Visions of Ecumenism
In the Spring of 2010 I attended two conferences in the span of a week–Louisville’s “Together for the Gospel” and Wheaton College’s Theology Conference with N.T. Wright. The juxtaposition of the two gatherings–each fruitful and rich in their own right–gave me much to ponder. I was inspired to write an article for Christianity Today about the two events and the challenge of unity within the body of Christ.
The question of unity is again on my mind after attending another two conferences in a week’s span: last week’s Q Nashville and Tuesday night’s “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola. The latter event, which featured Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman discussing ecumenism and the question of whether Protestantism should give way to “Reformational Catholics,” can be viewed in its entirety here.
Q Nashville, a gathering of more than 1,000 Christian leaders (though you’re hard pressed to find the word “Christian” on the event’s website), is a fascinating artifact of “post-evangelical” evangelicalism of the tech-savvy, coffee-guzzling, pristinely branded sort. It was my first time at a Q event, though I’ve written occasionally for Q Ideas over the years. Despite a surfeit of M83, open bar tipsiness and TOMS paraphernalia (all of which makes me a bit uneasy given my history of critiquing style-centered Christianity), I quite admire Q’s vision to collectively “advance the common good.”
Q’s visionary leader, Gabe Lyons, was shaped by the late Chuck Colson, one of the original signatories of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. It’s not surprising that Lyons has picked up his mentor’s ecumenism and re-packaged it in the form of Q, the very name of which reflects the second syllable’s sound of eCUmenism.
Q espouses an ecumenism that is manifest primarily in its form: The events deliberately shirk labels (“Christian,” “evangelical,” etc.) and favor “common good” language, purposefully amassing diverse speaker lineups (in Ted Talk bursts of 3, 9 and 18-minute talks) that represent a wide swath of Christendom and even some allies-for-the-good from outside the faith. I don’t think I’ve been to a Christian conference with as much variety in terms of content (everything from peaches to Avatar to neuroscience and puppetry) and background of presenters. At Q Nashville there were liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Palestinians, nuns, priests, Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Canadians, Australians, comedians, feminists, complementarians, activists, educators, Carrie Underwood, Rachel Held Evans, Russell Moore and so on.
It was nice to see. Though the Q audience was by no means a representative sampling of Christianity today (non-white, non-western and non-iPhone Christians were underrepresented), the ethos of it all was decidedly striving toward a more unified and ecumenical Christianity, reflected in an “Evangelicals and Catholics” together panel discussion, an interview with a nun (one of my personal highlights) and a generally positive attitude toward our friends in Constantinople and Rome (though in a pre-conference poll, 16% of the Q attendees said they don’t consider Catholics to be Christians in any sense of the word).
Enter Peter Leithart, whose provocative essay last November on “The End of Protestantism” launched a conversation that culminated in this week’s happier-sounding “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola University.
Leithart shares the ecumenical optimism of Q, albeit more rigorously ecclesiological in nature.
“Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church,” he said in his talk at Biola. “Jesus prayed that we would be one, and this unity that he prayed for must be visible enough for the world to notice… The promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”
Leithart spent some time explaining why “swimming the Tiber has become a popular evangelical pastime.” He noted the “fox-hole ecumenism” of the culture wars, uniting Catholics and Protestants around issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as a growing openness to learning from each other’s traditions (e.g. “Protestant pastors reading papal encyclicals for edification.”) All of this was present at Q Nashville, for example.
Leithart noted a “growing revulsion at the divisiveness of Protestantism,” a revulsion that he says is not war weariness or relativism but rather, at its best, a recovery of the New Testament. “Evangelicals are increasingly convinced that unity is a demand of the gospel and that we are complicit in a profound unfaithfulness if we acquiesce in permanent division,” he said.
I’m not sure I know who the evangelicals are he is referring to here: the ones who are increasingly repulsed by Protestantism’s divisiveness. Perhaps the Q crowd? Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman both seemed to suggest that many everyday evangelicals aren’t familiar enough with Protestant history to self-identify as such, let alone participate in these “is the protest over?” discussions.
Do the “grand gestures of intellectual ecumenism” really help the evangelical who “may have never heard of Aquinas but needs to be able to give an answer for the hope that they have to the people working next to them on the factory floor”? Carl Trueman pondered this at the Biola event, suggesting that unity is vital first and foremost on the local level (let’s start with unity among the growing throngs of Presbyterian sects!) as worked out in practical pastoral ministry. And it begins with a more robust historical rootedness and grasp of our own tradition, understanding what we believe and why.
Sanders–self-described “content provider for Trinitarian evangelicalism”–concurs, both in the necessity of evangelical awareness of our “Protestant heritage of creed and confession and catechism” and in the “first-things-first” need to get our own house in order on a whole host of issues, beginning with Trinity 101. A family reunion between Protestants and Catholics would be nice, but it’s not a priority given all of our other issues, Sanders believes. In his list of “things to worry about among evangelical Protestants,” bad attitudes toward Roman Catholics doesn’t make the top 10. And even if it did eventually move up the list, could Catholics and Protestants really sufficiently agree on things like Scriptural authority and salvation by faith to warrant the forming of one unified, post-Protestant body?
Sanders thinks not. In theory Catholics affirm, with Protestants, the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith. But they “affirm them badly,” says Sanders. “[Catholics] can dialectically juggle away the authority of Scripture into a wider manifold of authorities… They can mix salvation by faith with all sorts of badly ordered distractions.”
But questions of whether a Protestant-Catholic reunion is feasible or necessary aside (important questions, to be sure), Leithart’s passion for ridding Christianity of tribalism (both Protestant and Catholic varieties) is admirable, if a bit naive. As Doug Wilson noted in his comments on the “Future of Protestantism event, “if you take tribalism out of Protestantism, you are removing something accidental to it, but if you do the same to Roman Catholicism, you are removing something essential to their central claims.” Nevertheless, Leithart’s vision for “Reformational Catholicism” is inspiring, at least to me.
When I think about the times in my own Christian life when I felt the Spirit of God most powerfully, loved the Bride of Christ most profoundly and glimpsed the “city yet to come” most clearly, I recall most readily the moments where I worshipped and fellowshipped alongside believers who were very different from me and yet were clearly family.
I think of some of the conversations I had last week at Q, like with a young pastor in Nashville whose church is Pentecostal liturgical, where hand-raising and creed-reciting are not at odds.
I think of the time I served at a Presbyterian church plant in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo and experienced the challenging beauty of urban ministry in a multi-cultural context.
I think of late nights in Oxford pubs with Christians from Vineyard, Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Orthodox backgrounds, and sharing communion with the same group in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, all as part of a conference inspired by Mr. “Mere Christian” himself.
I think of the awkward-but-wonderful experience of worshipping in Spanish-language churches in Buenos Aires and French-language communities in Paris, singing familiar hymns in different languages.
I think of the church where my wife and I are currently members, a suburban warehouse non-denom congregation pastored by South Africans and heavy on the Word, the Spirit and global church partnership.
Or I think of the surrealist oddity that is the “Pope Francis sends message to Kenneth Copeland” YouTube video (you must see to believe), a stranger-than-fiction artifact of a “now and not yet” church unity.
These moments are not without the awkwardness and difficulty that inevitably accompanies the convergence of vastly different people and perspectives. And yet they are all beautiful. There’s something about the coming-together of diverse people around the cross, for the sake of the gospel, that is incredibly powerful, fundamental and formative. As Leithart says, “the promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”