The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The face of the Christian Church – even though we confess in the Nicene Creed that it is one, holy, catholic (meaning universal), and apostolic – is marked today by multiplicity and diversity. One image of the past 2,000 years is that of a tree with many branches and now branches from branches. Generally the picture is painted of western Christians (Roman Catholics) and eastern Christians (Orthodox Churches) together for 1,000 years and then they split. Then the Reformations of the 16th Century saw the splits with Rome and with each other. Then a Pentecostal ‘emphasis’ from the late 19th Century happened. Then there was an increasing emergence of ‘independent’ churches in the last 50 years and all this has produced the face of the Christian Church today.

After both World Wars and, I think because of the shock of the slaughter of Christians by Christians, there were calls and movements, letters and meetings for Christian churches to talk together, walk together, work together. This is the ecumenical movement and it has many expressions in villages, counties, and countries. At the moment many groups are celebrating anniversaries – the Council of Lutheran Churches here in the UK is 75 years old this year. (Its first chairman was Pastor E George Pearce of Luther-Tyndale, however the ELCE is no longer a member.) The International Lutheran Council (ILC) had its origins 71 years ago and its current structure is 30 years old. The World Council of Churches is 75 this year and the Lutheran World Federation is 76. These global groups fall into two categories – a communio (akin to one mega church) and a federation (churches working together but autonomous). The ELCE is a member of the ILC, the European Lutheran Conference, and Churches Together in England.

In my view, ecumenism today is broadening as the groups are increasingly different in theology and practice. Ecumenism is still a journey involving groups and individuals who weave together what they believe, understand, and live as truth. It still works on two levels – the formal, structural, organisational – and the personal – specific people around a table yes each wearing badges of their church group but hopefully doing the one foundational thing that is critical to ecumenism at both levels – listening – and then speaking truth of God’s Word in love.

If there is a sin of ecumenism it is assumption – and assumption is all about thinking that others are like us, and that my belief and practice are correct so yours, if different, has something wrong with it. This is the problem of not asking, not listening, and not speaking up. Now there is a problem with speaking up when the up is the volume but ecumenism presupposes difference and so it is important to speak up about how we read God’s Word and what it means for us – how we live it – and learn from the discussion.

Ecumenism is increasingly in danger because of the diversity today of becoming something whose lowest common denominator is something generic about God – and controlled by those who get the most offended. It can become action only – a cause, a deed. However ecumenism has to be foundationally words – the most powerful things in our world – and the critical tools for us so that we can learn the truth of what Jesus said and what the confessions of Christian churches say which, in this case, is that Christ’s Body, the Church, is one – the problem is (always) with us. Only the Word made flesh – Jesus who is risen and with us – can draw us to himself hence the core task of ecumenism should be discussing God’s Word.

Ecumenism is not easy, it can be frustrating, but it is, in my opinion, much better than the religious wars of past centuries and we can learn to appreciate that there are others who also call Jesus ‘Lord’ and who seek to follow him – and together, hopefully, we can speak the truth of God’s Word in love to each other.