RELIGION: Whatever Became of the Ecumenical Movement?
George L Johnson
A FEW years ago the religious world was all aglow with hopes of getting back together into one big happy family. The Roman Catholic Church called Vatican II and the world held its breath as what many on the outside felt was the world's most intolerant church changed its views toward the Protestant churches. The spirit of brotherhood was in the air. A breath of fresh air seemed to be blowing through the musty halls of Christendom. However, as the gusts became stronger, it seemed an ill wind indeed to the conservative establishment. The minute that the churches began to allow new fresh thinking among their theologians, all of their pet ideas and theories were under attack. It soon became evident that the churches were not as willing to examine and change their beliefs (where necessary) as their ecumenical glow had first indicated. That willingness is illustrated in the following news items. The ecumenical movement for all intents and purposes has come to a screeching halt.
Papal Infallibility Reasserted
In its latest proclamation, Mysterium Ecclesiae ("The Mystery of the Church"), the Vatican may well have ended all hopes for the ecumenical movement by once again asserting papal infallibility. This doctrine, long a major bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants, states that the pope, as successor to the Apostle Peter, cannot make a mistake when he speaks for the church on matters concerning morals from the papal chair. Many of the more liberal and ecumenically minded Catholic theologians feel that this latest declaration has all but killed the ecumenical movement. One such theologian is Avery Dulles, S. J., author and a professor of theology at Woodstock College. He wrote in American magazine: The declaration "gives the impression that the Catholic Church lacks nothing and that other Christian communities can have nothing positive to contribute to the ecumenical dialogue." The infallibility doctrine, once a bitter pill to swallow, will surely not be received any more readily by Protestants. It seems that the official Catholic stand is that the Protestant churches are the ones who have erred by leaving the Catholic fold - let them change and come back.
Lutheran vs. Lutheran
The problems with the world ecumenical movement are not confined to Catholic papal authority. The Lutheran Church's largest American branch, the Missouri Synod, is threatening to split apart. The division is along liberal, conservative lines. The problems began when the conservative wing of the Synod felt that the organization was taking giant steps toward liberalism. As a result, at their conference four years ago they voted in a conservative president, J. A. O. Preus. He took four years to set the stage for this year's New Orleans conference. The conference was stacked against the liberal wing (which would be considered conservative by most other Protestant churches). President Preus called for the resignation of Concordia College's liberal president John Tietjen and his following. Some liberals are calling for the formation of a new denomination. A division would nearly split the two-million member organization in half. The vote against the liberals was six to four. Obviously, if the Lutherans are fighting among themselves, they are not ready to unite with any other organization.
In the battle for leadership in the Presbyterian churches, it was the liberal faction that won out. As a result, in August, 450 dissident delegates representing 200 Southern Presbyterian churches met in Asheville, N. C. to lay the groundwork for a new conservative denomination. "The churches represented at the convention voted to withdraw in June after a history of disagreements with the parent church over liberalized interpretations of the Bible and doctrinal policies. They claimed it has become too liberal on such matters as women's rights, abortion, premarital sex and other social and political matters." This inter-Presbyterian strife is one more nail in the coffin of the ecumenical movement. "The organization committee voted to remain independent of all national church organizations such as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches" (UPI release).
World Council of Churches on the Way Out?
An editorial in the August 10, 1973 Christianity Today clearly shows that the World Council of Churches, originally founded in 1948 as an organization to encourage biblical evangelism, has failed in its mission. The editorial points out that the Council has traded its biblical evangelism for social and political pronouncements. The trend toward the liberal wing is blamed. The editorial concludes: "Sadly, the WCC not only has strayed from its mission, but also is losing out on unity. Its official programs and policies are representing fewer and fewer Christians in its own constituency, let alone outsiders. The ecumenism sought in the euphoria of the 1948 Amsterdam meeting is seldom mentioned any more. The WCC has sacrificed unity for an aberrant mission."