Ecumenism in the new millennium

Seventy-five years ago, William Temple, the then archbishop of Canterbury, called the ecumenical movement “the great new fact of our era.” However, with the passing of time, ecumenism has not only become no longer new, but less original and vital. It reached a high point around 1970. There was a certain euphoria in the wake of the Vatican Council II. Organic unity of the churches was seen as a real possibility. The Roman Catholic Church was expected soon to join the World Council of Churches. Several significant unions of churches and dialogues between churches were flourishing.

Most observers of the ecumenical scene consider the 1912 International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh as the “cradle” of the ecumenical movement. Out of this beginning developed three independent (though interrelated) ecumenical streams: (1) the International Missionary Council, (2) Faith and Order Commission (theology), and (3) Life and Work Movement (socio-economic issues). These came together in 1948 and 1961 to form the World Council of Churches (WCC), with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The WCC began in 1948 with 147 churches and now has more than 330 member churches, mostly national churches. There have been eight assemblies, the last being in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December 1998.

In the formative years of the ecumenical movement, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) stayed away and was generally hostile toward the WCC. Indeed, there were several warnings from both the pope and the Holy Office regarding ecumenical relations. Then, in a rather dramatic move, the RCC reversed itself and in 1964 accepted ecumenism at Vatican Council II. One year later, another breakthrough occurred when the Vatican Council accepted the concept of religious liberty. These two radical modifications of past policy are interrelated: It is hard to envision ecumenism without at least some form of religious liberty. Today Rome plays a leading role in the ecumenical movement and is the church most involved in inter-confessional dialogues and ecumenical institutes. In some ways, this is to be expected, since it is by far the largest Christian church.

But the great ecumenical question that now confronts us is: How real and how strong is the ecumenical movement today, as we face the uncertain years of the new millennium? It’s time for a reality check.

Reality check 1: Illusion of organic unity

Reality is finally setting in in the ecumenical movement. Today most ecumenists appear to realize that worldwide organic unity of Christian churches is an illusion. Furthermore, the RCC will not join the WCC as it is presently constituted. While there have been many successful dialogues among theologians, there has been relatively little interest in organic unity among the churches themselves, and only a very modest effect on church life and doctrine.

Reality check 2: Decline

Another aspect of reality in the new millennium is that so-called “mainline” churches—those churches most seen as involved with the WCC—have been declining. It might be more correct to call them, at least some of them, “old-line” or “sideline” churches, especially in regard to significant membership losses in certain countries.

Church growth now largely belongs to the conservative Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists. These churches tend generally to be hesitant about or even downright hostile toward ecumenism.

Reality check 3: The danger of fundamentalism

As we enter the new century, it has become more and more clear that growing religious fundamentalism or extremism is a force to be reckoned with. In some ways, it is a reaction to both ecumenism and secularization. Fundamentalism is dangerous for religious liberty because its zealots are not only sure that they possess the truth, but feel the obligation to impose it on others. Nationalism is another contemporary trend. And when nationalism unites with religious fundamentalism, as is the case today in various countries, they form an explosive mixture that is inimical, not to say destructive, to both freedom of religion and ecumenism. Indeed, there exists in certain parts of the world the real danger of not only ethnic, but also “religious cleansing.”

Reality check 4: Organic vs. visible unity

The dream of “organic unity” among churches is now being replaced in WCC circles by the vision of “visible unity,” focusing on three essentials: (1) acceptance of one another’s baptism, (2) intercommunion (acceptance of one another’s eucharistic service), and (3) mutual recognition of each church’s ordained ministry. In this connection, it needs to be said that while Seventh-day Adventists practice open communion, they accept only believers’ baptism by immersion as valid. Though recognizing that ministers of other churches that lift up Christ are “shepherds of the flock” and are involved in God’s plan for the evangelization of the world, the Adventist Church does not simply recognize ministerial ordination from other religious bodies, particularly the concept of “priesthood” with all its historical and theological connotations.

Reality check 5: Rome’s ecumenical consensus

The ecumenical consensus within the RCC at present is to seek at least a measure of agreement in five major areas: (1) the relationship between Scripture and tradition; (2) the eucharist as a memorial sacrifice involving the real presence of Christ; (3) the three-fold ordination of deacon, priest, and bishop in apostolic succession; (4) the magisterium or teaching authority of pope and bishops, including papal universal primacy; and ( 5) the role of the Virgin Mary as mother and intercessor.

It is here that a vast theological hurdle rises. Protestants and Catholics are still far apart on many points, though not as far as they appeared to be in the past, as was recently indicated by the statement of agreement between the RCC and the Lutheran World Federation in regard to justification by faith. In fact, there has been an astonishing rapprochement between conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics. While this convergence should not be exaggerated, and the doctrinal gulf is still large, it must be recognized that there is increasing cooperation along socio-political lines, especially in regard to abortion, marriage, and family values.

Reality check 6: The problem of proselytism

One issue with ecumenical implications that is increasingly coming to the fore is proselytism. A once good word, proselytism has been given pejorative connotations in recent years. In the past it referred essentially to converting a person from one belief to another, which is precisely what evangelism is all about. Today it is often used in reference to corrupt witness—that is, using coercion or material inducements or spreading false information in order to gain converts. Some individuals go so far as to use the word “proselytism” to cover any evangelism among individuals already baptized, no matter whether they have a living connection with Christ and a Christian church.

It is better to speak about “false proselytism” when referring to wrong methods in evangelism. Otherwise there is the danger of condemning evangelism in general, at least in many parts of the world. Such a stance is unacceptable because witness and evangelism are a divine mandate to Christians. Furthermore, the right to teach and disseminate one’s religion is recognized today as a human right. So is the right to receive religious information and change one’s religion. Evangelism becomes false proselytism when a person or group make false statements and accusations, when cajolery takes place and material inducements are given as incentives to change or keep a religion, and when strife, hatred, antagonistic competition or ridicule are fomented. The Seventh-day Adventist Church rejects outright such tactics.

Reality check 7: Crisis

Currently the WCC is in crisis—financial and ideological. For example, the Eastern Orthodox representatives are stating that they will probably leave the WCC if a radical reorganization of the council does not take place. The change they are asking for is substantial. They want a much greater say in the activities of the council, and object to deciding interchurch relations by majority vote. They prefer that decisions be taken by consensus. Some Orthodox leaders have even suggested the creation of a second chamber (like many parliaments have) and proposed that representation be by four families of churches: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, and Free. On the other hand, the Orthodox churches make a rather small financial contribution to the WCC.

As already indicated, the RCC has no plans to join the WCC and become one church among over 300. How could it? Rome is much more powerful and influential than Geneva, where the WCC headquarters are located! One gets increasingly the impression that perhaps the WCC needs the RCC to jumpstart the currently feeble ecumenical engine.

It is always dangerous to prophesy, especially about the future! However, a few things seem clear. Seventh-day Adventists have traditionally attributed important apocalyptic roles to both the United States of America and the Papacy. There is now only one truly political super-power—the United States— and one truly religio-political super-power—the Papacy, the Roman Catholic Church.

In this connection, to use a sports’ term, the World Council of Churches is really playing in the “minor leagues.” The growing geopolitical role of Rome is self-evident. Increasingly, the Pope is being seen as a virtual spokesperson for Christianity and, perhaps, for world religions. Even Muslims have now called him “Holy Father.” The eschatological prophetic scenario is moving into place.

Bert B. Beach (Ph.D., University of Paris, Sorbonne) is the director of inter-church relations at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. His address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland, 20904; U.S.A.