Plausible Ecumenism

I WRITE from the office of Touchstone magazine. It is an ecumenical venture written by and for traditionally believing Christians in all the Churches, with the subtitle “A Magazine of Mere Christianity.” (I can’t think of an English equivalent.) The editor is Orthodox and the senior editors include an Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, generic Evangelical, and me.

We sponsored a conference in mid-January in New York City on “Plausible Ecumenism.” It had been organized by two pastors from the Presbyterian Church in America, the group that divided from the mainline body some time ago. They were “High Church Evangelicals” in a classically Protestant Church and looked to Touchstone and the vision of orthodoxy and reconciliation it tries to convey as a hope for the future of Christianity in America.

One of them, who has founded a church in the middle of Greenwich Village, uses the Episcopal eucharistic liturgy every Sunday. He thinks that Christians ought to worship liturgically, but also insisted that his church needed to offer a liturgy to reach the artists and actors (or would-be artists and actors now working as waiters) who live in the Village – and not just because as artists they want beautiful worship but because they want ordered and regular worship to help heal the disorder and randomness of their culture and their lives.

The Churches’ problems

The speakers were asked to criticize their own traditions ecumenical work and describe their traditions’ contribution to the reconciliation of believers.

This was easier for the Roman and Orthodox speakers, whose Churches know who they are and what they believe. They criticized their own Churches for their failures to relate energetically enough to the others, while gently making the claims that theirs was the true Church to which the rest of us ought to be united. (Fr Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, spoke for the Catholics.)

The others – Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Anglican (me) – had to answer the problems the extreme diversity within their Churches cause in relating to others, and answered it in different ways.

The Presbyterian appealed to the Reformation and argued that his tradition was far more Catholic than its present day heirs understood. He saw episcopacy as a logical extension of Presbyterianism – having a chief presbyter over the other presbyters – and was even happy to see the Pope as the primate of a reunited Church, as a chief presbyter over the other chief presbyters.

The Lutheran presented an abstract and idealized version of “Lutheranism” that did not seem to well reflect the life of the Lutheran Churches in America, the mainline version of which is among the more theologically diverse. He reviewed their extensive ecumenical dialogues, making the best case for each.

He did not, however, face the question of Lutheran diversity. The one raised, for example, by their at the same time agreeing to intercommunion with the United Church of Christ – a group sometimes, not entirely unfairly, referred to as “Unitarians Considering Christ” and uninterested in bishops – and came within a few votes of agreeing to intercommunion with the Episcopalians, who at least claim to hold a much more definite doctrine and who insist on bishops in the historic succession.

In such discussions as I have witnessed the Lutherans tend to present a very idealized view of “Lutheranism.” An Anglican feels he must address the fact that his Church includes Bishop John Spong as well as Bishop John Broadhurst, but they don’t seem to. I don’t know why.

In an aside, the Lutheran speaker also defended his Church’s ordaining women as their gift to the whole Church of an experiment in the matter. (At which one of the Orthodox muttered, “Who asked you?”)

He then said that one criterion for judging the experiment is whether women pastors would be martyrs – a criterion that, mind you, proved so utterly unhelpful in answering the questions at stake in the Reformation, or in the division between East and West in 1054. It is this sort of hopelessly muddled thinking that one continually finds with otherwise conservative men who favour the ordination of women.

The Baptist, to his credit, saw the diversity of Evangelicalism as a problem in ecumenical relations. Like the Lutherans, Evangelicals tend to appeal to an idealized Evangelical identity.

What an Evangelical thinks Evangelicals believe may be very different from what members of the Evangelical party believe, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the party identity has become vaguer and more minimal as some members in good standing have liberalized. He simply said that some Evangelicals would go one way and some the other, and that the rest of us have to discern the difference.

Ecumenical friendship

As will not surprise readers of a magazine of “Evangelicals and Catholics . . .”, we had a much closer fellowship and agreement in the Faith that many of us have with leading members of our own Churches.

The common appeal to the tradition of the Church was one everyone, even our Baptist, took seriously, and took seriously in a way even conservatives in the mainline Churches do not. We differed over what the tradition actually conveyed, but these differences were such that we could all say of the others that they were in error about but not in rebellion against the truth.

We have all found, in different ways, that without the guidance of the tradition Scripture becomes a set of data that can be put together in radically different ways, which are, without tradition as a referee, almost equally believable. Hence (the obvious example) those Evangelicals who hate homosexuality and invoke the Bible against it, yet ignore or relativize every biblical teaching on sexual hierarchy in favour of a gross misreading of Galatians 3:28.

It was a very encouraging day, proving that despite great disagreements, disagreements that shall not soon go away, men and women who submit themselves to Scripture and the Catholic tradition find themselves not only allies but brothers.

David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans, 1998).