We live in the era of global ecumenism. The word ecumenism is actually derived from the Greek oikoumene, which literally means “the whole inhabited world.” It was originally used with reference to the whole of the Roman Empire. In the ancient Christian Church the word was first used in contexts such as an “Ecumenical council” or the “Ecumenical patriarch.” Here the meaning pertained to the totality of the larger Church (e.g. the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church) rather than to one of its constituent churches or dioceses. Used in this original sense, the term was expanded in the last century or more to refer to the re-uniting of the historically separated Christian denominations. I use it in both senses – for the reality of the global church and the work of reuniting historic churches, though I take it that this work will likely follow patterns yet to be seen in the Spirit’s creativity and timing.
Ecumenism has plainly become a definite movement within visible Christianity. To varying degrees Christian leaders and theologians now recognize this reality. Sadly, many conservative Christians have widely embraced the tendency to resist ecumenism because of what they see as a compromise of Christian truth claims through ecumenical dialogue.
In an academic article, published in 1952, a scholar said that modern ecumenism aims at “the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church’s mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church’s obligation to be one” (“The Calling of the Church to Mission and to Unity,” Theology Today, vol. 9, no. 1, 15). In this understanding we see a trajectory that moves toward unity and collaboration among various Christians and churches. This definition clearly underscores that the two truths that move us in this direction are: (1) Christ’s mission to the world, and; (2) Our obligation to be one, not just in word or spiritual (often defined as “unseen”) reality, but in our actual life together.
For some Catholics ecumenism has only meant a desire to bring all who profess the Christian faith in baptism into a single, visible organization. This has very often been understood as “returning to Rome,” or union with the Catholic Church.
For other Catholics, and many Protestants as well, spiritual unity has been enough. The problem with this type of “spiritual unity” (at least as it has often been understood) is it fails to address important issues squarely. It also tends to settle for something far less that what Jesus actually prayed for in John 17:20-24. In this way of thinking “spiritual unity” was never truly lost. It has only been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences, through what one writer calls “spiritual myopia.”
How then should we proceed? I believe that we must intentionally move toward Christ as the center of faith of real Christian faith. In Christ alone unity can be rediscovered as a God-given reality in our actual practice. This comes about through the gift of love. Here we can learn how to love one another as we work for a shared witness to the world. The result of this rediscovery of unity should be a deep and Spirit-given recognition of our public and missional fellowship. This recognition may well be seen in a new way forward, a way that we do not presently see but one in which the Holy Spirit guides us into a deeper commitment to Christ at our center and his mission as our shared call to the world. In my book Your Church Is Too Small I call this “missional-ecumenism.” In the words of a rhetorical question a leader in the World Council of Churches spoke to me in private several years ago: “John, at the end of the day is there any other ecumenism that really matters than missional-ecumenism?”