Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Kyle R. Tau. Rev. Dr. Tau is an Ecumenical Staff Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops.
From top to bottom, from beginning to end, ecumenism in all its forms is fundamentally about the mission and witness of the church. This is true of the historical beginnings of the Ecumenical Movement, which we will get to below, but it is also fundamentally true about the theological grounding of ecumenism itself.
The unofficial Biblical slogan of the ecumenical movement is drawn from the first half of John 17:21. One can scarcely attend an ecumenical gathering without hearing the oft repeated phrase “that they all might be one,” echoing Jesus’ prayer for unity among all those who will believe in him. This phrase is usually pulled out of the longer prayer, sometimes giving the impression that this unity is an end in itself. In one sense, this is true. Unity among Christians expresses in history what is true eternally, that we are all one in Christ. Thus, the ecumenical goal of unity is an intrinsic good because it conforms the church to a fundamental theological truth.
Yet in another sense, unity among Christians is not unity for its own sake but unity with a purpose. Bishop David Yemba, retired bishop of the Congo Central Conference, brought this point home powerfully at a meeting of the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order during the last quadrennium. During a discussion related to the drafting of Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, Bishop Yemba stressed the importance of the next sentence in Jesus’ prayer, found in the second half John 17:21: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” So that the world may believe…
The Book of Discipline recognizes the link between ecumenism and mission in the Preamble to the Constitution stating, “The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world” (2016 BOD, p. 25). In commenting on this principle from the Discipline, the Committee on Faith and Order notes in Sent in Love, “At stake, then, in the search for Christian unity is the integrity of the mission of the body of Christ as a whole. At stake, by implication, is the integrity of our United Methodist mission as part of the church universal” (Sent in Love, §102).
As a matter of core theological conviction and witness, divisions in the church strike at the very credibility of Gospel truth and thus undercut the church’s mission. Having been entrusted with a ministry and indeed a mission of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19), it is not unreasonable for an unbelieving world to expect a church that proclaims reconciliation to practice what it preaches. When the church is indifferent to unity among Christians and, worse, actively fosters hatred and division in its own ranks as well as in society, it quite literally makes the Gospel unbelievable. If Christians can’t be bothered to live up to the message of reconciliation and unity in the human family, why indeed should anyone believe that the Gospel has any real power? Here then, is the question that gives the Ecumenical Movement its urgency. It is the question that inspired the beginning of the formal ecumenical movement in the 20th century.
The Ecumenical Movement was launched by a variety of impulses. Among them were two distinct movements beginning in 1910 that continue to make up significant aspects of formal ecumenism today. In this year, Protestant churches in the United States began holding discussions under the banner of “faith and order” dialogue. The first World Conference on Faith and Order was held in 1927, and when the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948, the international faith and order movement became a standing commission of the WCC. Often when we think about formal ecumenism, it is the “faith and order” aspects that come to mind first: meeting with partner denominations (and at times in our history rival denominations) to clarify through dialogue what church dividing matters of confession and ministerial practice need to be overcome so that the church can visibly express the unity to which it is called.
Another, and equally significant, movement within ecumenism also took its start in 1910 with the first meeting of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. While churches were launching dialogues through the faith and order movement, they were also seeking unity in mission and evangelism on a global scale. Frustrated by centuries of ecclesiastical competition in the global mission field, the World Missionary Conferences sought to foster ecumenical cooperation in mission in tangible and practical ways that would witness to the unity of the Gospel message and create more effective and efficient missionary endeavors freed from the competing interests of denominations. The first conference in 1910 established the International Missionary Council, which merged with the WCC in 1961 and became the WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.
It would take an army of graduate students and a series of dissertations to unpack all the ways that these impulses were also allied with global colonialist impulses of European and American societies. It also remains an open question whether after more than 100 years of seeking cooperation in mission the global rivalries and competing interests of our denominations have been significantly overcome. BUT here is the point: In its historical beginnings, formal ecumenism from the very start has largely been driven by a desire for, and in fact a deep need for, unity in mission.
It has become commonplace to identify these movements as two distinct streams of ecumenism: 1) a “faith and order” stream focused on matters of theology, sacramental practice, and ministerial orders and 2) a “life and works” stream focused on matters of mission and witness. If we aren’t careful, we might be tempted to allow these distinct streams to float free of one another, or to give priority to one over the other based on desirable programmatic “deliverables” that help us justify the cost and effort of ecumenical endeavors. Yet these two streams are unified by the commission given to the church to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). Our practical attempts at cooperation in mission are hampered by ongoing divisions in matters of theology and ministry. The end goal of church unity on matters of faith and order is to empower a faithful witness to the Gospel in the world.
Thus, from top to bottom, from beginning to end, ecumenism in all its forms is fundamentally about the mission and witness of the church. This is true both in its historical beginnings and in its theological underpinnings. Mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism.