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The Silliness of Ecumenism in the Global North

In all the discussions, such as the ones I’ve participated in on ecumenism, I have a nagging suspicion of these conversations.  This is not to say that I do not think that there is a basic rightness to such discussions, only that perhaps they may be missing some glaring missiological facts that could chasten and better inform such discussions, or at least challenge their pretensions.

The key issue I see as a problem in standard ecumenical discussions is the way in which these discussions take place almost totally from within the framework of the global North-West.  Most ecumenical dialogues take place within Europe and North America.  Whether it is acknowledged or not, it is tacitly believed that the “center” of Christianity from which decisions and initiatives about things like unity could be made is the Northern hemisphere (and, of course principally the West).  However, as is becoming more and more clear, the center of Christianity, across denominational lines is moving further and further South.  The real center of Christianity is coming to reside in Latin America and Africa.  Right now there are nearly twice as many Catholics in Latin America as in Europe, and by 2025 it is projected that there may be close to three times as many!  Likewise, the various Free Church congregations (particularly Pentecostalism) are the fastest growing Christian group in the entire world.  It is projected that by 2025 these various Free Church neo-apostolic movements will number 581 million members, outnumbering traditional Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy combined, and being nearly half the size of worldwide Catholicism.

Now, certainly these are projections, but to my mind anyone with two eyes can see that, while we may quibble about the details, in the main these projects are not only accurate, but they are happening all around us right now.  So, if it is indeed the case that the geographical center of Christian life is relocating to the global South and dying on the vine in the North, what are we to make of the character of our Western ecumenical dialogues?  It seems to me that ecumenical discussions in the global North-West take on the character of little more than role-playing games in which the established churches of Europe and America close their eyes to the fact that they are no longer the primary geographic locus of the life of the church.  If the established churches in Europe and America continue seeking schemes of unity as if the global South and particularly Free Church communities and Pentecostalism are not really where the action is at, they will simply be playing clerical games which will not have anything to do with the emerging ecclesial reality that will define the third millennium.

One Comment

  1. Ben wrote:

    I wish I had commented on this when it was a fresher post, but ah well:

    I agree with you that ecumenism largely seems a “role-playing game,” as you put it. Often when in discussions (some of them on this blog), I feel rather like throwing my hands up and crying “please!”, as if anything anyone says can effect corporate re-unification. We all know that if some Protestant and Rome were to find some way of formulating one another so as to allow visible communion, then the very same nano-second that Protestant body would fracture into at least three pieces (the Rome-wards faction, the status-quo group, and the “hey while we’re at it let’s change EVERYTHING!” group.)

    I think, and I hope this is not too cynical, that the best one can hope for in Protestant-Catholic ecumenical engagement is to be reminded that “the other guys” are human too, and to compare notes on various theological points.

    Any real and sacramental reconciliation with Protestants will happen one person at a time.

    I hold a slightly higher hope for the Orthodox Churches, but not much higher.

    In other words, yes folks, I’m trying to convert you. (And I hope that any Protestant I meet would do me the honest favor of trying to do the same to/for me.)

    Now, to your point about the Pentecostalism/Global-South, what kind of ecumenical dialogue is possible at all with them? I mean to say, whose phone should we call? Maybe a hopeful sign would be some synod of Pentecostals, some sort of formulation as to what they believe.

    Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 12:17 am | Permalink

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