What Progress Ecumenism?

Since the ecumenical ventures of the sixties, progress towards church union has seemingly slowed. The efforts which churches were making to merge into ever larger denominations seemed to be put on the back burner of ecclesiastical concerns. But if the impressions were being left that ecumenism was no longer of concern to the church, a recent article in Reader’s Digest served to correct that impression. Although ecumenical ventures may be taking on different forms, the pressures in that direction remain. We include some summary quotes from the article to demonstrate this.

The article starts out by saying:

Not long ago, a commission of U.S. Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians wound up a three-year study of Papal authority with a startling conclusion. Catholics, they reported in substance, over-claimed when they said that Christ appointed Peter as the first Pope, but Protestants have failed to acknowledge that a chief overseer is needed. . . .

A little earlier, a commission of Anglican and Catholic theologians, after reviewing the great Reformation debate over whether during the communion service Christ is physically present in the bread and wine, came to the conclusion that what counts is the real presence of Christ in the hearts of the participants.

Two more momentous developments could not be imagined in the wave of religious tolerance set off by the late Pope John XXIII’s decision to convene the Second Vatican Council. . . .

After discussing briefly the stymied efforts of COCU (Consultation on Church Union) to form a denomination of 24 million members out of nine different denominations, the article goes on to say:

Yet even those churches that would not join COCU in the beginning increasingly talk of some ultimate form of reunion growing out of gradual convergences in belief and practice.

If reunion comes, the result will bear little resemblance to the old-style military chain-of-command kind of church polity. Even recent Vatican statements on ecumenism have begun to sound the cautionary note that any new association of churches must allow each religious community to preserve its “spiritual patrimony”. . . . Yet, 49 of the 169 Roman Catholic dioceses in this country now are full members of local councils of churches (up from one just five years ago), and there is serious speculation that before too long the National Conference of Catholic Bishops will affiliate with the National Council of Churches of Christ in America.

The efforts towards union are evidently becoming increasingly broad:

In a few places, the church councils now include Jews. In Connecticut, Stamford, Darien, Greenwich and New Canaan are served by a Council of Churches and Synagogues. . . .

A few quotes will demonstrate the different forms ecumenism is taking:

Many churches, particularly in the inner cities, are finding that they can survive only if they join forces. In Kansas City, MO., one Presbyterian church was down to 50 congregants, mostly elderly women. A nearby congregation of the United Church of Christ had a similar problem. . . . Once the decision was made to combine forces, nearby Catholics and Episcopalians asked for and received permission to hold their services with the other two congregations. Today there is a new $400,000 building offering Mass at 9 a.m. and a combined Protestant service at 11. . . .

To meet religious needs, Columbia formed a Religious Facilities Corporation, which built a $1 million multiple-denomination church building. Its 23,000 square feet of usable space includes conference rooms often used for Sunday-school classes and nursery, pastors’ studies, worship halls and lounges now used by four Christian and three. Jewish congregations. . . .

Reston, Va., another “new town,” took a slightly different tack. When United Redeemer Methodist became firmly rooted there, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), United Church of Christ, the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of the United States . . . joined it to form the United Christian Parish of Reston, which now has two centers of worship and plans four eventually. The ministers rotate between the two worship centers, one of which is characterized by an informal style to appeal to younger members. As a prototype for future, wider reunion, each parish member is regarded as a member in full standing of all five of the sponsoring denominations.

In an attempt to analyze somewhat the movement, the article makes some observations.

A distinct “plus” in the movement toward church reunion is an increase in good manners and a decrease in petty inter-church quarrels. One area where common courtesy was long overdue was in what used to be called “mixed marriage.” In Massachusetts, a statewide Commission on Christian Unity, representing, among others, four Catholic dioceses and also Baptists, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Lutherans and United Church of Christ, has published new guidelines for what are now called “ecumenical marriages.” Entitled “Living the Faith You Share,” the guidelines urge these couples to worship together from time to time, to educate their children ecumenically and to conduct home worship. The Episcopal diocese advised its clergy: “We must not make the couple feel guilty of falling in love, when in fact the churches are guilty of the sin of separation.”

Asking the question: “What would it take to get the churches really back together again?” the article discusses a few views of some ecumenical leaders.

Some ecumenists think that it will take a terrible scourge, a cataclysm of some sort. Others hope that the difficulties the churches seem to be having in holding their members and clergy, the deterioration in the quality of society around them, will increasingly make Christians more conscious of their likenesses than of their differences.

The hope is for a stronger church.

They look on membership losses as resulting in fewer but more dedicated Christians who will be more effective.

One theologian remarked:

that “growing secularity of our time” was driving Southern Baptists . . . and Catholics . . . toward each other. . . . “‘To save the world’ by Christian definitions is a large order, and even God may need both of us to get the job done.”

The general impression left by the article is that ecumenism is by no means a thing of the past. It is alive and well. The emphasis is however, quite different. While, during the sixties, the emphasis fell on denominational merger, this movement gradually slowed partly because the denominational leaders were far ahead of the people in the pew. And when the people in the pew voiced their objections loudly enough, the leaders were forced to pause in their headlong rush. They could not carry the people along. Now however, merger is more of a local matter. Within various cities churches are cooperating in various tasks—if they are not actually merging. In various Councils there is increased cooperation not only between denominations, but also between religions.

Nevertheless, the leaders have not given up their dreams of nation-wide churches, if not world-wide churches. And they are still busy meeting, discussing their differences, finding where they can agree and how they can put their agreements into effect. They are busy plotting the next steps to be taken and they are considering how best to deal with a lagging laity which repeatedly slows their efforts.

There seems to be little reason why the majority of denominations, denominations which have the largest membership rolls, should not get together. Membership in many denominations is a social matter. Doctrinal differences and church political differences mean little if anything in a time of doctrinal indifference. Liturgical differences are no longer barriers when most denominations are engaging in some form of liturgical renewal, and when all the emphasis is on social work. It would seem that only a certain traditionalism still keeps most denominations apart.

Nevertheless, the pressures are so strong that the leaders will some day have their way. We may be sure that there will be no room, not only in the new ecclesiastical structures being erected, but in the world as a whole, for the Church of Christ. Ecclesiastical union, in most of its forms, is opposition to God. That is its deepest spiritual principle. And opposition to God always manifests itself in opposition to those who represent God’s cause in the world.