02 October 2014

Functional ecumenism

Ulrich Materne (left), a German Baptist, addresses the Russian
Evangelical Alliance's 2014 annual meeting, accompanied by Bill
Yoder, press officer of the REA (center).

"Why has the goal of Christian unity and the convincement
of the world not been achieved?
  • "Christians do not not believe that this goal (unity) is the
    principal precondition of the world's coming to belief
  • "In practice, unity is achieved on a human basis, not on the
    basis of divine revelation
"Summing up: Christians still don't feel the need for unity in the Body
of Christ." (slide in presentation at REA's 2014 annual meeting.)
Reading this interesting and hopeful article, "The rise and fall and rise of the NCC," brought back some interesting memories of my time at Friends United Meeting, where our participation in ecumenical bodies was one of the perennial hot-button issues. In fact, those relationships were among the causes of yearly meetings leaving FUM and forming the association that eventually became Evangelical Friends Church International.

I came to FUM with some positive experiences of ecumenism, such as the Ottawa Lay School of Theology, the Massachusetts Bible Society, and the US/USSR Church Relations Committee of the National Council of Churches. Still, I came to FUM with deep skepticism about the large "conciliar" ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches.

My doubts were based in part on my perceptions of the weaknesses of FUM itself. We seemed to be stuck in a "corporate" denominational model, to use Craig Dykstra's helpful typology, and this model seemed to me to be near the end of its useful life. FUM had been trying for decades to be a full-service corporate headquarters for orthodox Quakers. We mirrored on a small scale the big mainline denominations, with offices for missions, Christian education, denominational conferences, book publishing, a magazine, a retail and mail-order bookstore--everything a self-respecting denomination would want to have, including central headquarters, executives, program staff, secretaries, and receptionist. But, judging by falling income, stagnant programming, and restlessness within the constituency, this model was losing appeal.

(Background: Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment described the evolution of Christian denominational structures in the American colonies and states along these lines: they began as "constitutional confederations" organized around doctrinal confessions inherited from Europe. Staffing beyond the parish and diocesan level was minimal. With the rise of corporations in the USA came the parallel rise of the "corporate" model of denomination, with similar ideas of management and hierarchy, and the professionalization of leadership. As the corporate model weakens within a given denomination, it might be succeeded by the "regulatory agency" model: the denomination would begin to rely on its power to appoint or license its clergy and other leaders, enforce doctrinal conformity, apportion dwindling resources, and certify its affiliates, to try to guarantee continued existence.)

The conciliar model of ecumenism fit the corporate denominational model well: it made sense for the corporate executives, or their emissaries, to gather and discuss common problems, including the very real and urgent issue of Christian unity. However, this formal ecumenical world was yet one step further removed from the grassroots, which were often already feeling pretty distant from their own denominational structures. Yet those same grassroots believers were supposed to pay for all this apparatus and their ceaseless rounds of meetings, a few of which I attended. Furthermore, the professionals sometimes seemed preoccupied by political concerns that were not shared (whether or not they should have been!) at the local level. Charges of elitism, left-wing bias and even Communist infiltration, whether fair or unfair, led to further alienation.

These suspicions were certainly part of the tension over ecumenical relationships within Friends United Meeting. For evangelicals and other skeptics, these organizations seemed to do nothing to build Christian faithfulness in the local church or the mission field. But liberals sometimes seemed equally unable to defend the councils on their own merits, instead seeing FUM's ecumenical ties as a sort of symbolic line in the sand; to lose these relationships would supposedly be to admit defeat in the face of fundamentalism. And as denominational executive, I wanted desperately to open a forum for these communities to communicate directly about the great issues of evangelism, social justice, and Quaker identity, especially across the cultural barriers of rural and urban Friends, but didn't see how those ecumenical councils and their irritation factor would help my cause.

Instead, I wanted Friends to support what I called functional ecumenism, represented by mission-driven alliances such as the American Bible Society, the U.S. Church Leaders gatherings (originally convened by evangelical Friend Everett Cattell), Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the World Peace Tax Fund. At the very time I was arguing against membership in the councils, I was lobbying for FUM to become formal members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, which we eventually did.

Friends United Meeting, to its great credit, did not cling to the corporate model--and Friends culture would have made the alternative "regulatory agency" model unpalatable to most of us. Starting with a series of crucial decisions in the early 1990's, FUM revisioned itself as an association of yearly meetings united by a common purpose statement and with a dramatically simplified governance structure. In other words, it became mission-driven, depending on the credibility of that mission among its constituents rather than the older ties and loyalties that were no longer as persuasive.

However, at the 1996 Triennial sessions in Indianapolis, FUM did decide to continue its relationship with the National and World Councils of Churches, and that hasn't changed since. This is why I am delighted by any evidence that those councils are becoming more vital and sustainable.

"Faith and Science, Heart and Brain: An Interview with Katharine Hayhoe."

"Being a Wailing Quaker"--with an invitation for your comments.

No Comment Dept.: "Russian Mathematician Aids Hong Kong's 'America-Orchestrated Color Revolution'."

Red Emma on "America's Unoriginal Sin."

An exchange on "Jihadi Islam": John Azumah. Mark Durie.

This clip of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee brings back wonderful memories. They performed this song with its evocative lyrics in one of the first live blues concerts I ever attended, at Carleton University in Ottawa, around the same time as this recording was made.

1 comment:

BrianY said...

Thanks Johan; I hadn't put two and two together to realize that you were in the Gen Sec's chair when FUM became a sponsoring body of CPT. Thanks for that work!

"Functional" ecumenism is certainly a better goal, in my limited experience (both within and outside Friends--I would hazard that for many Friends, the first ecumenical encounters they have are cross-branch within Quakerism, through FWCC or similar).

Of course, CPT is now taking the ecumenical challenge even further, into the interfaith realm, which makes that work even more challenging--and probably makes some Friends even more suspicious.