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Fourteen Years After ‘Unity in Mid-Career’

by A. J. van der Bent

Mr. van der Bent serves as librarian and archivist fot the World Council of Churches in Geneva. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 8-15, 1977, p. 565. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In 1963 a book titled Unity in Mid-Career (Macmillan) caused considerable stir in ecumenical circles. On the book’s cover the following sentence was added to the title: “Can the movement toward Christian unity survive as a living force or is it headed for premature senility?” Fourteen church leaders and theologians contributed critical essays on the ecumenical movement and on the World Council of Churches in particular. In the introduction the editors set the tone of the book. “The long road for the WCC, and other ecumenical agencies,” Keith Bridston and Walter Wagoner wrote, “ought to be traversed, not like the Ark of the Covenant in holy untouchability, but as in the rough-and-tumble of our all too human pilgrimage, where sharp criticism and good-humored loyalty rub shoulders.” It was believed that a good dose of “self-criticism in the spirit of candor” had become necessary at that stage of ecumenical development.

I

The symposium dealt with a wide range of issues. On the one hand the dangers of the WCC and other large ecumenical organizations becoming “established and conservative ecclesiastical institutions” were frankly introduced. The development of healthy regionalism was greeted as important and consistent with worldwide ecumenism. Predictions were made that an emerging conciliarism will be the most crucial and baffling of all the long-range ecumenical problems. Alexander Schmemann wrote that the Orthodox churches as a whole only seem to be represented in the WCC and that the failure of full participation may sooner or later lead to a major ecumenical crisis.” The churches in the West were accused of not taking the challenge of Marxism seriously; Eastern Christianity was blamed for its abstract conceptions and for its prejudices against the West. The best way through the East-West barrier, it was counseled, is not by aiming for fellowship as an end in itself but by finding common concerns in common tasks.

Regret was expressed that the real testing point of the ecumenical movement is not to be found at the local level and that the committed parish minister is the movement’s forgotten person. Presumably there can be an “ecumenical theology,” Robert Tobias wrote, “but in terms of a whole system, not until the end of the age.” Ecumenical officialdom was criticized for destroying effective communication from the field by requiring field people to speak its language and to approximate its behavior. Finally, it was noticed that the archaic structures of American seminaries hardly provide room in the curriculum for specialized attention to the ecumenical movement proper.

Unity in Mid-Career enjoyed a mixed reception. Although it was admitted that the essays forthrightly tackled unresolved problems in the ecumenical movement, the symposium was judged unsatisfying and incomplete. Some maintained that the contributors should have worked more closely together, informing each other of their stances and correcting and deepening each other’s insights and criticisms. Others judged the contrast between “movement” and “institution” to be far too labored, and were convinced that the World Council will survive unconstructive resentment and distorted judgment. Still others simply dismissed the book as mischievous and irresponsible.

II

Reviewing the past 14 years of ecumenical development, one wonders whether some of the biased and gloomy forecasts of the Unity in Mid-Career experts have indeed come true. Reading, for instance, a 1975 article by Kilian McDonnell titled “Ecumenism: Made Miserable by Success?” (Worship, vol. 49, no. 2), one is under the impression that not much has changed for better or worse. Father McDonnell reports on a closed invitational gathering of 60 prominent leaders and theologians -- Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant -- at the Benedictine Pontifical Institute of St. Anselm in Rome, November 1974. The meeting evaluated ecumenical trends in the decade since the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Decree on Ecumenism.

Ecumenism, Father McDonnell writes, “has fallen on evil days, and the general opinion is that the crisis is a child of its success. He informs us that only very recently have ecumenical scholars come to see that the Decree on Ecumenism was cautious, reticent and even fearful. It gives no answer to the new question: How can the unity of the church be manifested today? The initially successful Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC is now at an impasse and shuns primordial questions of church unity. The Orthodox churches, ever since joining the World Council in 1961, have positioned themselves between the two chairs of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The quiet celebration of “intercommunion” has led nowhere, as one increasingly realizes that the Eucharist and the Holy Spirit pertain to an ongoing visible community. The ecumenical progress of the past decade has produced a new institutional fear” and now appears as a threat to the identity of the churches and their vested interests. Third World Christians have no more desire to participate in the European-American Reformation controversies.

The theologians gathered together in Rome, Father McDonnell reports, now concentrate on more promising bilateral confessional dialogues. They speak of conciliar fellowship, in which each local church possesses in communion with other churches the fullness of catholicity, and they plead for a “spiritual ecumenism”; they still consider the WCC the place best suited to express the indivisibility of the ecumenical movement, and they advise fellow Christians to be prepared for a larger measure of ecclesiastical spontaneity. They counsel that “patience as an active posture” has to be more consciously practiced everywhere.

Time is now ripe to ask whether searching and honest self-criticism or sober analysis and humble evaluation render the ecumenical movement a better service. Were Unity in Mid-Career and other subsequent faultfinding publications right to disturb the optimism and hope in ecumenical Christianity? Should rather the wisdom and counsel of theological specialists, recorded in many ecumenical documents, have been heeded? Unfortunately, the choice between the two approaches leads today to even more indecision, confusion and disappointment. Both the sharply critical approach to and the objective survey of the international church scene fall short because through neither is the heart of the gospel rediscovered, and consequently the true goal of the ecumenical movement is constantly undervalued.

III

Although quite different in scope and tone, both the book Unity in Mid-Career and the article by Father McDonnell focus entirely on inner ecclesiological complications and domestic ecclesiastical frustrations. The multireligious and secular world is not mentioned and simply does not seem to exist. One cannot but ask the captious and learned ecumenists whether they have forgotten that foreign missions have been the source of all major steps toward unity. Were not Christian diakonia and interchurch-aid activities during and after World War II the most basic elements of the WCC “in process of formation”? Did not all its assemblies from 1948 onward stress, the crucial importance of witness, evangelism and social service? Does not the search for Christian unity that is separated from creative religious impulses always deteriorate into the logic of organizational charts, subsequently leading to either a strong and quasi-courageous rejection of that logic or a noble but weak defense of it?

It could be argued today that the ecumenical movement fortunately does not practice “patience as an active posture” and is after all not “headed for premature senility.” A growing enthusiasm for more direct sociopolitical involvement of the churches in the world has resulted in greater vitality and credibility for the movement. After the World Council’s Fourth Assembly, held at Uppsala in 1968, a whole series of reflection and action programs were initiated for changing structures of oppression, promoting development, combating racism, implementing human rights, struggling for women’s liberation, opposing the arms race and militarism; and improving education for people’s liberation. Such programs have been vigorously carried on with the support of many churches. The Fifth Assembly, at Nairobi in 1975, explicitly stated that there is always a healthy dialectic between confession and commitment, between the vertical dimension of faith and the horizontal dimension of love, between evangelism and humanization, between conversion of the heart and change of social structures. Thus, common tasks in this world are direct expressions of a common witness and lead toward a growing and more visible manifestation of the unity of the world Christian fellowship.

Despite this apparently evangelical and up-to-date ecumenical posture, I do not venture to trust the assurance that the churches now respond more realistically to God and the world. I still have some difficulty in believing that the ecumenical movement has reached a mature stage. I can well imagine a different (and more sophisticated) crowd of Bridstons and Wagoners, accusing the ecumenical movement today of still not taking the world seriously enough. I listen to them criticizing the churches for still not sufficiently discerning the active presence of God across the whole inhabited earth, and for ignoring the authentic indigenous insights, gifts and endeavors of all peoples. I hear them attacking the WCC for being excessively preoccupied with socioeconomic issues and for taking the normativeness of its conduct too much for granted.

I can also imagine other (still more subtle) deliberations at St. Anselm in Rome stressing the sinfulness of all politics and denouncing the self-righteousness of all ideologies (including Christian social systems) which aim for a too radical change of social structures. I can hear participants saying that the optimism and triumphalism in ecumenical social activism can be corrected only by concentrating ever more on the church’s unique unity and distinctive identity and by reconsidering its specific task of costly evangelism. The world needs foremost a true taste of spiritual liberation which is experienced and celebrated in the Christian community of adoration and praise.

IV

Undoubtedly, such new exhortations and criticisms are considerably more relevant than the past and present ecclesiastical “kitchen critique” to which I have referred. These new questionings can shake up the international Christian community and enable it to be frank about its bewilderments, encouraging it to re-evaluate its true resources. Yet the fundamental difficulty of the ecumenical movement is how to move in this world and not be of this world. Claiming far too often that it has achieved just this ideal spiritual positioning, the ecumenical movement has been in fact neither truly beyond nor truly in this world, and consequently it has not responded fully and authentically to God or to his creation.

Certainly it is true that all righteous and successful programs of the WCC and other ecumenical agencies have to be put to the test of whether they originated out of a deep passion about human suffering, injustice and despair as well as out of faith in the utter compassion of God. Certainly new strategies of ecumenical mission and proofs of conciliar fellowship must be checked as to whether they indeed call all men and women back into communion with God, and do not instead merely affirm old battle cries and traditional distinctive identities in that Christian community which oscillates between being with the world and being beyond the world. But surely, too, more is needed than all this; since the gospel calls us to be in the world, God’s precious creation is to be more deeply loved through Christ’s love.

It is not surprising that no official ecumenical report since 1948 has ever attempted to exegete afresh the last judgment of the Son of Man (Matt. 25:31-46). When all nations (not churches, Christians and “non-Christians”) will be summoned before Christ’s throne and separated into two groups, not only many righteous who have confessed his name and belong to his church but also many righteous who are not conscious at all of having served the master will enter the Kingdom. At the last day the Lord will curse many who pretended to have known him and served him, but will acknowledge, as his own, people in all the world who have not known him but who have, without knowing it, served him in the person of their suffering neighbor.

The criteria for separation in this biblical passage are baffling. No mention is made of the fact that the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world. No vow of allegiance to Christ’s One Church guarantees salvation. No Christian involvement in the changing of unjust social structures will directly be rewarded with eternal life. Many religious answers given to burning secular questions will appear hypocritical and false. The truth of ecumenical Christianity will lie in its capacity to have gone outside itself, to have so given itself to the world that a greater life may come to be.

Even more, Christians everywhere anticipating the last judgment already rejoice that by the very spontaneity and unselfconsciousness of their love, and by their perseverance in transforming society, the righteous among all nations will prove themselves to be true sons and daughters of their heavenly creator. It is this perceptible maturity, this utter gratuity and this genuine impartiality which are at stake in the ecumenical movement today and tomorrow. Responding to God in the midst of this world includes public praise and thanksgiving that Christ is served in every place where people are clothed, housed, fed, and enabled to lead more dignified human lives. How eagerly is the day awaited when a statement from a World Council or a National Council of Churches will express the churches’ delight (in more than a single sentence) that God is also intensively at work in antireligious China, Cuba and Mozambique.

Unity in Mid-Career, “Ecumenism: Made Miserable by Success?” and many other published critiques of ecumenical endeavors become finally immature, unproductive, complacent and even carelessly negative because they have not been written in the midst of the “people of the Beatitudes.” These people are mature, alert and full of hope. They do not speak of midcareer or success but know how to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers. These people are not disturbed when ecumenical problems of unity, mission, service and their institutional complications are only partly solved, because they know that these things are as much a part of the structures of this world as a part of the new heaven and earth to come. These people are the core of late 20th century Christianity, fully and joyfully aware that many last ones (“nonreligious”) will be first ones. They also continuously pray that many first ones will join in the praise of God’s own righteousness, fathomable for two millenia in the suffering and dying of his son for every human being.


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