One of the challenges from the movements in the #mainlinesummer, including #acts8, #dreamumc, #dreampcusa and others is how to re-envision our denominations for the future. Whatever those visions entail, I believe they will all include one common ingredient – ecumenism. For those of us who are not ecumenical wonks (and I know that I’m in the less than one percent for being one) “ecumenical” is a word that creates yawns. It brings up visions of long, tepid joint Thanksgiving services. But the future of our churches will be ecumenical for two reasons. One is a glass half-empty, the other is a glass half-full.
The glass half-empty reason is because we can literally no longer afford to walk apart. In the sixties, we could afford to each build high-rise denominational headquarters in major cities and employ hundreds of staffers as our churches built out in the ’burbs. In our time, as denominations shrink down to more historical levels of membership, we are all faced with budget cuts that threaten important ministries. What better way to continue these ministries than to walk together where we can! Do we all need separate denominational health plans? Do we really need completely separated national youth ministries? What about disaster relief? These separate programs used to be tools of competition between our denominations, but they are rapidly becoming ministries that simply cannot stand unless we find ways to cooperate. What about co-locating denominational headquarters? Could not support staff and office equipment contracts be shared? As the corporately-ordered denominations continue to implode, ecumenism is becoming a reality of survival rather than a polite sideline.
But let’s spend more time on the glass half-full, shall we? Jesus prayed in his high-priestly prayer that we might be one. Wow, we’ve really screwed that one up. But we are in a time of opportunity. There are those that have talked about an “Ecumenical Winter,” since we as Christians don’t get mainstream recognition for ecumenical progress like we used to a century ago. No one is handing our Nobel prizes these days for ecumenical work. But I don’t agree with that. Dr. Tom Ferguson, AKA the Crusty Old Dean, has written that we are in an “Ecumenical Autumn”. (His articles are excellent on this, find the first part here.) This is not the dead time, it is the time for harvesting the rich fruits of the Faith and Order movement in order to prepare for winter (see glass half-empty) and then a spring.
Most of the mainline denominations are either already in full communion, in interim eucharistic sharing, or are moving towards such measures with multiple dialogues. There is a web of full-communion being weaved between these denominations who (at best) looked at each other with suspicion a century ago. In addition, simply spend some time with Millennial Christians. Most of them accept other Christians from other denominations as brothers and sisters and don’t understand why we are kept apart on Sunday mornings. In some ways, Faith and Order is rushing to keep up with something that is already happening on the ground, which is something that seems to me to be a movement of the Holy Spirit. We stand on the cusp of a great movement to make Jesus’ high-priestly prayer real.
There are those for which this is very unsettling. Many think ecumenism risks loss of identity. But I would counter that it does just the opposite. The process of reaching full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America forced us as Episcopalians to do some very in-depth theological work, especially about the Episcopate, that we might never have done otherwise. We know better who we are because we entered into dialogue with another. In the decade that agreement has been part of our life, Lutherans and Episcopalians have come to learn and value each others’ gifts and respect our differences while working together for the Kingdom of God. We have not become less Lutheran or Episcopalian. I think we have become more so. But we have learned to embrace Christian sisters and brothers from another cultural background and tradition and to value what they bring to the table. We have learned to recognize what makes us each unique in the one holy catholic and apostolic church while also discovering the vast treasury of the faith we share.
As we move forward into the #mainlinesummer, I am convinced it will be defined by the Ecumenical Autumn, preparing for a hopefully short winter before a new spring of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. David Simmons, ObJN
David is the Communications Officer for Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Officers, and is the Chair of the Unity and Relationships Commission of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. His personal website is frdavid.org.