United Methodists might be surprised to learn that our denomination has a constitutional mandate committing us to unity in the body of Christ “at all levels of church life” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Article VI). For United Methodists, ecumenism is a central part of our denominational identity, not just a side venture to be pursued by a few bishops and a small office of “ecumenical relations.” This emphasis reflects the ecumenical vocation of all Christians, a vocation issued in John 17 when Jesus prays that his disciples “may be one, as we,” the Father and the Son, “are one” (John 17:11 NRSV).
In seminary, if ecumenism is studied at all, the focus is usually on ecumenical dialogues, whether those facilitated by the World Council of Churches or bilateral discussions between, for example, the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. These dialogues have had a profound and often understated impact on the life of the church today, especially in facilitating both the mutual recognition of baptisms and some agreement about the ordering of public worship. Most of us, however, will never serve on a formal dialogue commission. That does not mean the vocation to pursue Christian unity has less of a claim on our lives. Ecumenism is not primarily something to talk about; it is something to live out.
At the end of February, Centre UMC, the congregation I serve, will host a rotating emergency homeless shelter for a week. That shelter is possible because a group of churches from various denominations formed Harford Hope for the Homeless Alliance. When Centre hosts, we intentionally invite other churches in our town to come and serve a meal or spend the night with our guests. We pray together at meetings. This year, Ash Wednesday falls during the week we host, so we will have a morning service for anyone, whether a guest, a member of the community, or a volunteer, to attend. Later that day we will join another group of churches for an evening Ash Wednesday service of Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Methodists. All of this helps us at Centre fulfill our ecumenical vocation.
Praying together, working together, marching together: these are all forms of ecumenism. Pope Francis has also spoken movingly of an ecumenism of blood, when we recognize the fullness of Christ’s body in those who suffer persecution or martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. Some writers have made claims about an “ecumenical winter” that has fallen on the church after the optimism and enthusiasm of the mid-twentieth century began to wane, but a broader view reveals that ecumenism is alive and well. We now take for granted possibilities for cooperation among the divided churches that a century ago or less would have been largely unthinkable.
This does not mean that our vocation today is any less urgent. I teach at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore, MD, one of the first and few schools of its kind in the world. The school, a division of a Roman Catholic institution but welcoming of all backgrounds, opened fifty years ago after the Second Vatican Council. Ecumenism is in our name and in our DNA. Yet the encounters with and among students I teach from many different church backgrounds are a constant reminder of how much we Christians have to learn from each other, as well as a source of genuine hope for the ecumenical future of the church.
And I would very much like to know what has happened to the ecumenical vocation of The United Methodist Church since General Conference 2016. The ecumenical joy of that General Conference, an agreement to enter into full communion with The Moravian Church in North America, was eclipsed by events that led to the Way Forward process. Even more disheartening, the Way Forward process has been conducted as if unity within the UMC is the gold standard for Christian unity. Appeals urging us to “stay united” have seemed to overlook the deep divisions between United Methodists and other Christians that will not be solved by this year’s special General Conference. At the same time, some United Methodists appear to relish the idea of a schism, as if that would do anything other than compound our collective failure to heed Christ’s prayer for Christian unity.
The ecumenical future of Christ’s church is already guaranteed. No prayer of Jesus goes unanswered, and we Christians will be one as the Father and the Son are one. The deep satisfaction of answering the ecumenical vocation is the opportunity to share in what will surely come to pass. Whatever happens in or to The United Methodist Church, Christ calls all Christian disciples to join his prayer with our words, our service, and ourselves for the unity he cherishes so deeply.