Friday, April 12, 2024

Joint or Separate. . .

There have been instances in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have shared a building but had separate congregations.  There have been instances in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics even shared clergy.  Some would laud this as a great ecumenical achievement.  I fear it is far less and abounds in confusion.  I suspect the very few remaining instances of such joint congregations or ministries have been curtailed.  Missouri is no longer interested and the ELCA presents its own set of encumbrances for Rome and the other way around.  Ecumenism is not well served by official instances of churches not taking themselves seriously so that they can take each other seriously.

The same could be said for joint ELCA and LCMS congregations or ministries.  They were a rash experiment in the heady days of ecumenical euphoria but they are not normal.  They are also exceptional in the worst kind of way.  They are neither one nor the other or they are an abdication of one to the other.  That is not quite the best of ecumenism.  Perhaps the last remaining vestiges of these occur on campuses with joint collegiate ministries.  Though I do not know much about where they might exist, Valparaiso is probably the last great beachhead of such joint ministries.  I know there is an LCMS man and an ELCA woman as official chaplains of the so-called joint Lutheran university.  The reality is that Valpo is hardly Lutheran in anything anymore and the collegiate chaplains exist not as some grand exercise of ecumenism but in the more practical vein of serving the students of their respective church bodies.  That is really all it should be anymore.

Ecumenism is far too serious a business to be advanced by odd undings like a joint congregation or ministry.  Worse they are misunderstood.  The presumption is that if the normal things that divide can be suspended there in the unique circumstances of such an exception that they might be suspended everywhere.  The end result is not ecumenism but a dilution of doctrine and a confusion of practice.  If we think that Jesus is somehow pleased with this, we have no idea what He was praying for when He asked the Father that we might be one as He and the Father are one.  The best ecumenism does not hide or mask the differences but confronts them on the basis of God's Word and the catholic tradition.  Indeed, Lutherans once insisted that we looked pretty good in such a comparison.  Perhaps we fear that we do not look quite so good today and so some among us are ready to settle for the saddest bit of ecumenism in place of a real dialog with real conclusions.

In any case I am happy that there are few of these oddities left.  Better that they all go away.  It is surely possible to cooperate in externals and this is the best ecumenism can hope for today.  If we stand with Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in the cause of life and against the devaluing movements set to diminish life's meaning and value, God bless us.  But we certainly do not need to stand at an altar to do that.  If we can work together for the good of the poor and the victims of injustice, maybe we can and should figure out how to do this without the need for praying hands and shared pulpits.  The problem here is that we do not even define advocacy for the poor or help for the victims of injustice in the same way so it already precludes our ability to do much together.  In disaster relief we have one of the last remaining areas of real cooperation but here, too, the role is to serve as an NGO more than an agency of the churches anyway.

In the end, none of us ought to be sad about the demise of the once great ecumenical hopes of a uniting world intent upon the minimization of Scripture and doctrine in order to give an appearance of unity.  It was not what Christ prayed for and it should not be what we are willing to settle for.  The ecumenism that matters is when church bodies are true to their confesssion by being true to the Scriptures.  There is the only possibility for a real progress on the ecumenical front.  Maybe it is high time for a realignment within Christianity in which the old labels were put away so that at least the people who listen to Scripture and pay attention to the catholic tradition could move a bit closer and those who don't could leave us alone (and we them).  I guess I am cynical enough to say this is the kind of ecumenism worth having.


Wurmbrand said...

Perhaps I'm dull and hard of heart on this topic; but I can't get away from the fact that when Christ prayed "that they may all be one," He was praying to the Father; He was not looking at His disciples and setting an agenda for them, so far as I can tell. Where unity in the truth really does exist, then, sure, ethnicity or the like should not prevent shared worship. But unity that weakens the Church's missions as truth-bearer -- that's not the unity that Christ asks the Father to impart.

Janis Williams said...

2 Coirinthians 6:14. Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? I am not speaking of individual Christians in churches, but what the church bodies themselves profess/confess.