I get this question quite often, so it seems fitting that the first post on Living an Ecumenical Life should address it.
Ecumenism is, in a nutshell, the search for Christian unity. What this means varies from person to person and church to church. For some, Christian unity is a hope for the ultimate reunification of all Christians under one worldwide church organization. For others, Christian unity is Christians cooperating with each other in mission work and advocacy. It is, at its core, a movement dedicated overcoming barriers and divisions between Christians.
The Modern Ecumenical Movement
The modern ecumenical movement is usually traced to the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. This meeting of Protestant minds was the largest meeting of its kind at the time, and marked a new dedication to working together in mission. The foundations of the National Council of Churches USA and the World Council of Churches can be seen in the work of Edinburgh. The next few decades marked a rapid growth and enthusiasm for the ecumenical movement.
One major way in which my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has “done” ecumenism is through full communion agreements. In these bilateral agreements between two church bodies, agreement is reached on the basics of belief and faith. Members from the two churches are able to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist from each other, and clergy may be shared between the two. The ELCA has this type of agreement with the Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church of America, the Episcopal Church USA, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church.
Churches don’t have to have full communion agreements in order to do ecumenism. The majority of churches have very few of these agreements, if any. Yet they still feel called to cooperation with their Christian brothers and sisters, engaging in mission work together, co-funding projects, working together out in the field, or standing in solidarity with one another in the face of injustice. Any time Christians of different traditions gather for prayer, worship, or work, ecumenism is being done.
Recent developments in Christianity have cast some doubt on the feasibility of the ecumenical movement for some. Woman’s ordination caused a great deal of tension, and now the controversies surrounding homosexuality and the ministry have broken many ties within and between churches. My own church just voted in late 2009 to ordain openly gay men and women and has led to congregations breaking away and joining/forming other national church bodies. The Anglican Communion is suffering similar issues, and some predict a split there as well. Churches that once worked together are pulling apart and severing ties, both in worship and out in the field.
This is the state of affairs, so to speak, that confronts anyone living an ecumenical life; an uncertain future, but a rewarding journey all the same. Those committed to ecumenism work for a vision that they may not see come to fruition in their lifetimes. But the task is still an important one for Christians, and one I hope to be doing for a long, long time.