Ruth Gledhill’s report on the Catholic Church’s recent statement on ecumenism certainly fanned the flames of anti-Catholicism amongst her readers.
Does the statement signal the end of ecumenism as we knew it? I think the old fashioned 60s-70s ecumenism has been a dead duck for a long time, and it’s not Rome’s fault. What has happened, for instance, to the World Council of Churches? Is there anything left of it other than a gaggle of ageing left wing Protestants? The Catholics never joined. The different conservative Protestant sects never had time for it either.
When it comes to ecumenical dialogue with the mainstream Protestant churches isn’t it time now for some tough talking? Everyone needs to take a serious look at the formal situation in the mainstream Protestant churches. I can speak from experience in the Church of England, but I believe the other mainstream Protestant churches in Europe and the USA are in the same situation: their theologians and bishops have formally, in writing denied practically every cardinal Christian doctrine. They deny miracles, the bodily resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the incarnation, efficacy of sacraments etc. etc. etc. In the area of morality they allow abortion, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, transgendered clergy, etc etc etc. Notice, these are not just aberrations of individuals, but formally defined positions of the leadership of these churches.
Do we therefore properly refer to these groups as ‘churches’? I would argue that not only have they not got the historic episcopacy, but they don’t really hold to the historic Christian faith. If anything the Pope’s remarks were charitable. Maybe he should have said, “These groups that call themselves Christian have now departed so completely from the Christian faith that we do not even recognize them as ‘separated brethren.’
Of course within all these denominations there are many good and loyal people–both clergy and laity–who have not bowed the knee to Baal, however these are not the folk with whom ecumencial discussions are held at a formal level. Neither can we judge a church by the good people within it. We can only make an objective judgement based on a church’s formal teachings. With this in mind do you think the mainstream Protestant churches are ‘proper churches’?
This brings us to the conservative Protestant churches. Many of these are independent church congregations. Others belong to small to medium sized denominations. Are these ‘proper churches’? They themselves often eschew any kind of formal ecclesiology. They don’t believe in a visible church at all. They are suspicious of any attempt to have a formal, visible church and regard all churches as ‘human institutions.’ Can they be called a ‘church’ in the proper sense when they repudiate any form of ecclesiology at all? Probbly not.
This leaves us with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. These are the Christians who have responded most warmly and positively to Rome’s statement, and these are the ones (perhaps the only ones) with whom real ecumenical dialogue is still possible.