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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2004 Eden Grace

Forrest L. Knapp Ecumenical Award
acceptance speech

Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Council of Churches
Weston MA
January 22, 2003

I’m deeply grateful to the Massachusetts Council of Churches for honoring me with this award. I feel quite humbled to stand in the company of past Knapp Award recipients, who have often been honored for decades of ecumenical commitment. I have only been at this for five years, and I certainly hope you don’t think you’ve already seen the best I have to offer! But in this anniversary year of the MCC, as we look to the future, I take it that in granting me this award, you are expressing confidence in my future contribution as well as what I may have already accomplished. Indeed, I may assume that in choosing someone of my generation for the award this year, you are choosing to affirm your confidence in not only me personally, but the future of the movement as a whole. Perhaps you see in me reasons to feel assured for the future. I am grateful, therefore, for your confidence and for your high expectations of work yet to come.

In light of this, let me share with you some reflections on why I am excited to be part of the ecumenical movement right now, looking toward the future. There is a tendency to look back to a golden age of ecumenism, when massive numbers of people — youth, lay-people, seminarians, theologians, and church leaders — dedicated their considerable enthusiasm and energy to the optimistic vision of Christian unity. Ecumenical mythology tells us that Councils of Churches had a high profile in public life, and denominations held their ecumenical commitments most dearly. By contrast, our commitment, energy, profile and enthusiasm seem to be flagging in these days.

I’ve struggled with personal discouragement this fall, and that’s led me to reflect on the sense of discouragement I sometimes perceive in the ecumenical movement at large. It is trendy to offer gloomy predictions, to wonder whether ecumenism has hit a dead end, to ask why the ecumenical boat is stalled in the water. Certainly we go through cycles of high excitement and more fallow times, but I have to say I’m not at all convinced by the gloom and doom forecast for the ecumenical future. I believe quite keenly in the future of the ecumenical movement, and in its present vitality. But it may be necessary to view the movement through a different colored lens than we have in the past. Measured by traditional yardsticks of success, it is fair to conclude that the institutional ecumenical movement is in some distress. But I have to question whether those are the only useful yardsticks.

William Temple, a great ecumenist of a former time, is renown for having declared that the ecumenical movement is “the great new fact of our era.” Temple’s speech in 1942 which included that famous sound bite goes on to laud the incredible progress of Christianity, as evidenced by the founding of so many Christians institutions in the first half of the 20th century. Have you noticed that we’ve had a lot of anniversaries recently — 50 years, 75 years, 100 years? The culture of the day, when the Councils of Churches were formed, led people to flock to new social institutions with great enthusiasm. It was an era which produced institutions, and many of the most abiding signs of human progress are embodied in the institutions of that time. Yet ours is a different era. We could see it as a time of the devolution of previously unifying institutions. Or we could look at what is growing in this time, at what our era is producing.

Today we don’t flock to institutions. We flock to social movements. The Ecumenical Movement has always been called a “movement”, and in our better moments of self-reflection, we have really understood what we meant by that. But its institutional profile has always been quite prominent. Perhaps now we are on the cusp of becoming a new form of movement, with a new understanding of our institutions.

There are negative factors driving this de-institutionalization of the ecumenical movement. Most churches and ecumenical organizations are in financial crisis, and the WCC’s financial crisis is extremely severe. This, alone, will drive a downsizing, and therefore a reinventing of the role of the institution. In addition to financial concerns, there is also perceived to be a crisis of commitment. There’s a sense that many churches are “guarding the homestead”, so threatened by the instability of their own institutions that they can’t risk ecumenical relationships which might blur the market profile of the church. Ecumenical bodies are at the “end of the food chain”, left to beg for scraps of money, time, energy, commitment, attention and expertise from churches. This is indeed a far cry from the day of William Temple and the enthusiasm of that generation.

So why am I excited about being an ecumenist today? Why don’t I long for the heyday of the ecumenical movement?

When I look at the ecumenical movement, I don’t simply see flagging energy and disintegrating institutions. I see renewal and life, but it is coming at the expense of some long-held sacred cows. This is a time of questioning presuppositions and assumptions. This might feel like a set-back to some. We are re-encountering the depth of our differences on core ecclesiological presuppositions, and the ways that these differences shape our understanding of Councils of Churches, their goals and methods. It may seem that we can do less together now than we could 20 years ago when Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry was approved. The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC plumbed the depressing depths of how far apart we really are, to the point where it looked like we were unraveling the Toronto Statement, that great ecclesiological safeguard of the ecumenical movement.

Yet the Special Commission ended with tremendous hope, united in a common vision of the future of the ecumenical movement. Its final consensus rested in a shared experience of trust within the group, and a confidence that careful listening and charitable selflessness could indeed bind us together, even while we face with honesty the ecclesiological gulf which divides us. The spiritual energy generated by the Special Commission’s work will undoubtedly be felt for many years. It marked the decisive integration of the Common Understanding and Vision process into the core of our ecumenical life. It is now clear that the ecumenical task of this age involves forging new bases for Christian unity, founded more on experience, relationship, spirituality and process, and less on doctrinal content and institutional profile.

At the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Faith & Order movement, last August in Lausanne Switzerland, a Greek Orthodox theologian in her 20s, named Anastasia Vassiliadou, was invited to speak on behalf of the coming generation. She said “If 75 years ago it was inevitable for the restoration of the unity of the Church to tackle the issues of ‘faith’ and ‘order’, today the issues of ‘experience’ and ‘communion’ demand an equal — if not a priority — treatment in the ecumenical movement.” I was struck by the contrast between Anastasia’s vision of ecumenism and that of William Temple. For William Temple, ecumenism is a “fact”. For Anastasia Vassiliadou, ecumenism is an experience, a process. The current era of ecumenism is more interested in process than form, more attentive to experience than static doctrine.

This is very Quaker of me, and perhaps I see what my eyes are trained to see. After all, one of our foundational principles in ecumenical engagement was succinctly articulated in 1737 by a British Quaker named Thomas Story. He said: “The unity of Christians never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in Christian love only.” So I suppose I am predisposed to look for the spirituality of ecumenical life, and to value the growth of Christian love more highly than the development of uniformity in thought and opinion.

An ecumenism of process and experience implies a willingness to be changed by a truly engaged relationship with the other. Once you have committed to walk with another, it is not that you can no longer be yourself, but rather that you are invited to become your own best self. The analogy to Christian marriage is obvious, and helpful. Marriage in the Lord is not a static institution, nor is it a process of rational negotiation. It is a process of becoming ever more faithful as a witness to God’s love, by sharing that love with another and by aiding the other in becoming their own best self. In the ecumenical movement, our membership in Councils of Churches ought ideally to feel like marriage — we are yoked to the other member churches. We ought to feel that our greatest responsibility is to carefully tend the spiritual gifts of the other churches, and to encourage them to grow in faithfulness. We are only just learning how to do this, but the Special Commission was a significant milestone in that process.

The ecumenism of today is fluid and decentralized, less averse to a certain degree of chaos. The Decade to Overcome Violence is our first great experiment with new methodologies for a global ecumenical project. In the Decade, each church and local ecumenical collective is invited to discern their call to Christian peacemaking within their context, and to work for Christian non-violence in their way, in their place — all the while gathering encouragement and challenge from an intentional relationship with those who are similarly engaged within their own contexts. A plurality of contexts, priorities, and strategies is built into the vision of the Decade, as is a sense of mutuality and relationship across contexts. Christian peace work in the 21st century is decentralized and de-institutionalized. I believe this is a model of the ecumenical movement of the future.

I need to be careful not to leave you with the sense of a dichotomy. This is a question of emphasis along a continuum which has always been there. The weight of spiritual energy in the ecumenical movement right now lies in questions of process and relationship, but this doesn’t mean that the day of the institutions is dead. As an ecumenist whose theological specialty is ecclesiology, I would be the last one to declare that our institutional life no longer serves a purpose. But I raise the possibility here that it might serve a different purpose than in previous times. This possibility, this potential for a new spirituality of ecumenical life, is why I am excited about being part of the ecumenical movement right now.

© 2003 Eden Grace

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