As Baylor University professor Thomas S. Kidd writes in his review of Mark Tooley’s Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century, “Politicized faith is a key historic ingredient in denominational decline.” A few years ago Joseph Bottum penned an essay exploring some of the reasons behind the decline of the mainline as well as some of the implications for America’s common life, “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.”
I think we could safely propose a version of that connection with regard to the ecumenical movement as well, and say that politicized faith is a key historic ingredient in ecumenical decline. After the jump is a piece from ENI outlining the hope for an “ecumenical spring” amid the downward spiral of mainline ecumenical institutions. As an of the decline, “The National Council of Churches (NCC), the flagship agency of ecumenism, has shrunk from some 400 staffers in its heyday in the 1960s to fewer than 20.”
In many ways the mainline ecumenical bodies, whether at the national or global level, have functioned as kinds of super-denominational bureaucracies, providing a thin veneer of catholicity to the denominations on which they depend. I examine recent trends in the politicization of ecumenical social witness on the global scale in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Toward the end of that book I muse on the decline of mainline ecumenical bodies, observing with William Temple that “nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which are not part of the official system of the Church at all.” Thus, I contend,
there is also a kind of mere ecumenism that is a basic feature of the twofold reality of the church as institution and organism. When Christians from different denominations and traditions, outside of the institutional church, have conversations and dialogue, engage in forms of prayer and worship, and do works of charity and justice together, they are engaging in meaningful ecumenical endeavors.
Indeed, “the hope for a vigorous, effective, and obedient ecumenical social witness is not coextensive with the institutional ecumenical movement itself.” And so the decline of the mainline ecumenical movement might portend the death of the body, but certainly not of the soul, of Christian ecumenism.
What you’ll likely see is that some of these groups become defunct while others hang on, but that there will be little in terms of substantive reform. It is unfortunately much more likely that ecumenical institutions become more politicized and not less as the end nears. If the corollary to Kidd’s observations about the mainline denominational decline holds true for the ecumenical movement, then ecumenical activism around the Circle of Protection or Obamacare, for instance, would be symptomatic of a sickly, rather than a vigorous, ecumenical social witness.