America's foremost Methodist theologian, Dr Tom Oden, has predicted the imminent death of the "old ecumenism" that is centred around the failing structures of mainline Protestantism. An emerging "new ecumenism," Tom Oden said, will depend on theologically-orthodox evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who prefer "classic Christianity" to left-wing politics.
Recognising that the old ecumenism is dying, Dr Oden called for de-funding the failing National and World Councils of Churches. "It is time to call the mainline denominations that are subsidising the prolonged malingering of the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches to withdraw their financial support altogether, and seek a new ecumenism grounded in classical ecumenical teaching."
A professor at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, Oden is a renowned expert on the Early Church Fathers, and a United Methodist theologian widely respected in mainline Protestant, evangelical and ecumenical circles. He served as one of Methodism's observers at Vatican II.
Responding to Oden's remarks at a gathering in Washington, DC, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was Robert George, a prominent conservative Roman Catholic thinker and writer, who teaches at Princeton University.
Dr George agreed with Oden's analysis: "The 'old' ecumenism, though historically relatively new - indeed much more recent than the 'new' ecumenism - is old precisely because it is dated (and dying) because [it is] discredited; discredited because false.
"The depth of Dr Oden's faith, the rigour of his scholarship, and his courageous willingness to defy the established orthodoxy of the divinity schools, the church bureaucracies and the National and World Councils of Churches have been an inspiration to me and many, many others," George said.
Dr Oden sharply contrasted the old ecumenism with the new. The old is identified with the National Council and World Council of Churches, both founded after World War II. The new has no central bureaucracy but is found throughout an informal network of orthodox Christians around the world.
The old ecumenism took a radical turn in the 1960s, focusing on "revolutionary rhetoric, social engineering and statist planning schemes," Oden said. The new ecumenism is critical of failed modern ideas and is deliberately grounded in ancient ecumenism. The old is preoccupied with rapid social change, while the new is "keenly aware of the recalcitrance of sin."
According to Oden, the old ecumenism sought unity in shifting political alliances. The new seeks unity in Christ. The old began with the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The new, Oden humorously noted, began with the Council of Jerusalem in 48 AD. The old peaked in the 1960s. The new reached its apogee with the seven great Ecumenical Councils of ancient Christianity. The old is dying. The new ecumenism is emerging.
He said the "terminal illness" of the old ecumenism is traced to its conviction that the Body of Christ depends largely upon "human ingenuity, rhetoric and cleverness," while fixated on negotiation, management and political action. With much different goals, the new ecumenism does not presume to control the work of the Holy Spirit.
The new ecumenism is already widely dispersed among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox believers, not as an organisational expression of institutional union, but a movement of the Spirit, Oden said. The old ecumenism was largely a "liberal Protestant artefact," with Orthodoxy always as a "frustrated minority partner."
The old ecumenism was "embarrassed by allegedly sexist language about God the Father and God the Son", appealing constantly to "Marxist social location analysis and psychoanalytic theories of religion." It looked for humanistic explanations of the mystery of the Incarnation and Resurrection and Holy Trinity.
Very differently, the new ecumenism honours "cumulative historical consensus," maintains a high doctrine of Scripture and adheres to a consensual doctrine of the atonement and the resurrection and the return of the Lord.
Politically the old ecumenism was committed to liberation theologies, feminist theologies, sexual liberal advocacy and egalitarianism, Oden said. The embryonic new ecumenism has a growing commitment to the defence of free societies, an incremental view of social change, plausible arguments supporting a free market and is committed to classic Christian moral reasoning.
The old ecumenism was preoccupied with "negotiation skills, tolerant expression of feelings, and the sharing of political goals". The new ecumenism is based on Christian truth, not deliberate compromise.
Dr Oden observed that the old ecumenism is collapsing from boredom and neglect. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit is renewing the Church worldwide, fostering unity among previously divided orthodox Christians, encouraging the martyrs who endure persecution, undercutting the false teachings of narcissism, hedonism, autonomous individualism and oppressive totalitarian statism.
Responding to Dr Oden, Robert George agreed with him that the Holy Spirit is already far advanced in "creating unity in the Church, far beyond our poor attempts." The Holy Spirit is creating Christian unity in "soup kitchens and crisis pregnancy centres, in classrooms and boardrooms in the defence of human life and the struggle for religious freedom."
"As a Catholic panelist, I suppose that I am expected to say something critical", said Dr George, "[but] I'm afraid I must disappoint this expectation." The theological issues that divide Protestants and Catholics are still important, he admitted. "But when I think in terms of 'us,' I cannot imagine 'us' not including Dr Oden or Charles Colson or Bill Bright or James Dobson or countless other Protestant believers whose fidelity to the ancient creeds and moral principles of Christian faith has been proven on the battlefields of the culture war. There is a profound unity among us."
With acknowledgement to the 'Catholic Exchange' website.