Let's get rid of Ecumenism!

A new Language for a new Culture


Let’s get rid of ecumenism!  Well, not the concept, but the word.  Not churches working together and developing their relationships, but the structure and language that now belong to another age.  Not the quest for unity, but the old way of doing things that is now in danger of hindering us moving forward.

The Spirit is always beckoning us on

This way of thinking shouldn’t be new to us.  The church and human Christian constructs have always been provisional and temporary.  The Spirit is always beckoning us on, trying to prevent us becoming entrapped in the security of what we know, what we love and what we have invested in – sometimes at great cost.  The challenge to re-think, to allow the possibility of other paradigms, to let go things that have been important – all this is hard and has been hard for the church in every age.  But it applies to ecumenism too – and, because of the tremendous and significant changes that have taken place in our society in the last fifty or so years, our way of being ecumenical has to change. 

From modernism to postmodernism

Once upon a time (from around 1700 to around 1960) our society lived in a ‘modernist’ paradigm.  People believed in linear progress, in everyone doing everything together, in absolute values and beliefs.  Reason was exalted and truth paramount.  We were all engaged in a search for truth (some through religion, some through science) and a journey towards progress.   Now, (since around 1960), we have been in a time of cultural change and flux and society has been moving into a ‘post-modern’ paradigm.  Life is no longer linear, people in general no longer believe in absolutes or progress or that we should do everything together.  Now diversity is celebrated and meaning is to be found on the basis of experience, not on the basis of intellectual truth.

Christianity has to be both counter-cultural and engaged with culture

How do Christians react to this?   Christianity has lived through several cultural paradigms.  In each one it has had to be counter-cultural, to stand out for what it believes that is primary and not to be negotiated.  But then it has had to present those convictions in ways that the culture can understand – it has had to be culture-engaging in order to reach others in mission.  

In our post-modern society, Christian conviction means that we have to be counter-cultural in our belief that there is one God and that he calls his people to live together in unity and harmony.  In a society where anything goes, we have to stand up for the fact that there are absolute values laid down by our Creator and, in a society where people and groups are fragmentary and disparate, we have to assert the need for community and unity expressed supremely in our common participation in the living body of Jesus Christ.   However, I believe that the ways in which we present our beliefs and express our life in Christ have to change in order that post-modern people are able to hear and to understand.  This culture-engagement means for ecumenism that our way of seeking unity has to change in order that it is not culturally inappropriate and therefore ineffective.

Ecumenism in a modernist framework

In common with the modernist cultural framework, ecumenism for most of the twentieth century has believed in linear progress with organic structural unity of the denominations as the ultimate goal that we are all working towards.  This linear model of ecumenism can be represented like this:

The diagram (which cannot be reproduced here at the moment) is of 5 parallel lines converging at a certain point and becoming one single line.

Problems with this model include:

  • The mainstream denominations have moved a little way down the convergence part of the model but have not progressed very far and have often continued along their parallel lines.
  • Some denominations e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army and the Pentecostal churches have been able to progress very little towards convergence and, indeed, have not wanted to.  They are happy to engage in dialogue but are restricted in any further meaningful action.
  • Some ecumenical churches, groups and activities have gone ahead and now express their life as the single line at the end of the model.  However, there has been a lack of ownership from the sponsoring denominations or from sponsoring churches and the ecumenical ‘keenies’ have felt unsupported and let down.
  • The growth, in the last fifty years, of independent churches and the so-called ‘new churches’ has meant that there is a substantial section of Christian experience and organisation that exists outside the current model for ecumenism.  Although this is changing, the structure that was originally labelled ‘Council of Churches’ and is now ‘Churches Together’ does not generally include the new Christian streams and those churches that are community or independently based.
  • The main problem, as explained above, is that this model is working against the cultural grain.  In a society where linear progress has been abandoned, the ecumenical goal of working towards full visible unity sometime in the future is no longer seen as exciting or realistic.  The vision no longer works.

Ecumenism in a post-modernist framework

The new goal, appropriate for the post-modern situation, needs to be the more realistic one of expressing the unity that we already have in Christ as much as possible, for as many churches as possible, for the sake of mission.  The new model needs to be based on unity in diversity, it needs to be locally based, flexible, and based on relationships rather than structures.  The network model of ecumenism can be represented like this:

This diagram is of a matrix with the various intersecting points representing churches.

Each circle represents a local church or a denominational stream at various levels and the aim of this model is for churches to be in relationship with each other as much as possible and to do together as much as possible, much as expressed in covenantal relationships that form the basis of many LEPs.  This model can include a wide range of churches and is not exclusive; churches are not either ‘in’ or ‘out’ – they can participate in the network of activities as much or as little as they feel able to. 

For our postmodern age we need to change our attitude towards ecumenism – and possibly get rid of the word – not that churches should not work together but that we should approach that working together with a different attitude.  Rather than seeing what we are doing as striving towards a goal in the future, we need to realise what already exists in the here and now and express that in our relationships as much as possible, leaving ‘ecumenism’ to part of the church’s history in the twentieth century.

Jacky Bowers (now Jacqui Horton) 2004