In this final blog on the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation in Mundelein last week I want to draw attention to what I have called (in my blogs last week) “the springtime of ecumenism.” There is, as I’ve written, a variety of opinions about this interpretation so I would like to explain why I adopt this response. My reasons are not rooted in pessimism or optimism. They are grounded in what I’ve seen, read and heard. They are also rooted in Christian hope, a gospel reality that has little or nothing to do with optimism or pessimism.
Let me give you several reasons why some believe that we are in the “wintertime” of ecumenism. First, groups like the National Council of Churches (NCC) are failing and faltering. Related structured movements are aging and financially declining. The energy of younger Christians is almost entirely absent from these movements and institutions. The World Council of Churches is doing slightly better, mostly due to the vision it draws from the global south and east, but it also faces major challenges in the next few decades. The history of formal ecumenism is little known among most of the Christians I know, including many scholars, but it is an important study in my view. Not only is this history not widely known but fewer still know what happened to bring about the decline of these formal ecumenical efforts.
Second, Protestants did the largest part of the serious ecumenical work in the first half of the twentieth century. Since Vatican II this has taken a sharp turn. Now Catholics have formally, and informally, engaged in ecumenical dialogue as never before. This is a huge positive but at the same time that Catholics have deeply engaged in ecumenism many Protestant communions have been moving toward progressive political and moral agendas that deeply challenge the work of serious ecumenism. Both parties are laboring to remain in the conversation but the liberalizing tendencies of some historic Protestant churches presents real challenges to ecumenism with both Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Third, the Orthodox Church has always been a reluctant participant in ecumenism. While the Catholic Church never joined the mainstream movements Orthodoxy did but then has had buyer’s remorse in recent years. Orthodoxy has some remarkable things to contribute to the whole church. Yet Orthodoxy has had a hard time relating to churches outside of their own ethnic contexts. It is significant that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew contributed to the recent Synod of Bishops on evangelization in Rome (October, 2012) and also attended the inauguration of Pope Francis, a breakthrough of major consequence that took many people by surprise. The media widely reported the historical significant of this symbolic action. (Symbolism does have consequence, contrary to what many evangelicals think.)
So, why do I write about a “springtime” for ecumenism?
First, the former president of the American Bible Society, Dr. Lamar Vest (a former general Overseer of the Church of God – Cleveland, Tennessee), spoke at the Synod of Bishops on the “New Evangelization” in October. This was a huge first! In addition, Dr. Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and respected evangelical scholar/leader, also spoke at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Both men represent the “springtime” of evangelical renewal by their engagement in serious ecumenism. Coming up behind these older leaders is a generation of younger men and women who want to engage in the same missional concerns rooted in ecumenism. These young leaders have no collective memory of past divisions and bitter schism. They see, instead, a whole new way to approach our differences. This new way is not easily understood by many in my generation since they tend to think in terms of older paradigms rooted in certitude and confidence in rational intelligence. I welcome these younger Christians as a new way of being post-Constantinian, post-conservative and post-liberal. This “new way” opens doors for dialogue and collaboration that could well lead to greater unity and perhaps, someday soon, new expressions of union. This will not be the way of theological compromise but rather of new ways of understanding how we can embrace diversity while we still seek unity in every way possible.
Second, this new ecumenism is more self-consciously rooted in community action and Christian service. As young Christians serve the poor together, create communities of new monasticism and envision fresh ways of living faithfully together in a globally connected world they model a new spirit of love and oneness. This bodes well for a “springtime” in the days ahead.
Third, the global Lausanne movement, of which I was a part of last week, is not an ecclesiastical movement but rather a “movement” of committed disciples and disciple-makers who want to live and preach the gospel faithfully to the whole world. What unites Lausanne is not simply theology but core orthodoxy rooted in evangelism and mission. Lausanne embraces trinitarian orthodoxy but it is not formally a confessional church movement. It is just that – a movement. This allows Lausanne to contribute something that has been a vital part of the whole church down through the ages. Over the last several years I have discovered a number of lay Catholic movements that have gone global in their impact. From these movements I have seen the same kind of “new ecumenism” at work in deeply personal and effective ways. To those who would say this is not going to solve our bigger problems–such as our failure to be able to commune at the eucharist–I would seriously urge you to engage with such movements and discover what God is doing when honesty and diversity are embraced by brothers and sisters in Christ’s love.
Conservative Catholic writer George Weigel has written a new book with a provocative title that would never have appeared until the events I described yesterday began to unfold over the last two decades. His title is: Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church. Even if you do not agree with Weigel’s conservative agenda at some points, and many of my Catholic dialogue partners do not, you cannot help but be struck by this title and how it came about over the last few years.
Cardinal Dolan’s endorsement on the back cover is in the spirit of our Mundelein meetings: “This sparkling read puts all the old Church labels – liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. traditionalist, pre- vs. post- Vatican II – in the shredder. Now there is only one valid adjective for all of us: evangelical. Simply put, this means we take our baptismal promises with the utmost seriousness. Like the Samaritan woman, we’ve met a man – Jesus – who has changed our lives.”
The good, old-fashioned word “evangelical” could have a new meaning and thereby become a word of unity if we seek to make the good news the center of our prayers and Christian witness to the whole world.