Today is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and marks the beginning of the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week will conclude on January 25 with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a week during which Christians are asked to pray for the unity of the church. The modern ecumenical movement, which has church unity as its goal, is sometime said to have started with the formation of the World Council of Churches after World War II.
But the Council itself came into being largely as a result of the merger of two already-existing movements — Faith and Order which focused on matters of doctrine and church structure/governance and Life and Work which explored ways the churches could work together around issued of justice and peace in the world. Those movements came into their own after the First World War.
For a long time, the emphasis was on Life and Work since the differences in Faith and Order among the churches seemed too great to overcome. However, a renewed emphasis on faith and order from, say, the 1960s has brought about a remarkable number of agreed statements, full communion relationships, and even mergers where previously separate communions (denominations) have become one. It has been a remarkable half-century.
As ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, I spent many years in bilateral and multilateral dialogues — Anglican – Roman Catholic, Lutheran – Episcopal, the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), Episcopal – Methodist, Presbyterian – Episcopal and others. While I would not take anything for those experiences and the advances toward the unity of the church we made, I believe we have gone about as far as we can go in the Faith and Order side of things. Now, especially now, it is time to focus again on Life and Work.
I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately because I sincerely believe that the United States is facing some of the same challenges Germany faced in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism and Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the fledgling ecumenical movement of his day and derived much strength and support from ecumenical colleagues in England and the United States as he became a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany which opposed Hitler and the capitulation of the established church in his rise to power.
Fortunately, Donald Trump does not have an established church in the country to co-opt. There is a reason we have a separation between church and state. However, his embrace of the so-called “evangelicals” (I recoil at letting them claim that hallowed title) and the “prosperity gospel” preachers may well give him a kind of cover and lead people to believe that the racist, misogynist, and xenophobic policies he is likely to promote are actually “Christian” positions.
It will be up to Christians in a renewed Life and Work movement (and, I would hope, a strengthened World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches) to bear witness to the truth of the gospel and resist any attempts to apply a veneer of “faith” onto right wing politics. We have seen this done before. The Confessing Church in Germany, however heroic, was a bit late in mounting resistance to Hitler and his minions.
We must not let that happen again.