Ellen K. Wondra
In July of this year, the National Council of Churches of Christ gathered some 300 representatives of member churches in Oberlin, Ohio, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Faith and Order movement in the US. The conference, titled On Being Christian Together, included some participants in the original Faith and Order conference in Oberlin in 1957, as well as ecumenists who have become active since then. Notably, about one third of the 2007 participants were people under thirty-five--seminarians, college students, pastors, scholars--each of whom is developing an interest in the churches quest for unity, many of whom will carry forward the ecumenical movement in the coming decades.
This conference had a very full schedule of papers and presentations on various topics, discussions, workshops, worship, and shared meals. The proceedings will be published by the National Council of Churches of Christ in due course. In the meantime, I want to note some aspects of what was planned, and what was discussed.
The NCCCUSA (like other conciliar groups) is deliberately inviting full participation of churches outside of the mainline--Pentecostals, evangelicals, charismatics, holiness churches, emergent churches, and so on. Ecumenism in the US involves more than what historian Donald Dayton calls the three primary players: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant groups. Under this accustomed form, it is the eleventh and twelfth and the sixteenth centuries that are considered eras of great church division. But with the inclusion of these other groups, it becomes clear that the nineteenth century must be considered as church-dividing as well. This new view introduces whole other sets of church-dividing issues that must be worked through on the way to unity, whether unity is conceived as full visible unity or a communion of communions.
This new configuration also expands the range of marks of apostolicity from teaching, worship, and ministry to include anti-racism, peace-making, holiness, apostolic powers (for example, ecstatic witness and healing), and more. Also necessary is further discussion of ministry and especially the mutual recognition of ministries, generally considered the final element that must be in place before full communion can be discerned. The challenges facing Anglicans and other mainliners are significant.
Further, changes in how ecumenists understand the context of their work have large implications as well. At the Oberlin conference of 1957, contextual analysis pointed to the increasing secularism of the US scene (often with approval; remember The Secular City), and emphasized the importance of clear and reasonable doctrinal statements in overcoming the divisions among the churches. And, particularly after Vatican II, there was great optimism that the divisions could be resolved in very short order--five years, on some accounts, or even one year, on others.
Fifty years on, the context is much more clearly global, something made particularly evident by the rise of Pentecostal, holiness, and evangelical churches in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, more so than by the global federations or communions of Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and Lutherans. Dayton claims--rightly, I think--that the great topic which the mainline American churches are unwilling to address is the end of Christendom, or the emergence of post-Constantinian or post-colonial Christianity. The difficulties of this topic are certainly evident in the Anglican Communion of today.
So US and global ecumenism is being reconfigured, and this Faith and Order conference was one manifestation of that activity. At the same time, it is worth pausing to note the amazing progress in inter-church relations that has occurred over the last fifty years and more. Both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church USA have full communion relationships with respective Lutheran bodies and active bi-lateral and multi-lateral (or conciliar) relations with numerous other churches. Indeed, the number of these relationships is growing. In the US these include a new relationship of interim eucharistic sharing with the Moravian Church in America. Dialogues with the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church continue in Canada and the US, despite high-level pronouncements that seem to be at least a step backward, and dire warnings of possible suspension in response to various new developments. At the international level, Growing Together in Unity and Mission: Building on 40 Years of Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (from the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission) presents a comprehensive statement of the faith we hold in common even as it acknowledges issues of continuing concern. It also suggests ways in which unity can be deepened even as those issues continue to be considered. It may at times feel like ecumenical winter, but there are plenty of signs of thaw as well.
This issue begins with three presentations from the 2007 Trinity Institute National Theological Conference, Gods Unfinished Future. Barbara Rossing examines the contemporary American fascination with all things apocalyptic, seen in the popularity of the Left Behind series of books, various video games, and in political and cultural commentary on events as disparate as Hurricane Katrina and the continuing violent conflict in Israel-Palestine. As Rossing notes, end-times discourse is . . . prominent in our culture, a culture increasingly concerned with global survival and the economics of ecology. The Bible, too, is concerned with end-times, and Rossing turns to biblical apocalyptic as analysis of the ills of a world beset by imperialism and as hopeful vision of healing and restoration not only for Gods people but for the earth as well. The book of Revelation is often portrayed as a prediction of the events surrounding Armageddon, focusing on violence, destruction, and the imminent end of the world. While many Christians, mainline and evangelical, reject this reading and the neglect of responsibility for the political and ecological future that it entails, the temptation to ignore or dismiss biblical apocalypticism should be resisted. Instead, Rossing proposes seeing--and using--apocalyptic as a vision and source of hope in a future that includes judgment on the consequences of sin, but does so in order to prompt repentance and foster confidence in Gods desire to bring into being the New Jerusalem. In Revelations picture of this holy city, God dwells with us on a healed and renewed earth centered around the tree of life, a place where justice and beauty predominate. Christians and Gods world today need an imaginative vision in which The earth opens its mouth to save us from our own captivity to empire and destruction, and God responds with renewal, restoration, and fulfilment.
These themes are developed further in two essays by J