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An Ecumenical Vision For the Year 2000

by Lewis S. Mudge

Lewis S. Mudge, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.  He was a Rhodes Scholar in Theology at Oxford and received his Ph.D. from Pinceton University in Religious Studies.   He edited Paul Ricouer's Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Fortress, 1980), and with James Poling edited Formation and Reflection: The Promise of Practical Theology (Fortress, 1987).  His most recent books are  The Sense of a People: Toward a Church for the Human Future (Trinity, 1992) and The Church as Moral Community: Ecclesiology and Ethics in Ecumenical Debate (Continuum, New York, 1998). This article appeared in the Christian Century September 19, 1979, p. 882. 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.


Not since the year 787 has the Christian world gathered in an assembly to which the whole church, or something close to that, eventually granted the status of “ecumenical council.” In that year, the bishops of East and West gathered at the Second Council of Nicaea: a meeting which, apart from its importance for other reasons, is remembered as the last occasion on which Christian faith, as a lived reality recognized throughout the then-known world, found expression in a universally representative gathering.

Now, with unseemly haste, the year 2000 rushes toward us, and with it what many sense to be the end of modernity as we have known it and the beginning of a world whose character we have yet fully to discern. The second millennium is ending and with it, at the very least, the hegemony in Christian thought of the distinctive intellectus of Europe and North America. Much else, too, is coming to an end: our isolation from one another, our sense of ease in our respective social and economic settings, our satisfaction to remain as we are.

What New Vision?

Other things, less clearly seen, are beginning. An ecumenical age has been brewing for a century at least. The missionary enterprise has flowed into the struggle for decolonialization and social justice. Visions of the possibility of theological reflection beyond confessional barriers have turned into accomplished fact. Surely this is an epoch in which the ecumenical idea should once again come into its own. In place of the oikoumene of a declining Roman Empire, we live in the emerging aikoumene of an interdependent global civilization.

Yet, for the past decade; the organized ecumenical movement has been viewed with indifference, if not suspicion, by Christians who have preferred to cultivate their personal spiritual gardens, to pursue various sorts of denominational consolidation and reorganization, or to wrestle with the relation of faith to social issues in abstraction from the struggle for the integrity of the social reality of the church. Meanwhile, the World and National councils of churches, myriad regional and local councils, the many bilateral conversations, and unity efforts like the Consultation on Church Union have continued to do their work largely out of the public eye except for occasional moments of media-orchestrated controversy.

Ecumenical organizations, of course, are too often only inept expressions of the ecumenical movement. They have on occasion deserved their bad press. But none of this should divert us from the fundamental question: To what vision of ecumenical opportunity does this historical moment call us?

Unity and the Human Struggle

The theological challenge is clear. It is to link, unmistakably, two things: (1) the effort to recover unity in a reinvigorated faith and (2) Christian engagement in the struggle of peoples the world over for realization of their hopes for full self-expression and full participation in the human family. These concerns are repeatedly driven apart by those determined to turn a theologically promising dialectic into a politicized ecclesiastical struggle. The essence of ecumenical thinking today is to see these two concerns as one.

The relationship between the search for unity in faith and the engagement in the human struggle lies through an insight as old as Isaiah 42:6 -- that God’s people are called to be in the world as a covenantal sign of the yet-to-come unity and fulfillment of humankind. The church is called to be a presence that chastens idolatrous hopes and strengthens true ones. The faith question with which the churches then grapple as they seek unity is that of the ground of human hope. If we say that the ultimate ground of all human hope lies in Jesus Christ, what does that mean for our life together as God’s people? What is required of us to bear witness to that faith?

Critical and supportive engagement with human expectation is not a new experience for the church. Our present denominational and confessional institutions are products of past involvements -- of attempts to engage the aspirations of given nations, classes or epochs with the gospel. The Reformation was an indigenization of the gospel in northern Europe, an interaction of already ancient tradition with the expectations of rising classes in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere. Another indigenization occurred when Christian faith, in Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox forms, jumped the Atlantic to North America and began to interact with -- indeed, to co-create -- novel social and cultural milieus.

Now, after a century or more in which European and North American forms of Christian faith were exported to “mission lands,” we are receiving back the waves of an indigenization process that may either buoy us up or engulf us. These waves are products of an engagement between the gospel and the newly awakened hopes of women and minorities, of oppressed people and nations.

Living Out the Vision

Such engagement is generating new expressions of the gospel, some of which threaten to create chasms between Christians more serious than the familiar divisions between denominations. We may continue to love and help one another, but can we continue to understand one another? If my hope as a Christian investor in America is the despair of a black brother or sister in South Africa, can the gospel unite us through a deeper articulation of our common faith? If my hope as pastor of a suburban North American congregation is the despair of a revolutionary priest in Latin America, can the gospel unite us by chastening both our hopes, placing them in the perspective of the hope we have in Jesus Christ?

The search for unity has thus become a dialogue not only of ecclesiologies but of cultures -- of fundamental forms of human experience. Can human beings find a unity in the gospel which preserves their diversity, their distinctive qualities, but overcomes their idolatries? Are theological interpretations of the hopes implied in diverse cultures and social experiences devices for the self-perpetuation and self-glorification of these forms of life, or do they succeed in placing conflicting hopes in a transcendent perspective such that the authentically human reality is disclosed?

Ecumenism has been misunderstood partly because the vision that generates such questions is hard to grasp concretely. The local congregation rarely helps people see it because the church as world reality is not tangibly present there. Furthermore, it is difficult to see what decisions by the churches as they are today could institutionalize the vision adequately. Yet the only way the vision, with the theological insights that energize it, can become the permanent possession of the church is by being somehow lived. The next generation, not to speak of countless contemporaries, will not see what we have seen unless we act it out.

The traditional ecumenical goal, “organic unity” among the churches, has fallen on bad days, largely because it is thought to call for a needless suppression of diversity achieved through a generation or more of ecclesiastical self-preoccupation. Thus understood, the search for “organic unity” would indeed be a retreat from the vision of a dialogue of the hopes implied in the whole range of human cultures and experiences. But can we not seek unity in a way that will help us transcend our particular North American problems, that will deliver us from decades of tinkering with boards, agencies, jurisdictions and pension funds?

A Conciliar Fellowship

Several new terms that have entered the conversation in recent years suggest that some shift of the ecumenical goal is afoot. At the Nairobi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1975, the goal of unitive efforts was described as a “conciliar fellowship.” Some ecumenists have began to use the expression “reconciled diversity,” and others the notion of a “community of communities.” It is not yet clear whether the usage of the latter two terms will make them synonyms of “conciliar fellowship” or establish them as denoting important variants or even rival understandings.

Let it be noted that the WCC’s Commission on Faith and Order has said clearly that “conciliar fellowship” does not refer to a goal different from that of “organic unity.” It is a way of talking about organic unity designed to dislodge our stuck imaginations by making reference to the ancient idea of conciliarity. These ancient councils (at least as now seen by the church bodies to which they are of central importance) were expressions of full unity in the faith, full communion in ministry and sacraments, and agreement about lines of authority and responsibility. In a “conciliar fellowship” every national or regional body represented would be a unified and inclusive expression of the church “in each place.” Considerable literature has erupted about what “each place” means here. But the churches united in such a council would not be our familiar “denominations.” The emphasis on conciliarity does not substitute an easier, less ambitious goal for a harder one. It is an attempt to articulate that difficult goal more imaginatively.

But this effort raises the question whether the idea of “conciliar fellowship” has application to present union efforts in particular nations involving particular groups of churches. We do not necessarily advance toward conciliar fellowship at the world level by trying to create what amounts to larger, more inclusive denominations at the national level. Should there not be a certain homology between the final goal and the form of penultimate and ante-penultimate efforts to get there?

Let us ask, for example, whether the word “place” in the 1961 New Delhi statement about “all in each place . . .” is a purely geographical term mandating one ecclesiastical organization at each set of coordinates on the map. In our mobile society, people are not confined to one place. “Place” may mean cultural as well as geographical location. It may even mean a state of mind.

Or, to reverse the thrust of the argument, why should geographical particularism be honored in the church while all other specificities of human experience are relativized in the light of the gospel? Can the conciliar idea be extended, without loss of the essential goal of church unity, to refer to the creation in each place of an ecclesial reality, a council, within which faith, ministry, sacraments and authority are mutually recognized, in which justice is diligently sought, but in which great diversity of expression and organization continues to obtain?

Episcopal Realities

There is need, at this moment, for a kind of ecumenical brainstorming. Thoughts that might be judged idle, idiosyncratic or diversionary in a period of greater clarity and agreement concerning the way forward may contribute just now to a general sorting-out of possibilities, a reforming of our common mind. The suggestions that follow are offered in the spirit of this kairos. They pursue some journeys of the imagination set in motion by the notion of “conciliar fellowship.”

A council of the church has traditionally been a conference of bishops: that is to say, a meeting of the persons who exercise direct pastoral oversight of the church’s mission. The episcopal conference is not a meeting of bureaucrats, board secretaries, curial personnel or the like. It is a meeting of persons who represent the reality of the church as a believing, sacramental, ministering community. If we speak of “conciliar fellowship” as the model for the unity of the church, our thought turns to the idea of councils recognized by all as having episcopal functions. (We are not speaking of councils in the sense of the present National or World Council of Churches.) How can we create, in towns, regions, the nation, and eventually in the world, councils of episcopé that re-present the one reality of the church in the midst of its diversity?

To put the question this way would seem to leave churches without individual bishops, such as the United Presbyterian Church, out in the cold. But follow with me another line of argument which, while it applies in its present form to Presbyterians, is valid in analogous forms for other “nonepiscopal” bodies. Presbyterians have always said that the presbytery is its “episcopal” reality. The presbytery has responsibility for maintenance of the faith, deployment of the church’s resources for mission, oversight of that mission, ordination of ministers and the like. Some of my Episcopal friends tell me that episcopacy is not a name for a particular kind of church constitution (as Presbyterians might suppose), but rather an understanding of representative authority and responsibility in ministry vested in a college of “sacramental persons” -- an understanding compatible with a wide range of constitutional theories and structures. Presbyterians have consistently said that they possess a form of episcopacy in the presbytery. Why could Episcopalians not agree?

If so, could not a way be found for a representative or representatives of the presbytery to represent, in a bishops’ conference, the episcopal reality that the presbytery is? Could not an episcopal conference include persons with titles other than “bishop” (such as moderator, conference minister, or even executive presbyter) if it were clear that these persons were commissioned to represent the episcopal reality and function in their respective churches? A presbytery or district or conference could explicitly commission a person or persons for this duty.

The episcopal council needed to bring this vision of unity into being would have to be such as to represent the wholeness of the church. Thus, while it would be “episcopal” in the sense of joining together those from every participating body who represented the reality and continuity of apostolic faith, ministry and sacraments in that body, the council should include representatives of all participating ministries: presbyteral, diaconal and lay. The resulting council “in each place” would be commissioned to carry out, as its first formal act, a rite ensuring full mutual recognition of ministries, and therefore of sacraments, in the participating church bodies. It would be important that this recognition be achieved as an act of the council, not as a series of acts of recognition of the various separated church bodies. Different participants would be free to believe what they wished about the act of unification of ministries. In its outward form, however, it would be an act by the council of episcopé representing the coming-into-being of a new ecclesial reality possessing the fullness of apostolicity and catholicity. Implied in such an act would be a relativizing, for the future, of the ecclesiastical character of the different denominational judicatories. A presbytery would henceforth ordain not in its own right but by virtue of its participation in a larger reality. At future ordinations in each participating body, the council of episcopé would be formally represented.

Continuing Diversity

Meanwhile, the machinery of the denominations, along with the whole range of customs or practices, could continue changed or unchanged as desired. The form of union envisaged here would not need to involve wholesale reorganization, a 20-year process of merging everything from seminaries to pension boards to trust funds. One might expect that in the name of efficiency and stewardship many consolidations would be made, but the thrust of the effort would not be in matters of organization. Instead it would be in local deployment of ministry for the pastoral work and mission of the church.

The churches would continue in such a plan to have much diversity, but with freer passage back and forth for both ministers and members, a far higher consciousness of Christians representing traditions other than one’s own, an arena for mutuality in mission. One advantage would accrue prom the maintenance of diversity: the institution of a “conciliar” form of church authority, indeed a corporate episcopate, as the preferred form of ecumenical fulfillment.

It is clear as well that what we would have here is not a larger, albeit more progressive, denomination. We would have, rather, a strategy council for the deployment of ministry and mission in whose hands would also be placed ordaining authority, responsibility for maintaining the truth of the faith, and so on. While the image of the large homogenized denomination is of little use in modeling the unity of the church on a world scale, this version of conciliarity has, I think, considerable potential as a model for what we might eventually seek at the global level.

It would be desirable to build such a union from below. But there would be no inherent obstacle to creating a national council of episcopé on the same basis. We could move toward an understanding whereby the continuing “denominational” assemblies and conventions (now deriving ecclesial authority from their conciliar commitment) would endeavor to meet in the same city at the same time (and hence at the same intervals) the episcopal council met, thereby creating a uni- and multicameral structure graphically expressing both unity and diversity.

The conciliar gathering called into being at every level in some such way as this should be free enough from organizational housekeeping to give first priority to thinking about, and leading the church in, mission. Such councils should be free to explore the meaning of engagement between the gospel and the hopes of human beings in the geographical place and the many other “places” within their pastoral care. They should be free to call on the participating bodies to stride beyond the usual boundaries of their imaginations in service to humankind. A direct link between the conciliar expression of church unity and the ministry of justice, compassion and concern in the midst of the world is of the essence of this proposal.

Exploiting New Possibilities

What chance is there that it might work out this way? Who would the persons participating in the conciliar episcopate be likely to be? The different denominational traditions, to be crass about it, would no doubt throw up different “types,” from accomplished managers to parliamentary tacticians to theoreticians to saints. Some would have far greater administrative responsibilities in their own shops than would others. Some would be accustomed to command, others to dialogue. Should we expect farsighted, theologically literate, creative dialogue on the mission of the church, not to speak of leadership, from such a group?

The only meaningful answer is that the conciliar body would not be expected to do everything itself. It would, rather, with the best possible staffing, stimulate and coordinate creative ministry, exploiting the new possibilities opened up by the crumbling of denominational walls. Pursued vigorously, this process could eventually begin to meld the still-separate boards, agencies and other resources of the denominations into structures determined not by national organization charts but by the requirements of mission. Surely this would be the best way, over time, to get these structures together. Then we would not only be one ecclesiastically, but also begin to act like one church in the stewardship of our gifts.

To what fulfillment might the idea of “conciliar fellowship” eventually lead? The WCC Commission on Faith and Order, meeting at Bristol, England, in i967, said: “In working toward the time when the churches, in spite of their existing differences, could accept each other in eucharistic fellowship, the ecumenical movement also works toward the time when a true Ecumenical Council can become an event.”

How likely is this to happen and how soon? Some say that an ecumenical council can take place only if unity in faith, ministry and sacraments already exists. Others believe that a council could be constituted in a way that would bring such unity into being. It may even be that a council of sorts could be convened on the basis of a covenant among the churches to work toward making it in the full sense “ecumenical.” The goal of a council that is representative of the whole Christian church remains a focal point of ecumenical vision, although no one knows whether such an event is possible within the lifetimes of those now seeking Christian unity.

The approach of the year 2000 undoubtedly serves to focus the imagination. Surely that great symbolic turning point will be marked in a variety of ways, not all of which will be pleasing to us if millennial sects succeed in capturing major attention. At the very least, it will be a moment for retrospective and prospective analyses: “2,000 Years of Christianity, But How Many More?” the headlines will ask. Surely the churches should plan now to seize what initiative they can. Moreover, they should endeavor to accomplish something together by the year 2000 that would be genuinely worth celebrating. What could possibly be more appropriate than to create the conditions for the first truly universal council since the year 787?

Considering the infinite complexities of the problem, a covenant to accomplish conciliar unity rather than the actual realization of the goal might be the most likely accomplishment of a “council” only 31 years away. Such a conciliar assembly would know its own fulfillment to lie in the future, but still, it could meet as a sign to the world that hope in Christ is alive. Will Pope John Paul II himself call us to Jerusalem?


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