Ecumenism not optional for Christians

1/15/2008

By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker
UMNS Commentary

It is common to acknowledge that ecumenism is not a high priority for churches today.

There were high hopes for ecumenism in the 1960s and 1970s following the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. However, those hopes have subsided over time as the churches encountered resistance to making changes necessary for unity with one another. Moreover, the decline in membership of the churches engaged in ecumenism has caused them to invest their energies in their own renewal, rather than in relationships with one another.

This common perception that ecumenism is not a high priority does not take into account the important work of dialogue that is still taking place. The United Methodist Church is engaged in some significant new relationships with other churches.

The longest ongoing dialogue between The United Methodist Church and another church is with the Roman Catholic Church. Numerous documents have been published jointly by bishops of both churches since 1966. During the next five years, I shall chair the United Methodist delegation in the next session of dialogue. At the same time, the World Methodist Council has been in a separate conversation with the Vatican and published a 2006 report titled “The Grace Given You in Christ.”

A separate report on the dialogue between our church and the Episcopal Church, titled “Make Us One With Christ,” also was published in 2006.

In 2004, our church entered into an interim Eucharist sharing agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The document describing the agreement is “Confessing Our Faith Together.”

The goal of dialogue between churches is to achieve full communion with each other. This would involve members receiving the Eucharist in one another’s churches and recognizing the ordination of each other’s ordained clergy so that the clergy could serve in each other’s churches according to the laws and discipline of each respective church.

Consensus and divisions
Many of the historic theological differences among the churches have been resolved. There is a great consensus between Catholics and Protestants and among Protestants about the meaning of justification by grace through faith.

Differences that remain pertain to church structures, ordination and liturgy. A focus of discussion is on the office of bishop as a third order of ministry. For example, recognizing the episcopacy as a third order of ministry distinct from deacons and elders is the only real obstacle to full communion between United Methodists and Episcopalians.

We seem to have learned two lessons throughout nearly 50 years of ecumenism. First, it is unrealistic to create one church body at this time in history. Second, it is inadequate to develop mere mutual respect among the churches without visible signs of unity. If both lessons are learned, then the churches can move toward a more visible unity by embracing full communion and recognition of orders and then seek guidance of the Holy Spirit for the further way into the future.

Local efforts
While I have emphasized the official dialogue among churches, I realize how important ecumenism is at the local level, where churches worship together and share ministries of service.

I would encourage local churches and their leaders to study the official documents issued by our church and other churches and to initiate conversation with local churches of other Christian communions in their neighborhood. Shared Eucharistic services between local United Methodist and Episcopal or Lutheran churches are encouraged.

Ecumenism is not an option for Christians or their church bodies. In John 17:11, the Son of God prayed to his Father that all of his disciples “may be one, as we are one.” Making ecumenism an ongoing commitment is a sign that we shall not reduce the church to an institutional form, but we shall seek to obey Christ as the Lord of the church down through time.

Whitaker, a Mississippi native, is bishop of the United Methodist Florida Annual Conference. This commentary first appeared in e-review, an online publication of the Florida Conference.