From the beginning of the ecumenical movement in the 19th century each of the churches involved in this growing quest for local and global unity brought their respective gifts and backgrounds to an ongoing search for common mission. This quest has clearly been fueled by the prayer of Jesus in John 17:20-24 more than by any other biblical text. Our Lord prayed, the night before he went to the cross, that we would all be one so that the world might know that the Father had sent the Son. All efforts to understand these modern historical developments must be understood in the light of how churches and leaders have worked out the implications of this amazing prayer.
When Vatican II changed how the Catholic Church related to the world, as well as to the proclamation of the gospel, things really began to move in a new direction. The now popular Catholic commitment to the “New Evangelization” entered the Catholic missiological vocabulary in the 1980s but found its first prominent expression in 1992 at the Council of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) 4th General Conference – “New Evangelization, Human Development, Christian Culture.” Pope John Paul II had been using the term since 1984.
[Then some Catholic leaders in Latin America saw the term] as a counter-weight to developments in Liberation Theology. Though the language may have developed from its use by Pope John Paul in the Latin American context, it is more generally taken to mean renewal of Gospel outreach especially in lands, like Latin America and Europe, where secularization has eroded a once Christian culture and where new energies and strategies of renewal are called for. Indeed, the Synod shows the vision to be much more complex and promising” (Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC; in the private paper: “The New Evangelization: Unity in Proclamation and the Proclamation of Unity,” 1).
Interestingly the first new office of the Roman Curia initiated by Pope Benedict XVI (2010) was the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. This development gave prominence and permanence to a vision of mission proposed by Pope John Paul II in a 1996 address in Germany:
The new evangelization is therefore the order of the day. . . .The task of evangelization involves moving toward each other and moving together as Christians, and it must begin from within; evangelization and unity, evangelization and ecumenism are indissolubly linked with each other. . . .Because the question of the new evangelization is very close to my heart as bishop of Rome I consider overcoming the divisions of Christianity ‘one of the pastoral priorities’” (quoted by Brother Jeffrey Gros in “The New Evangelization,” 1).
My friend Jeff Gros, who I have quoted liberally above, says that there can be no real doubt that ecumenism was central to these developments within the mind and heart of Pope John Paul II. Jeff further believes that the Synod of Bishops held last fall in Rome may have begun a historic period of major proportions that will prove to be “ground breaking.” The involvement of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (Orthodox) and Archbishop Rowan Williams (Anglican) were both singled out for their substantive contributions to the synod. But Jeff suggests that the real sea-change came in the witness given by theologians and leaders from the evangelical Protestant stream. These “ecumenical partners” were “hardly on the horizon of the Council Fathers’ imagination in the 1960s” (Jeffrey Gros, “The New Evangelization”, 2). Jeff further notes that there was only one Pentecostal guest at Vatican II and a lone Southern Baptist “journalist.” Yet last fall both groups were represented by prominent voices from these, and other, evangelical traditions.
The Southern Baptists (SBC) formally withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance more than a decade ago. (This was a result of the conservative shift in the SBC.) In 2001 the SBC withdrew from all formal conversations with the US Catholic Bishops, something that it had been engaged in for more than three decades. What is happening now? Jeff Gros, who was also actively involved in our Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation last week in Mundelein, rightly says that while the two largest Protestant church bodies in the United States may not formally be in a relationship with the Vatican what is clear is that “scholarship, collaboration and personal commitments on both sides are very much alive and significant for the future of the New Evangelization globally and in the U.S.” (“The New Evangelization,” 3). He adds that a third voice has become increasingly prominent in these dialogues – that of the World Evangelical Alliance, a fellowship which actually represents a good number of conservative evangelical churches and church bodies from around the world. This relationship is growing stronger by the day. Jeff Gros thus adds:
Certainly these testimonies will be a great resource to the Catholic bishops in places like Latin America where Evangelical–Catholic tensions are a great burden for the New Evangelization. They are also an encouragement to the evangelicals and Catholics who have been working to build ecumenical bridges between these communities for decades, to see their witness vindicated in the international forum (Gros, 4).
Add to these developments the first ever Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation, an informal dialogue between friends in Christ, and you have a growing witness to the Spirit’s work to unite us in mission and evangelization. Our conversation did not result in a formal paper or an ecclesial agreement but it did allow us to enter into prayerful conversation with one another in a whole new way. We did so with deep mutual respect and clear evidence of love for Christ and his kingdom. We shared “life together” (admittedly for only three days) and we discussed what might work in the future to unite us in Christ’s mission. Our effort was truly informal and was built from the grassroots up. This may, or may not, solve some of the problems that keep us apart. I believe with all my heart that the place to start this effort is always in a relationship with people who love Christ and the gospel, not with papers and structural attempts to bring us together in faith and order as the first step. Indeed, I believe the ecumenical movement should include both formal and informal dialogues as well as fresh, forward looking papers on how to solve very real problems and how to think about our present unity as Christians and our prayerful goal of deeper unity and union. We cannot afford to delay this conversation and these kinds of personal movements of prayer. We must put aside malice and misunderstanding and work very intentionally for unity. Unity is a gift that God has already given to us but it must also be understood as a gift that we labor together to receive and then humbly apply to us and to our respective churches. This is what we did in Mundelein last week. I thus believe that conversation and prayer matter deeply. I also believe there is much more to be done.
Soli Deo Gloria.