(Living Church) Robert Jenson–Ecumenism’s Strange Future

Not only were the mainline denominations beset by divisive internal controversy; they were simultaneously smitten by a wasting disease, whose agent is variously identified but whose presence is plain. Their theological, demographic, and financial declines are related and continue unchecked. They are already too internally riven to pay much attention to division from others.

The ecumenical movement centered on “the dialogues” was carried by these now distracted and enfeebled bodies and the Roman Catholic Church. And there is no one to pick up the burden on the Protestant side. Evangelicals are rarely bothered by questions of eucharistic fellowship ”” or by sacramental matters generally ”” and when they do think about such fellowship they assume that they are all in it anyway. In the dialogue days, when a meeting included evangelicals they would regularly demand moving from worries about sacramental fellowship to more interesting matters.

So what do we do now? I think the first thing is to remember that we pray for something we will not do: “thy Kingdom come.” God will take care of that, and when he does he will sort out his Church in ways that will surely surprise us. It may happen any minute, so let us keep on praying for the unity of the Church.

If there is to be a long meantime, perhaps we may suppose that God will be up to something in it.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, * Religion News & Commentary, Christology, Church History, Ecclesiology, Ecumenical Relations, Episcopal Church (TEC), Lutheran, Other Churches, Theology

6 comments on “(Living Church) Robert Jenson–Ecumenism’s Strange Future

  1. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Marvelous. This is vintage Robert Jensen stuff. I look forward to the three official responses that will later appear in TLC. In the meantime, here are a few comments of my own.

    1. The official, formal, institutional type ecumenism is indeed dead, or at least moribund and passe. That familiar top=down style of overcoming denominational seaparation and differences through “dialogues” among the leading theologians of each tradition and through official agreements reached by the denominational leadership, or sponsored by such official ecumenical bodies as the NCC and the WCC (National and World Council of Churches) has run its course and fizzled out. As Jensen aptly observes, the internal divisions within the so-called “mainline” Protestant groups are far worse and more polarizing than the external divisions between denominations. Orthodox Lutherans and Anglicans, for example, have far more in common with each other than they do with their “progressive” peers within their own churches.

    2. A major cause of the decline of the official ecumenism of the mid 20th century has been the hijacking of the formal ecumenical bodies by political activists on the left. The NCC, which used to employ hundreds of staffers at swank offices on Manhattan’s upper west side, has shrunk to the point where the NCC now can only afford to employ a dozen or so staffers, who have appropriately moved to DC, since the NCC has degenerated into little more than a political lobby, eager to “speak truth to power.” The NCC (and to a lesser degree the WCC headquarters in Geneva) have morphed into little more than a chaplaincy for the left wing of the Democratic Party (or socialism in the case of the WCC in Europe). The natural and predictable result is that the official ecumenical bodies have squandered all the good will and trust that had been built up and so the NCC and WCC are now highly polarizing agencies, that attract the support of only the hardcore liberals who support the new “progressive” political and social agenda with which the old ecumenical establishment is now firmly and fatally linked.

    More to come…
    David Handy+

  2. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Continuing my earlier comment.
    3. The demise of the official, formal ecumenism of the 20th century is being matched by the quiet, largely unnoticed emergence of an unofficial, grassroots style ecumenism that is taking its place in the 21st century. This decentralized new ecumenism is arising in many forms and is operative on many levels and on many different fronts. For example, here are a few of the contributing factors:
    a. the widespread use of a common lectionary for Sunday worship
    b. the widespread use of new forms of catechesis/teaching the basics of the Christian faith and life that aren’t denominationally based (e.g., Alpha, Cursillo/Emmaus Walk)
    c. the widespread interest in the recovery of the healing ministry, again transcending denominational lines (e.g., the Christian Healing Ministry center and materials developed by Francis and Judith McNutt)
    d. the widespread use of in depth, serious Bible study programs such as DISCIPLE (with Methodist roots), Kerygma (with Presbyterian roots), Bethel (with Missouri Synod Lutheran roots), etc. These intensive study courses tend to meet in people’s homes, rather than in church buildings, and often transcend denominational lines.
    e. the growing interest in the recovery of the classic spiritual disciplines, especially through Renovare, the ecumenical movement started by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard.

    Many more such converging trends could be cited, but the point is that such unifying factors aren’t controlled by the leadership of any denomination, and aren’t led by the academic theologians who teach in seminaries, etc. The whole phenomenon tends to be lay-driven, and lay-led, as spiritually hungry laypeople in all the historic Protestant groups, and local pastors committed to fostering serious discipleship, seek out and link up with like-minded folks, regardless of their denominational affiliation (if any).

    4. When it comes to the ELCA and TEC, the fact that both bodies have been riven by deep splits in recent years, leading to the formation of the new conservative groups, the NALC and the ACNA respectively, shows how right Jensen is. The most important dialogues are now those going on within denominations, only in all too many cases, there is much talking but little listening across the gulf created by the Culture War. That internal gulf is now so wide that it sometimes makes the Grand Canyon look small. It is becoming ever more apparent that some differences are indeed unbridgeable.

    5. As NRA, I continue to hold, fervently, that we are living in the early stages of what will eventually be known as the New Reformation. The biggest shake up of the Christian Church since the original Reformation of the 16th century. And the most life-giving. If the bitter divisions of the first Reformation were, in the famous words of Jaroslav Pelikan, “a tragic necessity,” then I ardently contend that the new divisions emerging in our time are at least as much of a tragic necessity.

    David Handy+

  3. Sarah says:

    Well, I do agree that “ecumenical efforts” [as he defines them] will go on amongst those who care about such “ecumenical efforts” [as he defines them].

    But that seems sort of a truism.

    For one thing, most Protestants already practice open table eucharistic fellowship — although of course, most define eucharistic fellowship very differently. So it stands to reason they’re not going to be as concerned about “ecumenical efforts” [as he defines them] as those who do not.

    Most of the leaders engaged with the mainline and “ecumenical efforts” don’t believe the Gospel anyway, so it’s hard to really do much with that.

    So you’re left with 1) those who define eucharistic fellowship somewhat similarly, and 2) who have significant leaders who believe the Gospel leading the “ecumenical efforts” [as he defines them].

    So you’re left with the EO and RCs — I doubt very much that the Pentecostals will be all that adept or interested in the kind of dialogue to which he’s referring.

    I’d like to also point out something — in response to this: “(After further labors and agonies the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America established their fellowship much along the lines we had proposed in the first place.) . . . A second observation: the division between Lutherans that ruined the second round of our dialogue foreshadowed something. No sooner had Episcopalians and Lutherans in the United States established fellowship than each began to splinter into new churches out of fellowship with each other. In this they are merely typical of the once “mainline” Protestant groups.”

    My thesis has always been that the reason why Lutherans and Episcopalians were able to establish “their fellowship” in the way that they did [very shallowly and vacuously] was precisely because the boundaries and Gospel identity of TEC and the ELCA were so over-run, fragmented, and desolate that such a “fellowship” was merely the kind of “fellowship” that teenage girls might establish when they’re on the same cheerleading squad together — and that is the most significant thing about their identity.

    From a serious ecumenical standpoint, it’s an irrelevance, although, you know — it helps bring in a few Lutheran ministers for rural, tiny parishes in TEC that are dying and can’t get an Episcopal priest to serve them, and I’m sure vice versa. So the logistics of clergy/horse trading, I suppose, is simpler now.

  4. CSeitz-ACI says:

    “Not only were the mainline denominations beset by divisive internal controversy; they were simultaneously smitten by a wasting disease, whose agent is variously identified but whose presence is plain. Their theological, demographic, and financial declines are related and continue unchecked. They are already too internally riven to pay much attention to division from others.”

    Awfully compressed. Does he mean the sexuality controversies?

  5. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Hi, Dr. Seitz.

    I can’t speak for Jensen, but what came to mind as I read this short piece was a quip by the late, great Lutheran-turned EO theologian Jaroslav Pelikan. Back when you and I were at Yale, Chris, he joked that the upshot of the official (NCC-type) ecumenism was this: “[i]Since no one believes anything anymore, let’s all disbelieve together![/i]”

    Of course, Sarah could chime in and remind us all that it’s actually not that our foes on the Left no longer believe anything at all. Rather, they have exchanged the authentic gospel for another one, a false gospel of theological relativity and moral antinomianism. But it really amounts to the same thing.

    However, I agree with you, Dr. Seitz. I wish the good Robert Jensen had been less circumspect and concise. If he’d been more forthright in calling a spade a spade, it would not only have been clearer, it would also have been more fun to read.

    David Handy+

  6. New Reformation Advocate says:

    P.S. Sorry to monopolize this thread again, but I want to correct my repeated misspelling of Dr. Jenson’s name. Given the prominence of the Jensen brothers in Sydney, I wouldn’t want any readers to think I lumped Robert Jenson as an evangelical-catholic Lutheran with the Calvinist Jensens, or tarred him with the same Neo-Puritan brush.

    Finally, I was born and raised in Sioux Falls, which is not only Lutheran territory, but specifically Norwegian, low church, pietistic Lutheran territory. Western Lake Wobegon land. The bishop for the ELCA Synod of SD has his/her office in Sioux Falls on the campus of Augustana College. Anyway, back in SD we had a playful nickname for the Lutheran-Episcopal efforts at partnership and unity. We called it “[i]Lut-episc.[/i]” And generally, those efforts at Lut-episc relations seemed to me to stink to high heaven, much like Lutefisk, the smelly Norwegian dish all non-Norwegians love to hate.

    David Handy+