Since this year is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s journey to Rome, we’re following his trail and walking to Rome ourselves and blogging about Luther. But another anniversary this year is what made us realize that this needed to be an ecumenical project with a bigger focus than Luther himself. This year is the 100th anniversary of the ecumenical movement, which started at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910.
That’s right: ecumenism is the child of mission. The negative experience of exporting old quarrels and competing in new lands for members drove Christians to reassess their relationships to one another. So what does it mean that the ecumenical movement arose during the same century with the greatest missionary push in all of church history? What is the core insight that they share even as these movements have in many respects gone their separate ways?
My guess is this: both the mission movement and the ecumenical movement came about because the church could no longer go on telling lies about itself.
In the domain of mission, the church too comfortably equated Christianity with European and American civilization. It mistook right worship for its own historic patterns. It feared and attacked syncretism with religions and ideologies around the world but failed to recognize how much it was doing the same back at home. It thought territory and living faith were the same thing.
In the domain of ecumenism, the churches defended their own history and identity by making the worst possible presentation of other churches’ history and identity. The churches attacked each other and yet needed each other to strengthen their own sense of superiority. The churches had to ignore the real faith, the real wisdom, the real saints, and the real virtues of each other, or else their own claim to be the true church would fail.
After so many centuries of living off these lies, the churches just couldn’t sustain it anymore. The truth pressed too hard up against them and they had to face reality. What they thought was church needed to come under serious examination.
That’s what both mission and ecumenism force every church and every Christian to do: to reexamine, with a repentant heart, what it means to be a church and to be a Christian. Nothing but the sharpest and clearest truth will do. Nothing but the greatest and most generous love will do. Only through the long pilgrimage in love and toward truth can we become more genuinely the church that Christ desires to be one, just as he and the Father are one.