My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): Deeper Ecumenism in Our Public Witness

Monday, September 16th, 2019

In the first of this four-part blog series, I identified one of the central problems we face today in our society; namely, the inability to frame a proper moral argument. Our challenge is far beyond simply knowing what is right or wrong. We have slipped even further to the point where we are not even sure if moral categories exist independently of our own personal perspectives. Part one of this series explored this problem in some detail. The next two blog entries focus on the first two of three “solutions” or “ways forward” in addressing this problem. The first was to better understand the power of embodying the “means of grace” as a part of our public witness to the world. The second addressed the need to emphasize the formation of our minds, not just our hearts. We have a lot of sloppy thinking in our Wesleyan movement and it is time we recognize this and work to address it. Today we examine a third solution as we move forward.

The third shift which this generation calls for is the need to embrace a deeper ecumenism in our public witness. We must transcend the divides which have long characterized our understanding of our place in the Christian world. We know of the classic divides between Roman Catholic and Protestant; between Protestant mainline liberals and Protestant mainline conservatives, between evangelicals and fundamentalists, between charismatic and non-charismatics, between Reformed and Arminian, and between liturgical and non-liturgical, to name a few. These are the categories which have largely defined how we position ourselves within the body of Christ. So you come to Christ and slowly your identity becomes formed to mainline, or evangelical, or fundamentalist, or Pentecostal, or charismatic, or Arminian, etc. Brothers and sisters, without diminishing the importance of these distinctions, we must recognize how they are influenced, sometimes heightened, sometimes diminished, as we collectively find our new place in an increasingly post-Christian setting.

When I first went to North India there was at that time only one church for every 3,000 villages. So, naturally, we were quite generous with whatever Christians we found. Now, North America and Western Europe are the fastest growing mission fields in the world. This calls for fresh alignments and a deeper shared commitment, even while we hold to our cherished distinctives. This is not a call to some kind of generic Christianity, but a deep commitment to historic faith which recognizes that some of the boundaries which have divided Christians play out differently when the church finds itself in a culture increasingly hostile to malformed perceptions of what it even means to be a Christian at all.

Many churches across the whole spectrum of Christian identity have become co-opted in different ways by the surrounding culture. Our observations are too shallow if we think that only the “other Christians” have been co-opted, but not our group. In this re-assessment we as Wesleyans may have an advantage because we occupy as part of our DNA a conciliar tradition which has never been easily pigeon-holed into evangelical or mainline, or charismatic or non-charismatic, liturgical or non-liturgical, etc. Our distinctive Wesleyan identity will of course remain vital, but that very identity allows us fresh opportunities for new forms of engagement. But surely we must understand that an increasingly post-Christian culture no longer has a clue what it means to be a Baptist, or a Charismatic, or a Roman Catholic. In Kentucky, a drive from Wilmore to Lexington will bring you past dozens of churches, which says a lot of things to you, but seems confusing to the world. More importantly, the world finds it difficult to discern the basic Christian message is.

Historically, 17th century pietism, although it was birthed within Lutheranism, eventually had a profound impact on so much of what Protestantism as a whole now embraces. It created some very powerful alignments across the church. The holiness movement of the 19th century did give birth to several new denominations, but the deeper story of the holiness movement is far broader, as it ushered in a deeper appreciation for the consecrated life, sanctification, and holy living across much of the Protestant landscape. The 20th century neo-evangelical movement was neither birthed in, nor housed in any single denomination, but was a movement of theological cohesion which brought fresh alignments across 40 different denominations ranging from Assemblies of God to Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Evangelical Presbyterians to the Free Methodists, to the Wesleyans to the Presbyterian Church in America to the Salvation Army, all members of the National Association of Evangelicals. In short, the evangelical movement had a profound uniting influence across the whole Christian landscape.

Today, we need to find new forms of alignment with all those committed to historic Christian faith, the defining creeds of the faith, and the ecumenical consensus of the patristic fathers. Christians committed to historic Christianity who find themselves on the periphery of a mainline church, or within the Roman Catholic communion, and so forth, must find one another and strengthen one another. There are tens of millions of Christians around the world who are prepared to stand together for the historic faith, the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ, and our shared mission to serve the world and proclaim the gospel. We should not see ourselves as some fragile group on the fringes. Rather, we should see ourselves as part and parcel of the grand body of Christ which reaches around the world and across all time. We do not yet know what this will look like, but the categories which have long defined us are no longer fully suitable for the cultural and ecclesiastical terrain which we now face. The field of play has changed and we need to better understand the cultural space we newly occupy.

This past summer, for the first time in history, the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in London. They realized too late in the process that a soccer field was not suitable to play baseball. But, they were already committed to the series. For example, British soil is too slick when wet to play baseball. Furthermore, the lights for a soccer field were too low to survive baseballs flying through the air. To rectify these conditions, 345 tons of dirt and clay had to be brought across the Atlantic by a company called DuraEdge from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. The lights had to be wrapped in chicken wire so they would not be destroyed. These are just a few examples of the changes which had to happen to make a soccer field suitable for baseball.

Today, we can no longer ignore that we are trying to play Christianity on a cultural field which is alien to the Christian faith. We must, symbolically speaking, bring in 345 tons of catechesis and protect things once thought assumed, if we are to flourish. We have a steep, uphill climb if we are to establish vibrant Christian communities who embody the means of grace, who have learned to think Christianly, and who better understand the role of the wider church as we face this challenge together. Christians have faced similar challenges in our long and checkered history, and, in the long run, the church of Jesus Christ will flourish once again, because Christ himself promised us that He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God for that.

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