Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Cooperative Ecumenism: Glen Messer on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed By Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Glen Alton Messer, II, the Associate Ecumenical Staff Officer of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. Dr. Messer also teaches Christian History and Methodist Studies and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Messer is commenting on paragraph 54 on "global awareness," from the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Paragraph 52 of Grace Upon Grace gives a strikingly clear statement about how United Methodists are to understand ‘ecumenism’ — and in so doing, gives important guidance as to how the relationship between mission and ecumenism is to be understood. Among those working in the field of Ecumenism, there are many variations upon what the word means. The Vatican Council II statement on the subject (the decree on ecumenism entitled, “Unitatis Redintegratio”)[1] makes clear in its name the understanding of the term from a Roman Catholic perspective — the goal of ecumenism is reintegration of Christians separated through centuries of schism. Among many Protestants of Europe and the United States, ecumenism — or “Christian unity” — has been less an institutional goal than one of varying degrees of co-operation and fellowship. Many of the social reform movements, tract societies, and Sunday school efforts in the 19th century are good examples of this practical understanding of ecumenism. Striving for greater co-operation, we find the 1910 Edinburgh Conference trying to avoid competition among Christian churches and unnecessary duplication of efforts (e.g., building one hospital instead of two, etc.). And, while the Edinburgh Conference is often mentioned as the birth of the modern Ecumenical Movement, the Conference did not push in the of direction institutional consolidation.[2] With many options for how to understand the concept, Grace Upon Grace gives some shape — with the authoritative voice of General Conference to back it up — to how to understand the goals of United Methodist ecumenism and how these relate to the work of mission and the overall life of the church.

Central to this paragraph’s “ecumenical affirmation” are ecclesiological claims regarding the basic understanding of the very nature of the meaning of “church.” It states that, “Mission is ecumenical as we seek to live in cooperation and communion with the many authentic Christian communities that God in grace calls into existence.” This is not a vision of God’s church as broken and shattered into parts because of its various institutional manifestations and groupings of people into various Christian traditions. Instead, the communities are called into being through God’s grace — as expressions of God’s creativity — with the expectation of mutual recognition of kinship in the faith and life of God in Christ Jesus. Just as God did not make only one person to be “the” Christian, neither did God make only one institutional expression of church to be “the” church. Our unity is found in God and in our living the Christian life shown to us in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Our unity is in the grace of God experienced through God’s Spirit. And so, paragraph 52 concludes, “We desire to live in communion with all who are in communion with Jesus Christ. We are thankful for all sisters and brothers in Christ and we seek unity amidst our diversity.”

In many respects, this statement expresses a positive view of God’s creativity in multiplicity (expressed in our “unity amidst our diversity”). Typical of many Wesleyans over time, United Methodists often have tended to look at the glass half-full and have held to the expectation of its being filled (to overflowing); rather than moaning that it is half-empty and that God’s calling new Christian communities into being is evidence of the shattering of the one church. What is at stake is the question of relationship. How will we live together with other Christians in faithfully giving witness to the Gospel and the active love of Christ Jesus in the world? United Methodists have expressed in this statement that they are willing to call “Christian” all those who are in “communion with Jesus Christ.” There are no doctrinal or ecclesiological litmus tests that must be performed before we are willing to extend our hand in love and fellowship towards those who are fellow laborers called by God to work for God’s Kingdom. Our energy is applied elsewhere — in the desire to heal a broken world, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and offer hope to those in despair. It is a practical sense of ecumenism, a practical sense of ecclesiology — and a practical sense of mission.

That said, this “ecumenical affirmation” is in no way a surrender of a Wesleyan Methodist identity or a timidity about expressing that identity in how we live the Christian life. Just as other Christian communities have been affirmed in their authenticity, the statement no less applies to United Methodists as well. While we can look upon this statement as declaring that we seek to embrace other Christians in an effort to co-operate in mission together, it is important to be authentic in ourselves as expressions of God’s creative grace, not hiding our light under a bushel. Unless we make ourselves “present” by offering ourselves as ourselves to others, we invite others to an empty embrace in which their arms circle around nothingness. Being United Methodists in mission and ecumenism “inseparably bound” together we need to be more than ‘polite’ — trying to draw attention away from any possible points of difference. We need to add our voices to conversations and add our ideas to co-operative efforts. Our “ecumenical affirmation” in this paragraph is a challenge to be confident in who we are and affirming of others whom God calls to the Christian life in different communities.

One of the great gifts of the Mission Movement of which we are a part — out of which Methodism came into being, in fact — is that mission work has called various communities of Christians together. The work of love has drawn us from relative isolation in our own communities to realize that the ‘scandal of disunity’ is a failure to be united in love and compassion towards all Christians, all persons, and all Creation. United Methodists in mission are engaged in the work that strives towards unity through our faithfulness in the work of ministry by which we love as Christ loves and live as Christ lives.

[1]For the full text of this document in English, please see,
[2] John N. Collins, "Theology of Ministry in the Twentieth Century: Ongoing Problems or New Orientations," Ecclesiology 8 (2012), 12-13.


  1. I find this an enormously helpful reading of Grace Upon Grace, but one that also leaves me wondering how one draws the line between ecumenism and inter-religious cooperation. How does one have a robust sense of one's own Christian identity without at least some boundaries that define Christian identity as a whole? As an example let me mention those in the Vedanta movement who consider themselves "Jesus Devotees." They place Jesus in a distinctive framework based on concepts of the divine and manifestations of the divine drawn from post-Vedic Hinduism. They are devoted to Jesus as a manifestation of God, but neither their spiritual experience nor metaphysical framework demand that he be the sole such manifestation. Are they Christians with whom we seek ecumenical relationships? Or are they non-Christians with whom we have common values but not a shared faith?

  2. A beautiful statement, Dr. Messer. Thanks so much for pointing to the gifts of our Methodist heritage.

  3. Insightful commentary, Glen. Thank you. Your emphasis here on relationships--or, perhaps better, communion-as-relationship--as constitutive of ecumenical unity in diversity is well taken. And, I think, we find inklings of the sorts of virtues and disposition churches need to cultivate in order to sustain such relationships already in para. 47, which speaks of "self-giving" as foundational to communion, and para. 55, which highlights the need for both "critical" and "self-critical" engagement with society and culture. Significantly, paragraphs 47-48 center the cultivation of such "missional" virtues and disposition in worship and the means of grace. It is obvious (at least to me) that your robust understanding of "relationship" take these encompassing claims for granted. We can only pray that United Methodists recover in greater and more consistent manner these Methodist/Wesleyan ecclesial impulses.

    As fodder for further conversation, let me raise an issue analogous to Robert's. It seems a sensible assumption that shared Christian identity requires a shared narrative (at least to some extent). As Russ Richey pointed out years ago, ecumenical collaboration in the U.S. worked well in the past because the various denominations could assume a shared Christian narrative (as did the folks gathered in Scotland in 1910). Indeed, "unity" and "difference" makes sense only in the context of a common frame of reference. This, too, I think is the vision of ecumenism at work in para. 52 of Grace Upon Grace. However, is Robert's question of a "wider ecumenism," the increasing competitiveness among churches, let alone the inveterate battles within denominations, not an indication that this shared Christian narrative (its boundaries and essential "goods") is itself nowadays increasingly question rather than assumption?