The Death of the Ecumenical Movement?

23 January 2007

I am bumping this post up, because I think it was poorly structured and it could be misunderstood due to my poor writing.  I’ve revised it for clarity.

*    *    *    *    *

The Young Fogey linked to Prior Peter regarding his post about the death of the ecumenical movement.

Father Prior indicates an interesting and important distinction between two different kinds of ecumenism. What he calls the “top-down” ecumenism, I think, is in some sense a movement toward symbolic gestures.

The Call to Common Mission, the full communion agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, is a good thing, as is the ELCA’s commitment to forging ties of full communion with every major Protestant denomination in the US. The problem with these agreements and with top-down ecumenism is that day-to-day and week-to-week, they are meaningless.

Consider the good work of the Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, with its Evangelical Covenant, American Baptist, and Episcopal pastors and congregation made up largely of Salvationists.  A smattering of other denominations —the ELCA and the Presbyterian Church, and I am sure there are others— are also representations  The three pastoral denominations have no formal ties to each other (that I know of, at least), and yet the pastors are all witnessing and pastoring in truth and integrity to their own tradition and spiritual journey.  Same goes for the members and congregants.  They share fellowship, both in church and outside, and see each others as Christians first, and members of distinct denominations second.

I remember going to attend a 1928 BCP mass at a particularly conservative Episcopal parish nearby, where in the worship booklet it explicitly says all baptized Christians are welcome to receive Communion. I spoke with the rector after mass; when I told him I was a member of an ELCA church, he sucked his teeth and seemed a little uncomfortable having given me communion ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

I also remember a Tuesday morning at MyChurch —and this was before the beginnings of My Current Denominational Situation, when I was fairly happy as an ELCA Lutheran— when the local pastors meet to discuss the upcoming lectionary readings. When the past of MyChurch said, “And there’s even an Episcopal priest who meets with us.” “Nothing wrong about the Episcopalians,” I replied, which was met with a funny, I’m-not-so-sure-about-that look. It struck me that although the Call to Common Mission is the party line and a fine document when a church can’t find a pastor and all they can find is an Episcopal priest or when planning joint services, I get the sense that for most ELCA Lutherans there is something definitely wrong with the Episcopal Church.  If you compare Reconciler with my experiences at that 1928 BCP mass and at MyChurch, you see that the local level is where ecumenism lives, but also where it dies.

Something like the Call to Common Mission is meaningless in situations where people still look at each other askance from the doors of their respective churches.  It is also meaningless if the terms of the agreement are believed only as much as needed for the agreement to stick.  The ELCA agreed to recognize the role of the historic episcopate within the church; do ELCA Lutherans, by and large, really believe in a special role for bishops?  No, I don’t think so.  We can stand together as Christians, but unless we’re inclined to do that all the time, at moments not charged with meaning and significance, then what good is full communion at all?

Prior Peter gets it right when he points to his monastery’s work in the world as a prime example of real-world ecumenism. So is the Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, and it’s one where it’s not just Protestants getting together and watering down their theology.

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One Response to “The Death of the Ecumenical Movement?”

  1. Tripp Says:

    It’s only a flesh wound.

    Sorry.

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