Ecumenism: A Personal Interpretation

One may well ask what “ecumenism” means in relation to TCPC? Christians of different denominations are attracted to TCPC — does this make it ecumenical? Should ecumenism make a difference? I submit that the ecumenical vision should be central to progressive Christianity.

The words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” are used in different contexts with different meanings and, therefore, they are easily misunderstood. They derive from the Greek word “oikoumene,” meaning the whole inhabited earth. Today we may interpret it to mean all of creation, all of God’s people, all Christians, all faiths.

I am one of many for whom discovering what “oikoumene” means can be compared to a conversion experience, resulting in renewed faith, new vision, and hope. We also have found new priorities and commitments that have transformed our thinking, spirituality, and daily life. Ecumenism calls for change and renewal. Through the years, my church commitment and faith were challenged and revised — by ecumenical experience, social change, contextual theologies, inclusive language, and other prevailing winds of change. When I was disillusioned about the church, the ecumenical vision kept me going.

Ecumenism is not primarily something we do, a program or an institution, another theological or academic specialty. It should not be equated with interdenominational cooperation or interreligious activities, although it may be their inspiration and motivation. It is not an “optional extra” for Christians and churches, something added onto who we are or what we do. It is the perspective from which to view the world, a wide-angle lens through which we see the Church and each other differently. It is a basic element of faith and of Christian identity. It is not just something good for the Church (the “bene esse”), but it is essential to the Church and Christian life (the “esse”). For me it’s the only way to be a Christian.

Ecumenism does not accept “what’s good for us should be good for everyone.” When it comes to making decisions — both as Christians and as churches — what are our priorities? From an ecumenical perspective, they are not our own denominational interests and local concerns, but the concerns and needs of the worldwide body of Christ. Most political decisions are made “in the national interest,” but ecumenical priorities would focus on what is best for the whole world.

I cherish my Anglican and New England roots, but they are only part of the rich mosaic of the oikoumene, people of all nations, races and creeds, much more diverse than the homogenous group with whom we usually worship. In our local churches we worship not only with those present, but with “a great cloud of witnesses,” millions of Christian brothers and sisters around the world. We need “stretching exercises” for our spiritual muscles to develop constant consciousness of them and their needs. Using the “Ecumenical Prayer Cycle” (published by the World Council of Churches), with notes and prayers for all the churches of the world, reinforces this commitment.

We are part of one human family that spreads around the globe, neighbors of many faiths, sharing life on this fragile earth, in need of solidarity and hope. Christians, a minority in the world, must engage neighbors of other faiths in dialogue, learn from one another and take common action to ensure the future of humanity. Interreligious partnership is a deeper or wider meaning of ecumenism. We are being led into what may be unfamiliar paths with implications that stretch our understanding of faith and humanity.

Ecumenism is a very personal experience of others, of “the other,” not an abstract being, but a person, a neighbor, another human being, another believer. It was a fellow student, an American Methodist who had grown up in Africa, who challenged my complacent American and Episcopal outlook. Our present pluralist society enables us to meet people of many traditions and faiths close to home. There is so much to learn and receive from “others,” from those beyond our usual borders: Episcopal, Protestant, American, or Christian. We can share in prayer and Bible study, share our different understandings of faith, let our worship be enriched by others’ prayers and music, learn how to live with “the other.”

Ecumenical commitment requires us to be oriented toward the future, not the past. Ecumenism calls us to a life “as if . . . “: as if the divisions of the Church were no longer of primary importance; as if denominational or confessional traditions were no longer the basis for faith or action; as if living the gospel were more important than maintaining the institution; as if there were visibly, not only in theory, one Church of Jesus Christ. Our identity as ecumenical Christians derives from the future, from the vision of unity that is now emerging.

Christian unity is not just spiritual unity, the unity all Christians already share: “we are all members of one Body.” Rather, the unity we seek must be visible, seen to be real and functional: “that the world may believe.” ‘Unity’ does not mean uniformity, but unity in diversity, which enriches our lives and our faith and in which we rejoice.

Ecumenism calls us to accept all baptized persons, lay and clergy, as full members of “our” church. We can rejoice that much has happened in the past fifty years: de facto open communion exists among almost all Protestant churches; though not sanctioned officially, it is also happening between Protestants and Roman Catholics; many Christians act “as if” barriers no longer exist, and this trend is increasing. However, though all Christians should be able to share one Eucharistic table, it is a scandal today that this is not yet possible. Transcending remaining barriers between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Pentecostals is an ecumenical priority.

In 1952, the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Conference asked the churches “whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” Though many of these differences are less divisive now, this imperative still waits for serious action. Do we really need, should we tolerate, duplication of youth groups, mission programs, public policy statements and similar redundancies? Nothing less than the conversion of the churches is required.

In the ecumenical vision the Church is not whole unless there is total inclusiveness — youth, children, men, women, gay, straight, persons with disabilities, all races: every Christian. How do our parishes measure up to this vision?

Ecumenism transforms not only what we believe, but how we live. Christian unity is inspired by the biblical vision of shalom that permeates the Bible: justice and peace for all, especially the poor and marginalized; and the integrity of all creation, including humankind. We are called to join the struggle to combat racism, overcome violence, preserve life and the environment on our planet, work for human rights, minister to refugees, the homeless, those suffering from natural disasters, poverty, and famine.

The way we live our unity is equally (if not more) critical than theological discussions. Today other divisions than inherited historical ones divide churches and demand our attention, issues such as war and peace, justice for all, sexuality, life’s beginnings and endings. How are we dealing with these locally among Christians — and with neighbors of other faiths?

Ecumenism offers a global and inclusive vision that is as old as our faith. It can sustain us in a culture of violence, a world of suffering and tragic conflict, confronted with the destruction of creation. The vision of God’s shalom is a bulwark against despair, a source of hope. In the vision of the new city, the water of life flows freely, the trees give fruit all through the year, and their leaves are “for the healing of the nations” — all peoples and cultures, the true oikoumene.

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