised to their mainline allies to make radical financial and fiscal reforms, and in each year, they have failed to realize those promises. Now they’re at the end of their rope of credibility. They cannot hang on much longer.

Funereal Sorrow

This observation is not anti-ecumenical, but rather, and more profoundly, classically ecumenical. Those of us who were old hands in the modern ecumenical movement, but who have now moved toward truth-telling grounded in classic ecumenism, view ourselves as steadily ecumenical, only deepening our ecumenical commitment in the last decade through the recovery of classical ecumenical teaching. Meanwhile, the affectation of unity on a surface level dodges the deeper question of the truth through which the Spirit intends to unite us.

I was reading recently an old book that has been on my shelf a long time: Power Without Glory, by Ian Henderson, a Scottish theologian from Glasgow who wrote in the sixties. This book had a very limited circulation on an unpopular theme. It is a straightforward account of the growing influence of the modern ecumenical movement in Scotland. Its premise: Modern bureaucratic ecumenism has served as a cover for a radical declension of the vitality of Scottish piety.

Now, this rhetoric sounds shocking to the ecclesial bureaucrats. It sounds like I am angry at the modern ecumenical effort—far from the case. In a recent conversation with William Rusch, I asked him, “How far do you go along with my analysis of this?” He said he largely went along with my analysis, except for its anger.

I replied, “Bill, I don’t feel anger at all. I feel like I’ve just been to the death of a friend.” I’ve been at a funeral—the funeral of the old ecumenical movement, the funeral of all of the structures to which I, for many years, have given my energies. I was in Evanston in 1954, at the Geneva Conference in 1966, and in Harare in 1998. I have been trying to be responsibly involved in the ecumenical process for a long time, but I now believe it is simply gone as an artifact of modernity. So, it’s not anger, it’s sadness—and it is a desire for a new vitality of unity based on truth that is indeed in the process of emerging.  

Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at the Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and an ordained United Methodist minister. In the early 1970s, he discovered the ancient Christian writers, an encounter that reversed his theological vision. He is General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity) and the author, most recently, of The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (Harper SanFrancisco).

“The Emergent Ecumenism” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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