Ecumenism is a useful word, but its small.
Ecumenical is a useful word, and it is vast.
Ecumenism refers to institutional commitment.
Ecumenical refers to an organic reality.
My first awareness of ecumenism and ecumenical commitments came when I was studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was fully involved in ecumenical concerns throughout his career because he deeply valued what he called the sociality of Christ. By sociality of Christ Bonhoeffer understood that each and every human being is related to every other human being through Christ. His sense of this is so strong that he asserts we have no direct relationships with one another: Christ is the reality the dynamic that structures our relationships.
In more familiar terms, we actually are the body of Christ.
It follows, then, that everything for Bonhoeffer was about the justice of God. Precisely because we are bound together in and by Christ, our freedom in Christ is for the other.
This held true in his ecumenical commitments, and not just for fellow Protestants or Catholics but for all human beings. In his context, that included the Jews who were suffering under Nazi occupation.
The Churchs present chaos may just be the key to its long-term survival.
His understanding of reality itself is organic and even concrete: he wrote in his Ethics that if one does not see the world and God at the same time, one actually sees neither God nor the world. His approach to faith, theology, and ethics appealed to me immensely when I studied his work in seminary, and it has bubbled under the surface ever since.
Recently, I came across Margaret Wheatleys book Leadership and the New Science, and I was fascinated to discover similar tacit theological insights in scientific understandings of dynamic connections. For example, Wheatley writes about chaos theory. To most of us, chaos doesnt sound like anything good. Surely, the upheaval that turns into chaos in our families or institutions causes anxiety, and any change in relationships or structure has some grief to it because there is no going back.
But as it turns out, scientific chaos theory is actually about establishing order. The system in the midst of chaos, whether an ecosystem or an institution, is actually in the process of transitioning and adapting to a change so that the system itself in a new form will survive. Wheatley asserts that paying attention to chaos and patiently observing the system will allow leaders and organizations the time to wait as the order inherent in the system appears. What appears chaotic to us is order finding its way into view.
Self-organizing systems like ecosystems are strongest and healthiest when they can tolerate a change to the system. Were thinking about this a lot these days as climate change has affected the habitats and migration patterns of hundreds of species, which in turn has an impact on those habitats.
Every element of the ecosystem is connected to the others. Not so different from Bonhoeffers sociality of Christ, when you think about it.
Just for fun, lets imagine a family of pink flamingos wants to set up house in the hills and fields of central Iowa. You have to admit that if you were a field of hay you would be a bit surprised by the sudden appearance of a large pink bird that had long toothpicks for legs. Swallows and bats and streams and mice might be alarmed.
Believe it or not, though, this type of thing happens often in ecosystems (granted, pink flamingos are not likely to settle in Iowa anytime soon). However, the ecosystem that can assimilate such a change, integrating it fully into the thriving of the system, shows great sophistication and becomes a stronger ecosystem because of the adaptation.
Pink flamingos in Iowa would certainly draw more would-be predators, and would be bad news for Prairie Crayfish. Plus, they eat algae, which would impact oxygen production. (I can see the movie now: Field of Pink Flamingo Dreams: The Sequel.)
That would be a funky Iowa habitat.
Every element of the ecosystem is connected to the others. Dam a steam and the flowers change, which changes the pollination, which changes the habitat and work of bees, which changes and on and on it goes. Not so different from Bonhoeffers sociality of Christ, when you think about it.
The system in the midst of chaos, whether an ecosystem or an institution, is actually in the process of transitioning and adapting to a change so that the system itself in a new form will survive.
The root of the word ecumenical is the same as economics and has to do with the interrelationships of those who confess the Christian faith on one hand and a household on the other. One who is ecumenically oriented is mindful of all the connections and dynamics that compose the body of Christ no matter the particular tradition of faith, just as one who is economically oriented is mindful of the stewardship of resources for a household.
Ecumenism as an institutional description of one denominations relationship to other denominations has had heydays before and likely will again. But from the very beginning of Christianity, the followers of Christ have been ecumenical.
That does not mean that all the followers of Christ past, present, and/or future are ecumenically oriented. Just ask the denizens of a small-town church I once served. There was a fight one day at the salon, as the Baptist said to the Presbyterian (who was sitting under a hair dryer) that Presbyterians are going to burn in hell. The hair dryer popped up and the Presbyterian said, Id rather burn in hell than spend eternity with Baptists! and promptly dropped her hair dryer to its original position. We dont always embrace each other as fellow followers of Christ.
Furthermore, this ecumenical sense is not dependent on the existence of what we know as ecumenism, any more than the continuation of life on our planet is dependent upon an ecosystem remaining unchanged through the centuries. But ecumenism is dependent on an ecumenical orientation. In fact, if Christians of various traditions hadnt been moved to harmony in their interactions with other Christians over the centuries, ecumenism would not have developed.
To be ecumenical is to be oriented in an open way to all people…adapting as changes confront us, throw us or our relationships into chaos, and a new order of relationship emerges.
Church institutions are in a time of obvious and anxiety-producing flux. In the face of this unknown this chaos, if you will some have proclaimed that ecumenism is dead, or at least on its last legs.
It strikes me that such a declaration might be missing the point. Ecumenical relationships will always exist among Christians. Ecumenism as we know it may cease to exist if denominations cease to exist, but the sociality of the body of Christ will always be expressed ecumenically. Paul Lehmann wrote in Ethics in a Christian Context that the body of Christ exists as diversity because thats what God chose and chooses. Our unity is in Christ diversely, so to speak, not in spite of diversity. The Churchs present chaos may just be the key to its long-term survival.
As we seek to navigate this transition, to pay attention and patiently observe the system, as Margaret Wheatley suggests, we continue to be responsible to live through chaos as Christians. As such, we are commanded and exhorted to love God, self, and other; therefore, an ecumenical ethic is an ethic of grace, mercy, justice, solidarity, compassion, and love. To be ecumenical is to be oriented in an open way to all Christians (or, to return to Bonhoeffer, all people), adapting as changes confront us, throw us or our relationships into chaos, and a new order of relationship emerges. The more ecumenically-minded we are, the more well see that the shape of formal ecumenical relationships will vary over time as institutional commitments change. Those denominational connections will have the infrastructural support of individual Christians relating to one another.
In other words, the more deliberate we are, the more we will deepen the way we live out loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
(P.S. The Presbyterian and the Baptist at the salon eventually called a truce and learned to accept each other. What else are you going to do in a small town?)
AUTHOR BIO: Michelle thoroughly enjoys her work as Coordinator of Theological Education and Seminary Relations for the PC(USA). Even more than she enjoys movies, dogs, and dark chocolate. Her theological interests intersect with popular culture, racism, formation, vocation, beauty, and organizations.