This week, January 18-25, is the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (HT). The week is “encouragement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”
To mark the end of the week, the WCC’s general secretary Samuel Kobia and Pope Benedict XVI “will meet in Rome on 25 January, at a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The WCC said in a statement on 21 January that Kobia will meet the Pope in a private audience along with members of the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, during a yearly working group meeting in Rome from 21-26 January.”
For Protestants, the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century ostensibly held the greatest promise for promoting unity among the diversity of Protestant confessions and denominations. But the social activist impulse in the ecumenical movement has not only put off many theological traditionalists, it has undermined and poisoned the prospects for ecumenical organizations to make real progress. Paul Ramsey’s criticism of this impulse in the ecumenical movement is as salient today as it was forty years ago (Who Speaks for the Church? Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967). I want to pass along the observations of two theologians on the relationship between theological “conservatives” and the ecumenical movement.
In 1978, James Gustafson observed, quite rightly I think, that “the situation of Protestant churches with regard to moral teachings is only a little short of chaos.” Thirty years later Protestantism has moved well past chaos to complete anarchy. And so what Gustafson observed at the time is even more true today: “there is an unspoken longing in Protestant church bodies, and Protestant-dominated ecumenical bodies, for greater authority for moral teachings.”
Avery Dulles, professor of theology at Fordham University, wrote in the early 1990s that “the churches that have held most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith, and those that have best resisted the allurements of modernity, may have most to offer to an age that is surfeited with the lax and the ephemeral.”
Unfortunately those who may have the most to offer are those who are the least welcome at ecumenical gatherings. The time has come for the ecumenical movement (the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) to place their emphasis on real and substantive representation of differing viewpoints among their constituency on a host of issues.
There should be room in the ecumenical movement for those who have “held the most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith.” The ecumenical movement would do much to reduce the alienation of such folks if it were more circumspect about offering up concrete political and thinly-disguised ideological policy proposals under the rubric of representing the united and universal church.
Prayer is a much better place than public policy both to start and to finish ecumenical dialogue. In that spirit, let us remember the prayer of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that all of us “may be one” together not on our own terms but only in him.