Friday, November 18, 2011

Ecumenical Autumn, Part 3 of 3

Crusty Old Dean concludes his three-part series of reflections on the ecumenical movement -- and in this concluding chapter of the trilogy, you won't find out that COD is really Luke's father or Benedict XVI's cousin. No surprises of that kind here.

Next week, Crusty Old Dean will be deep-frying a turkey and finishing two further proposals for restructuring the Episcopal Church, along with a trip down restructuring memory lane.


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

The Very Rev’d Thomas Ferguson, PhD

Part 3 of 3


In our last section, I would like to begin to look forward: I have used the image of an ecumenical autumn rather than an ecumenical winter. Autumn is a time of harvest. It is a time of preparation for what is coming. Autumn isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of the cycle of nature, and to avoid preparation for what is to come is nothing if foolish.

I think we are being called in the ecumenical movement to this ecumenical autumn: harvest the incredible fruits of the past century, being aware of what issues have and continue still to divide us, while at the same time preparing for what is to come.

I'd like to talk first about transformations.

8. First Transformation: Involvement of Lay Persons and Young People

As we've discussed, the ecumenical movement followed the broader pattern of development of American religious organizations, tracking, more or less, with how denominations developed structure in this country. Since the way organizations function is changing, the ecumenical movement’s organizations will need to change. A key piece of that process of change will be helping to restore to the ecumenical movements some of its essential aspects which has lost along the way.

One of the main reason the ecumenical movement began to thrive and flourish is because it was driven in large part by lay persons. John Mott, whom I mentioned earlier and who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering ecumenical work, was a lay person in the Methodist Church. It was also a movement which involved young persons: the World Student Christian Federation was a major part of the spread of ecumenism.

We've reversed that. The ecumenical movement, in its formal structures, is old and clerical when it comes to the folks involved. And I mean old. I'm 42 and I'm often the youngest person in ecumenical gatherings -- and outside of ecumenical gatherings I'm considered ancient by people under 30. I'll admit, I kind of like having one place left where I'm still considered young. It will allow me to transition from Young Turk to curmudgeon fairly seamlessly.

The ecumenical movement no longer reflects the world or our churches: it skews overwhelmingly old, and overwhelmingly clerical. When something like this is so markedly different from the way society as a whole is composed, it means something is out of kilter. Now I'm not saying we should completely mirror society: but if any corporation or organization or club you belonged to was so white and old as our churches, let alone leadership in our churches, you'd be asking yourselves what their problem is. But more often as not we don't give it a second thought when it comes to the church, or else we shrug our shoulders and don't even think of doing anything.

So what happened to a movement that had broad lay and clerical support? The ecumenical movement became formalized, institutionalized, professionalized, and closely linked with denominations. It began to reflect the leadership of denominations which professionalized and organized it rather than the church and the world it was called to serve.

We need to flip that dynamic: the ecumenical movement needs to become younger and less clerical. How can we do that?

We cannot simply invite people to the ecumenical movement as it is now currently structured, because they will not come. We don't need to ask the world to change to accommodate the ecumenical movement; the ecumenical movement needs to change to meet the world at least half way.

11. Transforming Ecumenical Institutions

As part of this – all of these issues are interconnected -- we need to begin the process of rethinking and transitioning a lot of our ecumenical organizations. They are wonderful and have done incredible things in the past fifty years. But so did organizations like the Anglo-Catholic Congress, the Federal Council of Churches, the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions, the Congress for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor, the Evangelical Alliance, the Anti-Saloon League, and so on. And none of those things exist anymore, and some of us may never even have heard of any of them. They were organizations which were popular in their time, into which denominations invested a tremendous amount of financial backing and staffing, and served important functions. But society and the church changed, and they ceased to exist, while some of their functions and mission were taken up by other organizations.

Institutions change all the time, despite the concern many of us have about change. So with that out of the way, how might we rethink some of our institutions?

Rethinking Ecumenical Organizations

As part of that we need to reshape the institutions and hand off the institutions we have in turn received and created in this postwar cycle of ecumenism. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. We stand in a critical place. The generation of people under 30 is as big as the Baby Boomer generation. Granted they are a smaller percentage of the population than the Boomers since the country is so much bigger, but there is a whole new generation out there. What institutions and legacies will we pass on to them? Or will they all just die they will invent their own and forget about ours, going the way of forgotten predecessors?

This question of reshaping and handing on our ecumenical institutions in turn touches upon other issues and brings us back to some of our previous conversation about the need to attract more young people and young adults into the ecumenical movement.

I will not use proper names lest it look like I am picking on any one institution; this story is about one of the broadest ecumenical gatherings I used to go to as ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, one where Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and many other denominations have good representation.

As part of this they hold a program for young people and young adults. In preparing to go one year, I did manage to collect a handful of young seminarians to attend. I warned them in advance: there will be things you like about this gathering and things you don’t; keep track of each and let’s talk afterwards.

We did talk afterwards. They all agreed on their likes and dislikes.

Like: the opportunity to be around so many other young people from so many different traditions. You know, though at times we may be irked that young people don’t come to church more often, we can’t forget something important: it can be hard to be a young person of faith. It was a great experience for these young adults to be around people that, well, were like them.

Dislike: the program was all oriented to what the larger body was doing. A lot of these seminarians came because they were interested in ecumenism and interreligious relations, and some were already engaged in projects at their seminary and in their community. Nobody asked them what they were interested in accomplishing in the ecumenical movement. Nobody asked them what, if any, ecumenical things they were already engaged in. They were told the meeting wasn't about interreligious work, that was something a different organization did. When they asked how they could get more involved, they were told to be in touch with their denominational ecumenical office.

After their input I said to them, “The problem with most ecumenical organizations is their idea of engaging young adults is inviting them to the kids’ table.”

To become younger and have more lay persons involved, we need to be co-creators of mission with people instead of grafting them into something others created.

Return to Mission

Not only will the ecumenical movement need to return to its roots of being primarily a non-clerical, lay movement, it will also need to recapture the spirit of mission.

This return to mission is crucial for a number of reasons. Once is that it can help is get past the issues we discussed in our previous session. We either need to decide whether issues are church-dividing, or not. If they are, then what kind of division does that mean? What kind of cooperation is still possible? Are the needs of the world so great that we cannot work together against war, poverty, and injustice because we have disagreements in theological anthropology?

We can’t give in and say it can’t be done because we disagree on sexuality or abortion. For one thing, because there are some things the Scriptures are quite clear about. For another, it was not long ago when we were able to come together despite theological differences. At a time when many of our denominations did not have the ecumenical agreements or concordats in place that we have now and which facilitate our cooperation, we found places to work together despite our differences. For instance it may be ancient history to some that the historic 1963 March on Washington, where Dr King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” was co-sponsored and organized by the National Council of Churches. The civil rights movement brought together a broad coalition of Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Jewish organizations in a common struggle, crossing denominational and religious boundaries as well as those caste systems of race and class which we discussed in our previous session. We can't say it can't be done, because it has been done, time and again. We can only admit that we are unwilling or unable or are paralyzed by those other divisions I talked about.

Goal and Project Oriented

I think the ecumenical movement is going to need to be focused more on immediate goals. This is in part how the world increasingly works these days and how the Millennial Generation is more wired to think about how things get done.

Organizations that you just join and participate in and write a mission statement and trust that they will more or less do that – that's something we're going to see less and less and organizations serve a different role and function. People aren't just going to join church because their parents and friends join it and because it's what you do. They will, however, if we can show what the church, or an ecumenical organization does. They will if we make the connection between what they believe in, the difference they want to make in the world, and how we fit into that.

Look at the people who are winning the Nobel Peace Prize: this year, activists who helped mobilize grassroots support of women in Liberia against the civil war. A couple of years ago, a Kenyan woman who became an advocate for environmental protection; before that, a man who developed microfinancing to help impoverished people in the developing world. Not people who build vast international organizations, like John Mott or appear on the cover of Time magazine, like Charles Henry Brent.

The ecumenical movement needs to look at the people who are making the change in the world they believe in, learn from those models, and engage our constituencies in new and different ways.

Ecumenical Agreements as Bridges and Lifeboats

Our ecumenical agreements are important resources as we move into this time of change and transformation in the ecumenical movement; they can give us the kind of help we need to make the choices and decisions we will need to make. These agreements are part of the link between ecumenism and mission.

Called to Common Mission, the agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Most of this first decade has been living into those aspects of the agreement that were the most talked about as it was being drafted, voted on, and implemented: the interchangeability of ministries, the way in which ELCA bishops would gradually, over time, be incorporated into the historic episcopate.

All well and good. But for my money, that's not what CCM is all about. It is, at its heart, an eschatological and pneumatological document.

The agreements in ministry and bishops are not the end; it is a beginning. As CCM itself says,

We do not know to what new, recovered, or continuing tasks of mission this Concordat will lead our churches, but we give thanks to God for leading us to this point. We entrust ourselves to that leading in the future, confident that our full communion will be a witness to the gift and goal already present in Christ, "so that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28). Entering full communion and thus removing limitations through mutual recognition of faith, sacraments, and ministries will bring new opportunities and levels of shared evangelism, witness, and service. It is the gift of Christ that we are sent as he has been sent (John 17:17-26), that our unity will be received and perceived as we participate together in the mission of the Son in obedience to the Father through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

There has been a spate of full communion agreements between churches in the past fifteen years or so. ELCA with UCC, PCUSA, and RCA; ELCA and Episcopal; Episcopal-Moravian and ELCA-Moravian; ELCA and UMC. The UMC and Episcopal Church are engaged in dialogue.

Sometimes the question is asked, “What are all these agreements for? Are they just agreements on paper?”

One of my replies is, “Maybe. For now.”

Sometimes I think our full communion agreements will be a bridge, maybe even a lifeboat, to the churches that we will bequeath to the coming generations. Our denominations are not sustainable as they are currently organized. Some, like the Moravian Church with its roughly 50,000 members, are already asking questions about whether they will exist in another generation.

Churches are hemorrhaging members, and, let's be clear, this is only tangentially related to theological stances. Of all the denominations in the USA last year, only four recorded growth. Four. Out of the thousands in this country. One is the Catholic Church, and that grew by less than 1% in 2010. One of the others is the Mormon Church, which has also seen its growth slow. Liberal and conservative, liturgical and non liturgical, evangelical and non evangelical, almost uniformly and across the board.

It seems clear to me we need to reorient ourselves with a massive campaign from top to bottom. Have congregations that are mission communities instead of closed communities with chaplains ministering to their needs. Where clergy are not employees delivering services and program but mobilizing people for ministry. Take seriously commitments to Christian Education, formation, youth ministry, campus ministry. Continue to provide pastoral care to those in a world which can seem capricious and cruel.

I could go on. We need many things, but what we don't need is a bunch of struggling denominations doing them separately; that will just result in a long, slow death rattle to obscurity and irrelevancy, and our transformation into a post-Christian society like many parts of Europe, with its beautiful, empty Cathedrals and 5% of the population attending church.

We can't do what needs to be done individually.

One solution would be a Church of North India-like model for those American denominations that share enough in terms of background, theology, and liturgy. The Church of North India brought together Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Anglicans. There weren't a lot of Lutherans in India, and for those that were, confessional identity was too important to allow for merger. The CNI brought these churches together into a single structure with a single ministry but allowed for regional variation; churches which affiliated with a particular theological identity or liturgy were permitted to use those resources. CNI churches from the Presbyterian tradition could study and emphasize their confessional heritage, but within the context of a single church, with a single governing structure, single regional expression, and single ministry. The CNI and CSI are even multiple members of world bodies, holding membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Anglican Communion.

I had the chance to meet the former Moderator-Primate of the Church of South India (NOT tainted by the corruption scandal over tsunami relief) and asked him how this was done, when we in the West struggle so hard and so long for even any kind of unity. He looked at me and said, “Two reasons. One, in a country where only 2% of the people are Christian, we simply could not have so many denominations doing their own thing. More importantly – “ and he looked me straight in the eye, “the divisions were the ones the missionaries brought us, not our own. The divisions were yours, not ours.”

I believe our full communion arrangements may a bridge, or a lifeboat, to help us move into that future church that we will need. We won't need to have to start from scratch; we have the eschatological vision and framework of full communion proposals already in place. Ten years into full communion between Lutherans and Episcopalians, there has been much that we have done together. One thing we absolutely must do together in the next 20 years is greater institutional collaboration, between dioceses and synods, between our institutions of theological learning, between our churchwide expressions.

There is a related dynamic with Roman Catholics – though there is not the proliferation of full communion proposals, there will still need to decisions made about how much to live into the agreements which are in place. Will it be possible to move Catholic-Orthodox relations into some kind of more visible unity, so overcome not just centuries but millennia of mistrust?

Is there a way ecumenical agreements with Anglicans, Lutherans, and Protestants might be the kind of lifeboat or bridge to a new way of being church? Pope John Paul II, in his landmark encyclical Ut Unum Sint, called on dialogue for the ways a universal primacy might be in the service of Christian unity. Almost twenty years later, have we given that call its proper hearing?

As mentioned in my previous comments, as we address the issues before us, it may be that we acknowledge that visible unity between Catholics and non-Catholics is not possible in the foreseeable future. Should we acknowledge that, without giving up on the quest for the unity to which we are called, while at the same time finding ways to demonstrate our common witness? I think we lose more opportunities than we give ourselves credit; during the leadup to the Iraq War, I remember a meeting between President Bush and the Holy Father. As Pope John Paul spoke his concerns, I remember thinking, “He's speaking for me, too – could this be a way in which universal primacy could be in the service of common witness?”


It's my conviction we are in an ecumenical autumn – and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Autumn can be a time of melancholy, a reflection on the coming death that impending winter may bring. But only if we see death as an end, which we, as Christians, ought not to fear. As Christians, we believe death is a portal to something new, death is transformation. Autumn is a time of change and transformation: and there can be beauty in transformation.

I hope I will not leave you with the impression that I am discouraged, or even downhearted, about the future of the ecumenical movement. Far from it. I was at a conference recently were a speaker was lamenting the “end of the church,” arguing that this was a real possibility in the next generation.

While I agreed in general with the causes for the speaker's alarm – in fact, the speaker was sharing many of the same reflections I have been sharing with you today about the process of decline in American denominations – I did not draw the same conclusion.

What we are facing is not the end of the church, we should be clear about that. If anything could have destroyed the church, it would have. The horrors of the 20th century, from the Holocaust to the World Wars, could make anyone lose hope for humanity, let alone Christianity. Mao and Stalin persecuted the Christian Church to the brink of extinction. At one time in Russia there were a handful of bishops and priests left in the entire country. Both countries are seeing a phenomenal rebirth and renaissance in Christianity. The Black Death couldn't destroy the church, neither could barbarian invasions, neither could the persecution of the Romans. The church cannot be destroyed because we have the continual and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. However because the church cannot be destroyed does not mean it cannot die and reborn. But it will take determination and courage. As we move forward in this process of transformation and rebirth, may we keep in mind the words of the hymn that may be familiar to many of us:

God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power;

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.

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