I’d like to give a quick overview of some factors that contributed to Christian ecumenical movements in recent history. I realize that by using the word ecumenical here I can isolate myself from some readers.
Just a reminder, the New Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ecumenism is “the principle or aim
of promoting unity among the world’s Christian Churches”. I think this concept is something
That most Christians should be able to embrace.
The Roman Catholic Church had warned that the Protestant Reformation would cause
endless sectarian division, and historically that has proven true. The 19th century was a
a particularly intense time of multiplying new Christian denominations. But there was one thing the majority of Christian churches had in common. This was the experience of being dethroned from a position of privilege and influence in Western society during the Enlightenment. This marginalisation caused many churches to seek to band together with other Christian movements to survive this harsh new reality. The church was no longer at the center of society, no longer looked to as a universal authority on metaphysics – morality, values, meaning, etc.
Also in the 19th century, the rise of technology and relaxing political restrictions contributed to the emergence of ecumenism. Advances in transportation, for example (train travel) brought an unprecedented amount of Christians into contact with brothers and sisters of other faith traditions. In addition to this, romanticism sparked interest in the past, a movement in the arts and literature that emphasized subjectivity and the individual. People were rejecting the rationalism which characterised the Enlightenment. There was much interest in the past, including the medieval and ancient church. Some Protestant groups, such as the Oxford movement in England, began to sense that something precious had been lost in severing ties with the “apostolic” Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.
Another factor that contribute to ecumenism was the shift in the churches from addressing primarily (or at time exclusively) “spiritual” issues to social issues as well. A key historical event was the inauguration of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. Since then the Roman Catholic Church has not been a full member, but has participated as an observer, which is a significant step. Perhaps being a full member would amount to a recognition that the Catholic Church is only one among other equals, which is possibly the reason for remaining as observers.
After World War II there was much optimism for ecumenism, especially among mainline Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc). There have been some significant moments of reconciliation. In 1958 Pope John the 23rd repealed the declaration at the Council of Trent that no sacraments outside the Catholic Church were valid. Subsequently the Catholic Church has reached agreement with the Lutheran Church on justification by faith. This is the central point of conflict that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
However the early optimist soon lost steam. The liberalism of mainline Protestant denominations caused disunity with Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Evangelicals. Many Christian leaders at the highest level promote Christian unity passionately. At the grassroots level many Christians intuitively seek partnership with other brothers and sisters in order to fullfil Jesus’ induction that His disciples be united in one body (John 17). Often it is the leaders at the middle level that are reluctant to engage in projects of Christian unity. Perhaps this is because they have the most to lose – their position, influence and power. The leadership structures of the church today are based on the status quo of division and sectarianism, the body of Christ as it stands today.
Since the 1960’s considerable progress has been made between Catholics and Pentecostals. This is based on the shared experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit – speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing. There is much work to be done, I hope that this short commentary encourages us to participate in the historical movement towards Christian unity in its diverse expressions.