The End of Ecumenism?

Ruth Gledhill’s report on the Catholic Church’s recent statement on ecumenism certainly fanned the flames of anti-Catholicism amongst her readers.

Does the statement signal the end of ecumenism as we knew it? I think the old fashioned 60s-70s ecumenism has been a dead duck for a long time, and it’s not Rome’s fault. What has happened, for instance, to the World Council of Churches? Is there anything left of it other than a gaggle of ageing left wing Protestants? The Catholics never joined. The different conservative Protestant sects never had time for it either.

When it comes to ecumenical dialogue with the mainstream Protestant churches isn’t it time now for some tough talking? Everyone needs to take a serious look at the formal situation in the mainstream Protestant churches. I can speak from experience in the Church of England, but I believe the other mainstream Protestant churches in Europe and the USA are in the same situation: their theologians and bishops have formally, in writing denied practically every cardinal Christian doctrine. They deny miracles, the bodily resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the incarnation, efficacy of sacraments etc. etc. etc. In the area of morality they allow abortion, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, transgendered clergy, etc etc etc. Notice, these are not just aberrations of individuals, but formally defined positions of the leadership of these churches.

Do we therefore properly refer to these groups as ‘churches’? I would argue that not only have they not got the historic episcopacy, but they don’t really hold to the historic Christian faith. If anything the Pope’s remarks were charitable. Maybe he should have said, “These groups that call themselves Christian have now departed so completely from the Christian faith that we do not even recognize them as ‘separated brethren.’

Of course within all these denominations there are many good and loyal people–both clergy and laity–who have not bowed the knee to Baal, however these are not the folk with whom ecumencial discussions are held at a formal level. Neither can we judge a church by the good people within it. We can only make an objective judgement based on a church’s formal teachings. With this in mind do you think the mainstream Protestant churches are ‘proper churches’?

This brings us to the conservative Protestant churches. Many of these are independent church congregations. Others belong to small to medium sized denominations. Are these ‘proper churches’? They themselves often eschew any kind of formal ecclesiology. They don’t believe in a visible church at all. They are suspicious of any attempt to have a formal, visible church and regard all churches as ‘human institutions.’ Can they be called a ‘church’ in the proper sense when they repudiate any form of ecclesiology at all? Probbly not.

This leaves us with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. These are the Christians who have responded most warmly and positively to Rome’s statement, and these are the ones (perhaps the only ones) with whom real ecumenical dialogue is still possible.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Benfan

    Yes it is the end of Ecumenism. There is nothing to be ecumenical with on an institutional level.I think your summary is excellent. On we sail.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09545777291532401478 Bill

    I used to work at a non-denominational (read: evangelical) website (yes, I’m Catholic; yes, that turned heads). When we became overly stressed, we’d head over to the customer service reps. They always had a wonderful folder filled with copies of all the wacky emails they received. Usually you’d find a lot of fringe fundamentalists that had read a couple verses and they’d run off the deep end on some new idea that they swore was fact.I started reading the comments in the Times article, and they read like all those old emails. (my favorite being: if religion is based on faith, and faith cannot be proven, therefore nobody can tell anyone that they’re wrong).It’s obvious that most of these posters have not read the document. It’s a two page letter – and it’s not in some esoteric, theological vocabulary. Maybe they’ve skimmed it. But they all want to be taken as equals. That’s the common thread (as I see it). And that’s why they’re so offended by the “not a church” comment.So who is the most arrogant? The head of an “organization” that says that they’re right? Or the ones demanding to be seen as equals with a theological academic? Especially when they haven’t taken the time to read two pages.Had the Church said, in the 1500s, that all this was open to debate, I can see their point. We have an interpretation, you have an interpretation, all is good. But that’s not what happened. The Church was singular entity – they disagreed and left. Fine. But you can’t come back and demand to be treated as perfectly equal, theologically. In the eyes of the Church it wasn’t a fork in the road – it was a turn-off, an interstate exit.It’s like the prodigal son showing up and demanding to be treated as a landowner equal to his father’s status. Isn’t that arrogant?I hope it’s not the end of “ecumenism”. I believe (like Vat II) that God probably has spoken to these splinter groups at times. Shouldn’t we listen to Him through them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09545777291532401478 Bill

    FYI: EWTN’s “Catholic Answers” defined “church” as: run by a validly ordained bishop, sacramental, under the Seat of Peter, Biblical, etc. The Orthodox fail one of these: so they’re “close enough” churches. Most Protestants have issues with almost all of them. Therefore they’re too far removed to be called churches.Put that way (if a correct assessment) I think there’d be less confusion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17230471103702973456 Keith Strohm

    Considering that the headline of the times article was innacurate to the point of being intentionally inflammatory, it’s no surprise that readers were up in arms. It’s weird that everyone seems excited about the Catholic Church actually being, you know, the Catholic Church. It’s interesting to see that the “Hermeneutic of Rupture” involving Vatican II is as present outside the Church as it is inside. It’s like non-Catholics think VII changed what the Church taught.Of course, it could be that many of the people who are currently outside the Catholic Church used to be inside, so maybe the fact that the Hermeneutic of Rupture is so strong outside the Church isn’t surprising.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11600135728947904152 Jonathan

    Thanks for commenting on this. I agree with what you said here. I think it important to note that while the Church may not recognize these “churches” as proper, the adherents who follow the faith to their best ability and were baptized with the Trinitarian formula are still Christians in the eyes of the Catholic Church and participate in the Body of Christ, albeit not fully due to the folly of their respective institutions. It truly is amazing the fallout this has generated, I welcome it however. it sure has gotten people talking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06692665750427668367 thomas

    Keith wrote “It’s like non-Catholics think VII changed what the Church taught”No ‘like’ to it, that is precisely the opinion among many of the more knowledgable Protestants, at least if my conversation with several retired missionaries in the past two years is any indication.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17490367338505806906 Irenaeus

    Yeah, it’s over, and so what. The only thing I worry about losing is Catholic-Evangelical cooperation on social issues.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14729612779930162079 4HisChurch

    Keith: “It’s like non-Catholics think VII changed what the Church taught”That is what I was actually *told* by *Catholics* at the time!! We were taught “we don’t do that anymore” or “we don’t believe that anymore” about SO many things! It was no wonder I left the Church for Episcopalianism for 10 years. Thank God I’m back. Thank God for the internet and sites like this!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09272728729243811310 Philip Andrews

    It seems like many years ago now, but I once had high hopes that the Church of England might submit to the truth and that there might be a restoration of the Faith in England on a grand scale. Of course, at the time I was blinkered and only read the writings of good men, such as Archbishop Ramsey and ignored the growing trend towards arrogant liberalism. I now know that ‘ecumenism’, as far as the CofE is concerned will involve hefty changes from Rome. Please God, that will never happen. God bless the Pope; let’s pray that those who choose to be outside of the Body of Christ will have the grace of conversion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00994686966058012959 Joee Blogs

    Good post – I agree. There’s too much anglican-catholic false ecumenism going on in England. It’s like talking to jelly when you talk to anglicans! It would be far better if there were more dialogue with the Orthodox

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06975120700184179765 eulogos

    It is so odd that this should create a storm. It says exactly what Vatican II said, in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Decree on Ecumenism, (whose Latin title I can’t remember.) Exactly. Nothing new. And yet a Methodist minister/pastoral counselor I know, a bright woman with two PHD’s, was sure that after Vatican II the Catholics no longer believed that they were “The Church” any more than any other church. And misguided Catholics were the ones who had given her this idea. I brought one of my copies of the documents of Vatican II in to her with the appropriate documents marked, but I don’t think she read it. It sat on her office table in the same spot for several weeks. Sometimes I think it is the very Law of Non Contradiction which gives offense. One musn’t say that X which I believe, is true, while not-X, which you believe, is false. Or the other way around. One has to say that X and not X are just two paths to the truth, equally valid. People who say this really aren’t dealing with the category of truth. What they mean is “X makes you feel good, not X makes me feel good, and we are both entitled to feel good, so, hey, no problem!” On a somewhat higher level than that is those who believe in the Protestant idea of the invisble church, and who think that the little details of doctrine which divide believers are not important. These folks do at least believe to some degree that the doctrinal distinctives of their form of Christianity are true, but they have identified a sort of bare minimum of beliefs which identifies a Christian and then identify all those as The Church. This is a very unhistorical point of view, as the Anglicans persecuted the noncomformist Puritans as much as they did the Catholics, and the Puritans in return, when they got their own little theocracy in the New World, made the possession of a Book of Common Prayer a crime. The I’m OK your OK view of religious difference is a modern invention. But many good people who are Christians suscribe to the minimalist definition of Christian and the aggregation of all true Christians as the definition of the Church. These folks consider the assertion of any further truth claims beyond the minimum as, at the least, in shocking bad taste. Benedict, of course, was talking to Catholics who were trying to get some kind of accomodation to the I’m OK you’re OK point of view out of the use of “subsists” in Lumen Gentium. He really wasn’t talking to the rest of the world. But these days, they are always listening in. Isn’t it odd, though, how VERY outraged they are about what a man, whose leadership they don’t accept, says about a Church they don’t believe in? Susan Peterson


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