Ecumenism’s Strange Future

By Robert W. Jenson

Let me set things up with an anecdote — a disproportionately long one, I confess. I will make a couple of observations directly about it, and then carry on past the anecdote but along its trajectory.

Since I had taught at Oxford it was assumed that I was a Lutheran who knew something about Anglicanism, so I was appointed to the opening round of American Episcopal/Lutheran dialogue.

It quickly became clear to us that the chief difference between the two traditions was not in what they taught but in how they taught it. Lutheranism was born in a university, and during its formative period was accustomed to debate possibly divisive matters in academic fashion, draw up statements of the results, and formally adopt them. There is a book of these and if you want to know what Lutherans are officially committed to teach about F, you can just look it up. If F is not in the index, you may take it that the matter was not controverted, is open, or is still controverted. (You should worry about the last possibility.) Anglicanism, born in struggle about church order, has located its decisions in orders of worship and governance. If you want to know what Anglicans believe about F, listen for it in their prayers, and watch for it in their politics. (And worry when they tinker too much with their prayer book.)

We thought the only thing we could do was point out this circumstance to the churches and ask each whether it could live with the style of the other. For ourselves we said Why not?

Looking at these modally different bodies of teaching with mutual forbearance, we came to agree that there was only one thing about which there was actual material conflict: the status of the episcopate in apostolic succession. For Episcopalians this was a pillar. Lutherans belonged to churches ranging from one governed by ancient sees with impeccably unbroken succession of consecration in place to “free churches” formed but yesterday. Here we sat down to constructive work.

We came to define apostolicity as a single great active stream of faithfulness to the apostles’ Church, within which a vital factor was the activity of “oversight.” Historically this had been in the care of bishops — “overseers” — succeeding in place. At the time of the Reformation the Church of England maintained its apostolicity in considerable part by continuing this ancient practice of oversight. Many Lutheran churches, on the other hand, found they could maintain necessary oversight only by finding other ways of deploying it. We proposed that if each church could accept the appropriateness of the other’s initial action in its situation, the way was open to work out steps toward a mutually recognized episcopate.

Our report instanced these results, and said there was really nothing more to discuss. Then we waited for response — and waited and waited. When the hierarchies’ silence became embarrassing for them, they punted by calling for more — of course — discussion, perhaps starting with “What is the gospel?” Again I was appointed to the Lutheran delegation.

At our first meeting an Episcopal delegate — to my distress I forget which one — gave an elegant exegesis of the Apostles’ Creed, and said, “I would have thought this or something like it was gospel.” The Lutherans said, “Well — yeah.” Then a Lutheran detailed the doctrine of justification by faith. The Episcopalians thought that seemed right. So what did we do next?

There was nothing to do but draw up a list of such subsidiary topics as the relation of “law and gospel.” At the first meeting along these lines, the Lutherans immediately fell to fighting among themselves, with the Episcopalians a bemused audience.

After, I think, a second such session, Krister Stendahl and I — not natural allies — resigned with a joint statement that assembling to rake over these Lutheran quarrels was a waste of time and an embarrassment before the other delegation. And that was the end of my official participation in Episcopal/Lutheran dialogue. (After further labors and agonies the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America established their fellowship much along the lines we had proposed in the first place.)

A first observation: many readers will encounter this narrative as a tale from another world. In those days, were Episcopalians and Lutherans actually excluded from one another’s Eucharist? And did they really feel serious pain from that? So that some churchmen and scholars devoted part of their lives to resolving the dividing matters of faith and order? And can it be true that the results of “the dialogues” when published sold well, and were noted by the press?

It is not that the dialogues left nothing lively in the present day. They produced much faithful and groundbreaking theology that lives in wide stretches of the ecumene, often without awareness of its provenance. I may instance the communion ecclesiology or a doctrine of the Eucharist as sacrifice acceptable to many Protestants. But the ecumenism that sought to overcome division by formal dialogue is ancient history for all but a few who are themselves ancients and some specialist historians.

A second observation: the division between Lutherans that ruined the second round of our dialogue foreshadowed something. No sooner had Episcopalians and Lutherans in the United States established fellowship than each began to splinter into new churches out of fellowship with each other. In this they are merely typical of the once “mainline” Protestant groups.

We move on from direct reference to my anecdote. Not only were the mainline denominations beset by divisive internal controversy; they were simultaneously smitten by a wasting disease, whose agent is variously identified but whose presence is plain. Their theological, demographic, and financial declines are related and continue unchecked. They are already too internally riven to pay much attention to division from others.

The ecumenical movement centered on “the dialogues” was carried by these now distracted and enfeebled bodies and the Roman Catholic Church. And there is no one to pick up the burden on the Protestant side. Evangelicals are rarely bothered by questions of eucharistic fellowship — or by sacramental matters generally — and when they do think about such fellowship they assume that they are all in it anyway. In the dialogue days, when a meeting included evangelicals they would regularly demand moving from worries about sacramental fellowship to more interesting matters.

So what do we do now? I think the first thing is to remember that we pray for something we will not do: “thy Kingdom come.” God will take care of that, and when he does he will sort out his Church in ways that will surely surprise us. It may happen any minute, so let us keep on praying for the unity of the Church.

If there is to be a long meantime, perhaps we may suppose that God will be up to something in it. Perhaps he is indeed winding down the Protestant experiment, as has been suggested. If things go on as they are, he will carry on the ecumene with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern churches, and Pentecostal groups. (We will not reckon with an “emerging church,” whatever may be brewing in the religious murk. Church — ekklesia — does not emerge; it is summoned.) We relics of an earlier providence — and there doubtless will be some — may be permitted to contribute by raising voices from antiquity.

Or perhaps God has something more drastic in mind. When Joseph Ratzinger was a cardinal he used to say that further progress toward overcoming the major divisions of the Church would require a great and unpredictable intervention of the Spirit. (I know he really said this because one time it was to me.)

Or perhaps the Spirit will act yet more eschatologically than the cardinal was contemplating. Perhaps an unimaginable rehearsal of final judgment will upset the entire ecclesial fruit basket, so that God may sort the kinds as he chooses.

These speculative scenarios are of things only God can do. If nothing so theodramatic comes to pass and we simply face more of the same for an indefinite future, what do we — who are not Roman Catholic or Eastern — do? There is no going back.

There will be faithful congregations, some in and some out of the mummies of the mainline. There will surely be surviving faithful churchly institutions, broke but struggling on. There already are societies of clergy and laity, formed for survival in spiritual hard times. There will be desperate persons and families, holding faith in unfriendly seas. There are Pentecostal groups with high understandings of Eucharist and its fellowship. There are theologians who write for the Church of the creed. Let all these come together, catch as catch can. Let them cling to baptism, and after that not be too precise about further conditions of fellowship.

And let all of this be a waiting on the Lord. We do not need to know what for, short of the Kingdom.

The Rev. Robert W. Jenson of Princeton, New Jersey, is cofounder of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and its journal, Pro Ecclesia.

TLC will publish three responses to this piece in the February 9 issue.

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