Missing half of America’s changing ecumenical landscape

Missing half of America’s changing ecumenical landscape August 19, 2013

A long, long, long time ago I covered a press conference featuring leaders of the various bodies linked to the Colorado Council of Churches. The key was that the organization — in support of an essentially liberal political cause of some kind — was claiming that it spoke for the vast majority of the state’s churches.

The problem was that, by the 1980s, the conversion of the Colorado Front Range into an evangelical hotbed (including evangelicals in many oldline Protestant bodies) was well on its way. Also, a more doctrinally conservative Catholic archbishop had arrived in town, one anxious to advocate for Catholic teachings on public issues on both sides of the political spectrum (think opposition to death penalty and to abortion).

Still, it was an important press conference that helped document one side of a religious debate in the state.

Near the end of the session, I asked what I thought was a logical question: Other than the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, did any of the CCC leaders present represent a church that had more members at that moment than during any of the previous two or three decades?

The church leaders in attendance were not amused.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state, there were budding signs of increased talks between Southern Baptists, Catholics, charismatic Episcopalians, African-American Pentecostals, Latino evangelicals and, from time to time, Orthodox Jews and Mormons.

I kept telling my editors that this was a new development in ecumenical and interfaith work. This was news — the other half of an important state story. One key editor kept saying, “But this is not part of the Colorado Council of Churches, right?”

Now, if you look at the membership of the CCC these days you will see many of those old familiar church names, a pretty solid vision of the progressive Protestant left. What you will not see — no surprise — is the name of the Catholic archdiocese.

I described both sides of that journalism parable to say that — decades later — this same story continues to unfold across the nation. Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran under the headline, “Interfaith movement struggles to adapt to changing religious landscape.” The lede will surprise few readers who have been watching demographic trends in American religion.

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington is known as one of the country’s early multi-faith groups, and its executive director’s nickname is the “dean of American interfaith.” Yet as it approaches its 35th anniversary in November, the group is fighting for survival, down to two full-time staff members and facing more than $100,000 in debt.

The conference, which has a major fundraiser planned this fall and aims to restructure the organization and sharpen its mission, is hardly alone. Some of the oldest and best-known names in interfaith, including the National Council of Churches and the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World Religions, have slashed staff as their revenue shriveled.

The Interfaith Conference is struggling, experts and some group leaders say, in part because it relies too much on clergy and religious denominations for participation and money at a time when many traditional faith groups are losing members and status as more Americans drop or switch spiritual affiliations and are less committed.

Now, the news hook here is an interesting one: To what degree has interfaith work declined because the new American reality is that millions of Americans are living interfaith lives? Might this grassroots interfaith reality have hurt the groups that need commitment at the level of budgets and buildings?

News hook number two is also solid: Most interfaith work today is being done at the level of coalitions that focus on specific issues, not large-scale work in the old ecumenical institutions.

Thus, readers are told:

When these new, more activist groups are taken into account, the interfaith movement as a whole appears to be thriving. The Rev. Bud Heckman, who has been a leader of several key interfaith groups, said his research shows there are twice as many interfaith groups nationally as there were a decade ago. A recent Hartford Institute survey showed congregations are twice as likely to engage in interfaith worship today as they were 10 years ago.

Once again, this is interesting and valid. So what is my question?

What about the explosion of ecumenical work that is taking place on the conservative side of American religious life? Why are there no quotes at all from people involved in the massive interfaith and ecumenical efforts linked to issues tied to religious liberty? Think in terms of home-schooling rights, abortion, opposition to the Health & Human Services mandates, immigration reforms (an issue that certainly transcends left and right), opposition to same-sex unions, etc.

Also, in the past half century there has been no greater force affecting national and global ecumenical work and life than Pentecostalism and the whole era of charismatic renewal. Might there even be a mention of that reality?

In other words, the story makes some valid points while only looking at half of the interfaith and ecumenical world.

Why not talk to some leaders on the other side of the doctrinal spectrum?

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  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Good points. The late Chuck Colson, the Evangelical leader, was one who was advocating that Catholics and Evangelicals work together on many issues in the public square. But in some media quarters he was ignored or treated pretty shabbily. Probably because certain people didn’t like the direction a Catholic-Evangelical alliance would go on some issues like abortion.

    • James Stagg

      And, perhaps the lack of MSM coverage of such cooperation is due to a perceived threat to their invincible notions of (im)morality. Just sayin’…………..

  • John Pack Lambert

    In the last few years a Catholic Cardinal has been the featured weekly speaker at Brigham Young Univeristy, and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, was given an award by the Becket Foundation, with the award being presented by the same Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. Mormon/Catholic cooperation has hit new levels.

    • Darren Blair

      Don’t forget the fact that the LDS faith and the Adventists have been working together in order to take advantage of the strengths of their respective social services and humanitarian aid systems.