|Commentary: Ecumenism not optional for Christians|
World Methodist Council leaders meet with Pope
Benedict in 2005 at the Vatican. The United Methodist Church has been in
dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church since 1966. A UMNS file photo
courtesy of the World Methodist Council.
A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker*
Oct. 17, 2007
It is common to acknowledge that ecumenism is not a high priority for churches today.
There were high hopes for ecumenism in the 1960s and 1970s following the
Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. However, those
hopes have subsided over time as the churches encountered resistance to
making changes necessary for unity with one another. Moreover, the
decline in membership of the churches engaged in ecumenism has caused
them to invest their energies in their own renewal, rather than in
relationships with one another.
This common perception that ecumenism is not a high priority does not
take into account the important work of dialogue that is still taking
place. The United Methodist Church is engaged in some significant new
relationships with other churches.
Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker
The longest ongoing dialogue between The United Methodist Church and
another church is with the Roman Catholic Church. Numerous documents
have been published jointly by bishops of both churches since 1966.
During the next five years, I shall chair the United Methodist
delegation in the next session of dialogue. At the same time, the World
Methodist Council has been in a separate conversation with the Vatican
and published a 2006 report titled "The Grace Given You in Christ."
A separate report on the dialogue between our church and the
Episcopal Church, titled "Make Us One With Christ," also was published
In 2004, our church entered into an interim Eucharist sharing
agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The document
describing the agreement is "Confessing Our Faith Together."
The goal of dialogue between churches is to achieve full communion
with each other. This would involve members receiving the Eucharist in
one another's churches and recognizing the ordination of each other's
ordained clergy so that the clergy could serve in each other's churches
according to the laws and discipline of each respective church.
Consensus and divisions
Many of the historic theological differences among the churches have
been resolved. There is a great consensus between Catholics and
Protestants and among Protestants about the meaning of justification by
grace through faith.
“Making ecumenism an ongoing commitment is a
sign that we shall not reduce the church to an institutional form, but
we shall seek to obey Christ as the Lord of the church down through
Differences that remain pertain to church structures, ordination and
liturgy. A focus of discussion is on the office of bishop as a third
order of ministry. For example, recognizing the episcopacy as a third
order of ministry distinct from deacons and elders is the only real
obstacle to full communion between United Methodists and Episcopalians.
We seem to have learned two lessons throughout nearly 50 years of
ecumenism. First, it is unrealistic to create one church body at this
time in history. Second, it is inadequate to develop mere mutual respect
among the churches without visible signs of unity. If both lessons are
learned, then the churches can move toward a more visible unity by
embracing full communion and recognition of orders and then seek
guidance of the Holy Spirit for the further way into the future.
While I have emphasized the official dialogue among churches, I
realize how important ecumenism is at the local level, where churches
worship together and share ministries of service.
I would encourage local churches and their leaders to study the
official documents issued by our church and other churches and to
initiate conversation with local churches of other Christian communions
in their neighborhood. Shared Eucharistic services between local United
Methodist and Episcopal or Lutheran churches are encouraged.
Ecumenism is not an option for Christians or their church bodies. In
John 17:11, the Son of God prayed to his Father that all of his
disciples "may be one, as we are one." Making ecumenism an ongoing
commitment is a sign that we shall not reduce the church to an
institutional form, but we shall seek to obey Christ as the Lord of the
church down through time.
*Whitaker is bishop of the United Methodist Florida Annual (regional)
conference. This commentary first appeared in e-review, an online
publication of the Florida Annual Conference.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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