A look back to 2005–(CC) George Lindbeck: The unity we seek–Setting the agenda for ecumenism

Convergence ecumenism came to dominate the ecumenical establishment (by which I mean those who to one degree or another are professionally engaged in ecumenism, whether as students, teachers, bureaucrats or active participants in relevant meetings, commissions and assemblies). Three of the high-water marks of 20th-century ecumenism reflect this dominance: the WCC’s New Delhi statement on “the unity we seek” (1961), Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism, 1964) and the WCC’s Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which, though not given its finishing touches until just before its publication in 1982, reflects in its substance agreements that had been reached a decade or more earlier. In short, it took only until around 1970 for convergence ecumenism to reach its apogee.

Since then, ecumenism has been in decline. Significant convergences on doctrinal issues have not ceased, as in, for example, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), but these convergences tend to be the outcome of discussions already well advanced in earlier decades and are to be attributed more to institutional inertia than to continuing enthusiasm.

Nonconvergence strategies for moving toward visible unity have also weakened. Beginning already at the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968, the emphasis started to shift from the concerns of Faith and Order toward those of what ecumenists called Life and Work. It is almost as if the social activism of the 1920s and 1930s, summed up in the 1925 Life and Work slogan “Doctrine divides but service unites,” were once again ecumenically triumphant.

A major change from 1925, however, is that since Uppsala it is the unity of the world, not that of the church in service to the world’s unity, that is more and more the direct goal. In the imagery employed by those in favor of the change, the paradigm is not the old “God-church-world” but rather “God-world-church.” According to this new paradigm, Christians should discern from what God is doing in the world what they themselves should do; or, in language that those hostile to the change often quote: “The world sets the agenda.” This type of Life and Work ecumenism had considerable momentum in the heyday of liberation theology, but since the end of the cold war, it has joined Faith and Order ecumenism in the doldrums. The survival of the ecumenism we have known seems doubtful.

Read it all (my emphasis).


Posted in Church History, Ecclesiology, Ecumenical Relations, Theology