Ecumenism certainly has declined in recent times. The key goal was ably expressed back in 1961 at a WCC New Delhi gathering. It noted that unity “is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully-committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.”
The Princeton Proposal amounts to an effort to revitalize this declaration. That’s a mighty task, to say the least, when considering the varieties and disputes within Christianity around the world today. Many Christians ask, why bother?
The ecumenists respond that Christianity demands it. Most notably, they refer to Jesus Christ’s specific prayer for unity in John 17, including “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The implications for the church’s mission to spread the Good News are unmistakable.
Jenson declared that church division perverts the process of unifying humanity, and is “sin.” Yeago warned that abandoning church unity represented a “catastrophic and continuing failure of love,” which denies the redeeming and transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Conference speakers recognized the enormous problems, including distrust and indifference. Jenson looked at the effort as “bread upon the waters,” with developments “clearly and drastically dependent” upon the Holy Spirit.
Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, if Christians take Holy Scripture seriously, then it’s difficult to see how they can stop striving for the unity prayed for by Jesus Christ. ~Raymond Keating, Church and Society (courtesy of Orthodoxy Today)
The last sentence sums up very simply why “many Christians” are indifferent, if not hostile, to the ecumenist project: it identifies the largely political project of reconciling different confessions under some minimalist, reductionist definition of Christian truth with the Lord’s most profound prayer for the Church. The implications of the prayer are not “unmistakable,” as a great many Christians of more understanding than I possess have regarded the implications Mr. Keating and the ecumenists draw from Christ’s prayer for unity as a gross error.
Certainly from the traditional Catholic and Orthodox perspectives with which I am more familiar, the Church is now already united, holy, catholic and apostolic and cannot be anything else. I assume that theologically rigorous Protestants would affirm nothing else. She is not, and cannot be, divided or partial–that is one implication of Christ’s prayer. Bad ecclesiology among Catholics and Orthodox notwithstanding, there can be no permanent divisions within the Body of Christ–there can be either a falling away from the Truth, or an adherence. That sort of stark opposition tends to embarrass modern Christians, and modern theologians most of all, but then we are all likely embarrassed by many other rather stark or ‘harsh’ things required of us by the Lord. Still, it is no excuse for sloppy thinking or confusion.
I cannot speak for the Catholics as to how their authorities understand different degrees of communion (according which, Catholics and Orthodox are apparently supposed to be in some kind of communion), as I do not pretend to understand communion that is independent of Eucharistic and doctrinal unity myself. In what would it consist? At any rate, what little I do understand as an Orthodox Christian tells me that past divisions in the Church were scandalous, but that any division is a product of some Christians departing from the common mind of the Church and persisting in dividing themselves from the Church.
There is an imperative for the Church and all Her members to call all people to salvation in Christ and to receive them according to the Tradition and teachings of the Church. For the Orthodox, there is obviously no question of concessions on fundamental points of doctrinal divergence–it is not given to us to concede things entrusted to us, as we will be held to account for each of them. Yet what seems “unmistakable” is that a genuine reunion of all confessing Christians in the one and same Church would require such concessions of certain long-held claims.
So there is no such imperative for all Christians, or all those who call Christ Lord, to unite for the sake of uniting or to pretend that they are already united. No “ecumenical” effort that presupposes a pre-existing unity of Christians can ever overcome its own theological and ecclesiological incoherence. Our unity in Christ is not some metaphorical image or nominal identity–it is a spiritual reality, accomplished by the Holy Spirit, and made visible in the world. I do not believe that such unity could be obscured and hidden such that it is no longer visible to all: if we see many different confessions around us, then it is because there is a plethora of false confessions and one true one. Full communion among all Christians is desirable, as indeed the communion of all men in Christ would be desirable, but it is difficult to see how this would happen given the current theology and attitudes of most self-styled ecumenists.