Reimagining Ecumenism for the 21st Century

by Bill Perkins

Bill Perkins served for 21 years in Geneva, Switzerland with the World Council of Churches.

The following is from the October 2000 Newsletter of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at


Today social and ethical issues, such as racism, poverty, hunger, ecology, education, sexuality, seem to many people to be more important than “unity”. Contextual theologies, justice causes, the voices of women and of the global South enrich, but also challenge, traditional theological thinking and styles.

One of the questions we may rightly ask at the beginning of a new century is what is ahead for ecumenism and the ecumenical movement.

What is the balance sheet in this year 2000?

We are reaping the results of the dramatic changes that took place in 1989 with the end of the cold war and East-West rivalry. We experience the widespread dominance of the market economy and the western (i.e. American) political system. The far reaching consequences of these changes for our churches and society are not yet fully understood. Globalization is not a new phenomenon, but it is now increasingly ordering our lives. Where do we go now? Globalization breeds strong central authority in the economy, business, politics, communication, and strengthens those forces that make the rich richer and the poor poorer: free trade, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, multinational business, etc. Though globalization has the potential to enrich us with cultural diversity, it also can impoverish us with sameness. Any similar trends affecting church or religious life would indeed be a threat to ecumenism in the 21st century.

The ecumenical enthusiasm of the 50s and 60s has greatly diminished. Many church people feel that there are few essential differences between various Protestant churches, and they easily change denominations. What has become of the vision of Christian unity? Is it still valid?

I was one of those captivated as a college student by the ecumenical movement. It struck me as the most challenging and prophetic direction for the church I had yet encountered. I saw hope in the vision of unity which would counteract — and eventually eliminate — the tragic divisions of the church. From then on my life has been devoted to following that dream.

In 1960 I was in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, when Eugene Carson Blake, then Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, made a dramatic proposal that four denominations join together to form a united church that would be truly reformed and truly catholic. As an enthusiastic ecumenist, I considered this an inspired and bold initiative for the ecumenical movement. The Consultation on Church Union (COCU) was formed to implement the vision of Blake’s proposal.

Forty years later, COCU now has nine member communions. A series of proposals and agreements has brought the participating denominations closer together, but they are still separate. The goal is no longer an institutional merger but a committed relationship of full communion among the participating churches in 2002, with the name Churches Uniting in Christ. What happened in these 40 years? Why has the goal changed? Is this positive or negative for the ecumenical movement?

I would propose that COCU’s experience points to the direction that ecumenism should follow. It may help us envision what Christian unity could look like in the 21st century. Structural merger might well have created an unworkable institution (as some may think denominational institutions are already). COCU could have followed the example of banks, media and multinational corporations, gathering more and more power and authority. We already experience the result — bank mergers, the loss of neighborhood stores and independent merchants, etc. "Visible unity" by merger may be appropriate in some cases but it is not the solution for the 21st century.

What has happened during these 40 years?

Some churches discovered that they were close enough to merge or enter into agreements of full communion and have done so, thus changing the ecumenical landscape. Among the "mainline" Protestant/Anglican churches we may speak of de facto communion, a dramatic ecumenical development, but it is not enough.

In the 60s the membership of the Orthodox Churches in the World Council of Churches increased to include all of them and, following the second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church became an active participant in the ecumenical movement. Both developments brought more diversity in ecumenical relations. Bilateral theological dialogues were formed between these and Protestant churches to promote unity. Many differences between the churches were clarified, but issues on which the churches disagreed were highlighted, thus strengthening self-conscious confessional identities. Through meetings and dialogue many churches have come to understand each other and accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They have developed friendships, pulpit exchanges, unofficial Catholic gestures to share the Eucharist, and Protestant-Catholic marriage ceremonies. Real progress toward overcoming serious differences, however, has been minimal.

With the exception of humanitarian relief, church people now tend to concentrate on local issues, showing less interest in national and international concerns and institutional structures, which are seen as overpowering and self-perpetuating. Concerned with what affects their daily lives in contextual situations, they may not see the connection of local issues to "ecumenical" issues. Denominational and institutional based ecumenism reflects 20th century contexts and structures, which many believe to be out of date.

Today, for many local people community outreach and social witness, often crossing church or faith lines, is where the action is. In our pluralist society many find interfaith relations and action (food pantries, work for housing, youth programs, etc.) more urgent and productive than interchurch relations. Popular response and attitudes to both interreligious and interchurch activities merge with "ecumenical" concepts without distinction, and often with confusion.

Heightened concern for recognition of racial, religious and ethnic diversity in society may overshadow presumed goals of "Christian unity". Today social and ethical issues, such as racism, poverty, hunger, ecology, education, sexuality, seem to many people to be more important than "unity". Contextual theologies, justice causes, the voices of women and of the global South enrich, but also challenge, traditional theological thinking and styles.

The ecumenical movement has changed.

Churches clearly have priorities different from those of 40 years ago, as noted above. They see themselves in a different light and interpret their identities with different understandings. We need to recognize that the separated communions all have their own "particularities", which they consider essential to their identity and which could be put at risk by globalized agreements. In the recent COCU process we have seen the "obstacles" resulting from the Presbyterian insistence on elders and the Episcopal insistence on bishops.

Some of these particularities, but probably not all, should be valued and not lost: for example the silence of the Quakers, Black preaching styles, Mystery in Orthodoxy, Catholic spirituality, diverse liturgical styles, and more. If we can understand, appreciate, learn from and accept the particularities of each other as Christians and Churches, we will be able to rejoice in our diversity and in society’s plurality.

However, neutral diversity is not enough. Active and positive inclusivity in which we share diverse thinking and experiences with our neighbors of other churches and other faiths is necessary. As interchurch dialogue and activities fade into the background, we have much to learn from interfaith relations and action. This could counteract pressure to think alike or to homogenize our beliefs.

In the first century of the church independent local churches which were scattered around the Mediterranean communicated with one another as best they could by ship, runner, word of mouth — without a post office or email! Instead of a central authority, there was conciliarity with leadership dispersed in local churches. Today we would call it a network. Constantinian power resulted in imperial globalization. The Church followed suit and the authority of hierarchy replaced networking. We can see another strong example of ecclesiastical globalization in later developments in Rome.

Today there may be a parallel in the Internet which exists without central management and only as a network. It suggests that maintaining healthy diversity among particular churches means decentralization and communication at the local level, but in global terms with global contacts. The same may well be true for interfaith and interreligious relations. Networking may already be replacing hierarchy.

What will be the ecumenical task in this century for those who seek "unity"?

Ecumenism is suffering from what has happened to institutional ecumenism — or what has not happened. If we are unable to change, the movement will stagnate.

We must reimagine Blake’s 1960 vision for this new century. The ecumenical task is to promote networking among the particular churches, cross-fertilizing their particularities. It is to create "open space", opening doors, enlarging the table, enabling churches and faiths to meet, to have dialogue and to learn from one another, to share their diversity, to become more inclusive, and to strive for justice and peace, for the integrity of all creation and for the unity of all humanity.

Creative ideas and provocative thinking are showing us that the movement is moving. Existing institutions must not be static. The World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches (USA) are wrestling with "open space" as they seek new forms of relating to churches now outside their memberships.

The plurality of religions and faiths in today’s society is a major challenge and opportunity for Christians and Churches. Ecumenism requires that this challenge be engaged theologically and in practice.

Diverse theological approaches and styles give new meaning to the universality of ecumenical goals and vision. Nevertheless, the new challenge of globalization demands our renewed commitment and prayerful energy.

Yet, when I review the dramatic changes that have taken place in the past 50 years, I do not despair, but hope and pray for comparable progress to come.

A revised vision today points the way: to work and pray for the "reconciliation of particularities" which protect our diversity and for a reimagining of "visible unity", not theological uniformity, not structural mergers, but diversity for the enrichment of one another, not singing in unison but in harmony, analogous to different instruments playing the ecumenical symphony.