Thursday, 13 August 2009

Am I still in favour of ecumenism?

The other day I was asked if I was still in favour of ecumenism, now that I have left the employ of the World Council of Churches. Not an unreasonable question as I expect you'd ask someone if they were still in favour of junk food once they'd stopped working for McDonalds (before BigM calls its lawyers, I will point out that the lettuce and tomatoes are healthy).

My answer is that I am in favour of ecumenism but, to misquote Star Trek, not as we know it. Too much of churchy ecumenism is focused on churches reaching an accommodation with each other. Formal agreements and covenants between churches exorcising past fights are all very well. Christians of different traditions being able to talk and pray together is good. Working together on issues of justice and peace is essential. Don't get me wrong, the church and the world are better for such things.

The danger is that it misses the point. The ecumenical movement is, or should be, a protest movement against what Christianity and the churches have become - of which, division and disunity is a symptom not the cause. When we are ill, it's always nice when distressing symptoms are alleviated but we always hope that the doctors will concentrate on dealing with the basic problem that causes them. Ernst Lange (1927-74), in And Yet It Moves: dream and reality of the ecumenical movement, describes the ecumenical movement as:
the most massive domestic Christian protest against the way Christianity, by its alliance with the powers that be, had been transformed into its exact opposite (p5).
Christianity, in other words, has allowed itself to be (even encouraged itself to be) subverted and corrupted by being more interested in power, influence, status and wealth than with the diametrically opposed values of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the ecumenical movement is to change, renew, transform the churches as the living embodiment of Christianity - not make them nicer to one another but basically unchanged.

I am in favour of ecumenism as a church-changing movement but not simply for the sake of some better form of church (the church is only a symptom of Christianity!). Such an ecumenism engages with the causes of disunity and doesn't paint over the cracks. Such an ecumenism ought to set us free from being defensive and protectionist - a faithless position, if ever there was one. Once we give up on agonising about ourselves we will have more energy to engage with the agonies of the world.

1 comment:

  1. I love teh sound bite of the church just being a symptom of christianity!