Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ecumenical Autumn: Part 1

For those of you who have been wondering what Crusty Old Dean does in his spare time -- I gave a series of talks in Michigan and Alabama in October and early November, musing on the past, present, and future of the ecumenical movement. I've broken those talks up into three parts, and will be rolling them out in the next few days, while fine-tuning some future posts on structure & the Episcopal Church.

“Harvesting the Fruits: Ecumenical Autumn, Not Ecumenical Winter”

The Very Rev’d Thomas Ferguson, PhD


I began my work in the Ecumenical Office back in July of 2001, and came to Bexley Hall in July of 2011 -- and thus spent just one week shy of ten full years to the day working for the Presiding Bishop’s office. If you do the math, you can also tell I only got one week’s vacation from finishing one job before beginning another, and, since that week involved moving, it really wasn’t a a vacation at all. But I digress.

From 2001-2009 I was assistant ecumenical officer. The main focus of my work was the Episcopal Church’s full communion partnerships with the ELCA and Old Catholics, along with bilateral dialogues with the Orthodox, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Moravians. From 2009-2010 I was Interim Ecumenical Officer, and from 2010-2011 Ecumenical Officer, where my work more or less included all aspects of our ecumenical and interreligious partnerships as well as participation in ecumenical organizations such as the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, and Christian Churches Together, among others.

So for the past ten years I lived and breathed the ecumenical movement. And it has been an interesting time, one which has been marked by transition: some of the great leaders of the movement, such as Avery Dulles from the Roman Catholic Church, Louis Mudge from the Presbyterian Church, Paul Crow from the Disciples of Christ, Pope John Paul II, and others either retired or passed into the next life. It's been a time of change, yet also one which has been pervaded, at times, but a tinge of nostalgia for days gone by. The flush of ecumenism in the 1950s and 1960s, when so much was accomplished, with visions of even more things as possible, seems to many to be so long ago.

At times there also seems to be a sense in the churches that ecumenism has seen its better days. Or maybe it's just that the church seems obsessed with other things; how often, after all, does talk of ecumenism or ecumenical cooperation pervade the overall, mainstream discourse in our churches? It may be surprising to know that a leading ecumenist, John Mott, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in helping to bring Christian denominations together. A Lutheran bishop also won the Nobel Peace Prize, largely in part due to his work in helping to bring the ecumenical movement into being in the 20th century. Or that two different Episcopal bishops appeared on the cover of Time magazine, largely as a result of their pioneering work in ecumenical dialogues? The days when Christians get mainstream recognition for ecumenical cooperation shows, in some ways, just how long ago that flush of ecumenism was. Our churches seem more preoccupied or obsessed with other matters. Ecumenism is seen by many as having fallen on hard times. In some places ecumenism even seems to be a dirty word, as if it’s a compromise of some kind that threatens our identity or even our very existence. Or, to put it another way: As my wife said when I told her they had offered me the job as Dean of Bexley Hall, she said, “You sure know how to pick growth industries – moving from ecumenism and national staff to theological education.”

In my ten years on the job as various incarnations of the ecumenical officer, I heard something with increased frequency as the years went by. Reflecting, perhaps, some people’s impression of where the ecumenical movement was going, some of those feelings I outlined above, it seems that I heard the term the term “ecumenical winter” more and more frequently as that decade as ecumenical officer went on. The reason for that “ecumenical winter” seemed to differ depending on context, but it seemed to come up with more frequency. Indicating, perhaps, that the best days were behind and we were entering a lean time in our ecumenical partnerships, or maybe even a kind of death.

I have to say I never really agreed with that. We are certainly in for some change and transition in our ecumenical partnerships and relations, but I do not think it is winter: winter sort of implies something has died. Ecumenism has not died. In fact, it's succeeded so fabulously that we are at times victims of its success. But more on that later.

Rather I think we are in an Ecumenical Autumn: a time of harvesting, a time of taking stock, a time to do some preparation for a future we know is coming. I want to take this as one of the overall themes for our time together. I think in some ways the work of Edward Gibbon and his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” exerted a bad influence on notions of institutional development. History and human constructs like empires and denominations do not always follow a rise, flowering, decline, and fall model. If anything, history is as much cyclical as linear. I don't think ecumenism necessarily follows along a perceived rise and fall model, either – in fact, its history has shown us something quite different. Ecumenism has gone through a series of very different cycles or modes of existence, rather than rising and falling.

Rather than the rise, glory days, decline, and fall of Ecumenism, I think we are entering a time of harvesting from this phase in the movement and preparing for the future. But unlike the seasons, perhaps ecumenism does not have to go sequentially from birth to flowering to withering and dying. I think, with enough care, attention, honesty, and prayer, we can move towards an ecumenical spring: what we harvest now can be sown to arise as something new.


So I'd like to structure our time together in three parts: corresponding, roughly, to past, present, and future.

First off: how did we get here?

Then: What matters are dividing our churches right now?

And lastly: Harvesting the Fruits


We can broadly outline several distinct phases of the ways churches cooperated with one another, different “modes” of the ecumenical movement:

Prehistory: from the American Revolution to the Civil War. This was a period of rapid expansion of American society across the Alleghenies and adaptation to the new cultural and political context. With regards to inter-church cooperation, there were the formation of what were called “voluntary organizations.” These were groups which different churches joined to accomplish specific purposes. The American Bible Society; American Board of Missions; Abolitionist organizations; Women's Christian Temperance Union; the Evangelical Alliance; and so on. These were Christians working across denominational boundaries in places of common cause, in organizations that did not have formal ties to any one particular denomination, though certain denominations did tend to dominate certain groups. This was in part because churches themselves had minimal organizational structures, there was nothing evenly remotely like a denominational organization or staffing like we have today. Internally, the work of churches was done almost exclusively at the local levels. Externally, individuals formed these voluntary organizations in which churches participated. It was a participatory model, focused largely on mission and education and reform causes.

Civil War and beyond: with the Civil War and decades afterwards, additional issues and problems emerged as American society grew larger and more complex. Voluntary organizations could no longer carry all the freight, so more formal organizations were established – both ecumenical in nature and denominationally based. Take the massive mobilization of society needed for the Civil War: the American Sanitary Commission was founded to organize, collect money, buy medical supplies, and recruit nurses. It had a strong participation of denominations, and its president was a clergyman. The Red Cross is another example, initially begun as more or less what we would call a faith-based organization, ecumenical in nature, because, well, faith-based organizations tended to dominate health care in the 1800s.

You'll see some parallel processing here: as the churches begin to form into denominations, with organization and structure, more formal ecumenical partnerships start to emerge. There is the establishment of an ecumenical common Sunday School Curriculum at the same time denominations are forming Christian Education organizations, for instance. There is the increased work of ecumenical mission societies – the Christianization of the world in this generation! - at the same time denominations formed their own missionary organizations, often with full-time, paid staff. Churches will become involved in forming groups like the American Colonization Society while also forming denominationally based schools and organizations to held freed African Americans in the USA.

Note: this is still a largely a Protestant party with descendants of European churches sprinkled with some home-grown American denominations like the Disciples of Christ. The Orthodox have not yet arrived in appreciable numbers. Roman Catholics have, but are largely setting up its own parallel structures. The Episcopal Church also at times tended to set up parallel organizations, for instance not joining the American Bible Society or American Board of Missions.

Birth of the Modern Ecumenical Movement: The modern ecumenical movement is usually reckoned to have begun in 1910 at the Global Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, a direct outgrowth of global mission work. This conference was called to talk about better cooperation and collaboration in the global mission field; it was considered scandalous to have multiple denominations setting up shop in different parts of the world and coming into conflict with one another. There were even different expressions within denominational families competing with one another. For instance, different groups of Anglican arrived in China, different groups of Methodists arrived in India, different factions of Baptists in different parts of Africa, let alone conflict between these groups for converts. There was an obvious need for better cooperation and collaboration, both practically and as a sign of common witness. How could we convert people to Christianity if we set the example of fighting between ourselves?

However, delegates to the Conference also began to raise the issue that cooperation was not enough; churches needed to understand one another better. In particular two leaders, one Lutheran and one Anglican, emerged. There was the decision at the 1910 Conference to set up continuation groups which would explore the issues raised in greater depth, both in examining theological differences and in exploring better cooperation and collaboration. Bishop Charles Henry Brent of the Episcopal Church took the lead in organizing what would eventually become Conference on Faith and Order in 1927, to look at theological and ecclesiological differences. Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Lutheran Church of Sweden would preside over the first Conference on Life and Work in 1925, to look at areas of witness, mission, and cooperation.

Post War Movement: Though momentum was briefly stayed by the First World War and later the Second World War, the essential groundwork for what would become the World Council of Churches had been laid in the mid-1930s but had to be postponed. In the post-World War II ecumenical movement, we see the formation of national and international ecumenical organizations. This, again, was a time of parallel processing: at the same time organizations like the UN, IMF, and other international organizations were being formed, so were ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches. Concurrently, some communions began to understand themselves as part of global communions, in particular the formation of LWF and World Methodist Council and increased sensitivity to the Anglican Communion to being parts of a global church. All the while denominations were creating more infrastructure to manage their own commitments, and the birth of what we might now begin to recognize as denominational staffs. So it should come as no surprise that during this period, Christian communions begin to appoint specific persons and groups for ecumenical work. The first Ecumenical Officer of the Episcopal Church was appointed in 1961, and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was established shortly thereafter, and so on. Mentioning the PCPCU lead me to:

Entry of Roman Catholic Church: The other crucial component to the post-World War II development of the ecumenical movement is the engagement of the Roman Catholic Church with the ecumenical movement. The Second Vatican Council was held from 1962-1965 and included several significant events for ecumenism. The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redeintegratio; the Decree on Relations with the Jewish People and non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetatae; the formation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and, while not becoming a formal member, the participation of the Catholic Church in the Faith and Order work of the WCC and NCC and in other areas, for example interfaith relations. The ecumenical movement could not truly call itself ecumenical without the engagement of the largest and most historic church in Christendom.

The post-WW II phase of the ecumenical movement inaugurated a productive season in the ecumenical movement: with the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church, national and international dialogues proliferated, with the participation and engagement in particular of the LWF, Anglican Communion, Orthodox Churches, and Roman Catholic Church. Lutheran-Catholic, Anglican-Lutheran, Anglican-Orthodox, Catholic-Orthodox, Lutheran-Orthodox. I am confining myself to these specific mentions given that this is a conference of Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics, but by no means were the dialogues solely undertaken by our member communions. A treasure trove of agreed statements were issued.

It was not just all talk, either: visible, organic unity was reached among a number of Christians. There were numerous church mergers. Three different churches merged to form the United Church of Christ in 1958. Numerous different Lutheran expressions merged to form three main expressions of Lutheranism: the Lutheran Church in America, LCA; American Lutheran Church, ALC; alongside the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, LCMS, which remained part of ecumenical conversations with the LCA and ALC until the 1970s. The northern and southern branches of Methodism which merged in 1939 merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. This was not only an American phenomenon: perhaps the greatest results of this flowering of ecumenism was the formation of the Church of North India and the Church of South India, which brought together most of the Anglican and Protestant mission groups in India. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and others merged to form these two churches.

There would be bilateral agreements reached between many Christian communions, including some here in this room. Christian Church/Disciples and the UCC; ELCA and Episcopal Church; ELCA-Moravian and Episcopal-Moravian; ELCA-Reformed.

Perhaps the culmination of this flowering of postwar ecumenism was the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry Statement of issued by the Faith and Order Commission in 1982. BEM has been described as perhaps the most important ecumenical document since the Nicene Creed: over 300 denominations participated in its drafting, from Catholic to Orthodox to Anglican to Protestant to Evangelical, and BEM attempted to summarize the essential agreement all Christians could have on these core issues of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. There was a time when every seminarian, of almost every denomination, would read BEM. I now doubt whether the vast majority of seminarians have even heard of it.


OK, so why rehearse all of this? In part because we can't know how to move forward unless we realize how we got to where we are today. I believe there are several important elements of the history of the ecumenical movement which we will need to keep in mind, which need to be part of this ecumenical autumn.

  1. Ecumenism has gone through different incarnations: the way it looked in 1790 was not the same as 1860 was not the same as 1900 was not the same as 1960. We are at the end of a cycle which began in the post-World War II period. So of course ecumenism is changing. It's always changed. We are entering a new incarnation; there are some ways in which the old models won't work because the world has changed.

  1. Ecumenism has been responsive to broader changes in society. The United States Sanitary Commission and the Red Cross were formed because a need emerged which simply had not been present beforehand. Likewise, when national and international organizations were formed after World War II, the churches formed similar organizations. Changes in ecumenism have been responsive with changes in the churches and changes in broader society.

Society is changing again. Our churches are also changing, moving from the last vestiges of notions Christendom. We are in an age of globalization. All things you've heard, maybe are tired of hearing. But it's the reality, and the history: the ecumenical movement will change as the churches themselves change and institutions in broader society change. The UN is viewed very differently in 2011 than it did in 1961. It should be no surprise that organizations like WCC has undergone a similar process, and the NCC. President Eisenhower was present when the cornerstone of the NCC headquarters on Riverside Drive was laid. When then-candidate John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, defending himself against charges that as a Catholic he couldn't be president, he not only said that he would not take orders from the Vatican, but, if you look at the entire quote, he also says neither would he take orders from the NCC. It's shocking when I hear that quote to think that anyone would think of the NCC as being so powerful and relevant as to even imagine it might have the ear of the President.

  1. The Ecumenical Movement must be in the service of mission. In all of these previous incarnations, ecumenism has been firmly linked with the mission of the churches. The birth of the modern ecumenical movement in 1910 was occasioned by the international missionary work churches were doing.

Ecumenism will need to re-engage that: ecumenism will need to continue to arise from the mission of the church. How churches are going about the mission of the church is changing; therefore ecumenism will change.

  1. Ecumenical Movement is a victim of its success. We've come a long way from the days when churches interacted very little to one another: we were raised in a particular faith tradition, clergy went to denominational seminaries, we participated in our denominational organizations. That has changed. We have made important strides in acknowledging what we share in common, even though there still are major differences between our communions. I was talking with one stalwart of the ecumenical movement a few years ago and asked him what the biggest change was that he had seen – this was someone who got involved in the ecumenical movement in the 1950s, had been to Vatican II as an observer, served on denominational staff and on staff of the WCC; someone who had had a first-hand seat for many of the accomplishment I rehearsed. His reply? “When I started out in the ministry, we referred to dialogues between Christians as interfaith dialogues. Now we use that term to describe dialogues between Christians and non-Christians.”

We have come a long way. We are in a time of change and transition in the ecumenical movement. It is also important to point out that we are in a time of change and transition within our churches as well. That what will make this in some ways so difficult. Having seen where we have come from, an important next step will be looking at the issues that continue to divide us, which I will do in our next session.


  1. I REALLY need to get to know you once I get back to TLS/BH. Thank you for sharing so openly your experience in ecumenical work.

    I, too, have heard of the "ecumenical winter". One of my professors last year told me that the ecumenical movement was dead (and good riddance). As I have comparatively little ecumenical experience, I am glad for the perspective and insight you bring to the issue.

  2. My usual response to comments like that is, "Funny, looking at the numbers, it seems like denominationalism is dead - and good riddance!"


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