The New Ecumenism
The Most Rev. Dr. Ray R. Sutton
October 15, 2023
In the Name of our Blessed Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I bring you greetings on behalf of the Most Rev. Dr. Foley Beach, Primate of the Anglican Church in North America, our bishops, clergy, and all our laity. I also extend greetings from the Reformed Episcopal Church that is a sub jurisdiction within the Anglican Church in North America. It is a joy to be asked to come to Belgrade to speak on the “new ecumenism” within Christianity.
I first learned this phrase in 2015 from the important Russian Orthodox scholar Metropolitan Alfayev Hilarion. Currently he is Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in Budapest. At that time, however, he was the Bishop overseeing the Department of Inter-Church Relations for the Russian Church. Through his travels to the United States, he met Archbishop Foley Beach, our Primate, and me the Ecumenical Dean for the Anglican Church in North America. He invited Archbishop Foley, three of our other Bishops to come to Moscow, to have ecumenical meetings, and to bring greetings to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Church. We were also accompanied by the Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York City in America.
In our meetings with Metropolitan Hilarion and other ecumenical clergy from the Russian Church, Bishop Hilarion used the phrase “new ecumenism.” He distinguished it from the “old ecumenism.” He described the “old ecumenism” as ecumenical dialogues reduced to social views driven more by radical secular ethical agendas and non-Christian moral theology, than the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the Faith once delivered to all the saints. He called for a “new ecumenism” that above all was centered in Jesus Christ and His Gospel. The Metropolitan spoke of the need for all Christian churches committed to the Gospel and the Holy Scriptures to unite to the greatest extent possible to proclaim the Gospel.
We learned of Metropolitan Hilarion’s friendship with the late American Evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham. The Bishop explained the importance of Dr. Graham’s evangelistic crusades in Russia in the 1980s. He referred to the evangelist as a great “prophet,” who proclaimed the Word of God. He suggested to us that a new ecumenism among faithful churches was necessary at this critical time in history to preach and teach anew the Gospel to Europe and America. There was much further discussion In our meetings about the need for a Gospel-centered ecumenism. Bishop Hilarion encouraged us to formulate a new ecumenical philosophy.
Our Archbishop and bishops returned from that good experience with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2015 to work on a new ecumenical philosophy. What we have developed, I present in this lecture. I begin with the need.
The Need for a New Ecumenism
Before developing the “new ecumenism” and the churches involved in this work, it is important to understand the need. It has three parts. The first has to do with the current state of post-Christian cultures in the Western World. The second concerns the spiritual and moral apostasy that has occurred due to the encroachment of exclusivist secular thinking and practices within many churches of Christendom. The third is the effect of emerging new churches and holy remnants emerging in this post-Christendom world, and who are beginning to talk to each other in new ecumenical contexts. Let us consider these three aspects of the need driving a new ecumenism before considering what it looks like.
As for the Western World, historians refer to its now being “Post Christendom.” The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christ in the early 4th century. He stopped the persecution of Christians. Eventually, he declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire. From the 4th to the 14th centuries, barbarian nations became Christian. What became known as Christendom rose to a pinnacle in the Middle Ages.
Yet, between the advance of Islam in the East and the West and the rise of atheistic philosophies, great Christian civilizations were overcome. Today, scholars generally recognize that cultures that were once Christian no longer are. We’re living in Post Christendom. This is not the same as post-Christian. There still are many Christians, but with only a few exceptions their countries and cultures have ceased to be run by forthright Christians and the Church with its Biblical standards.
Stuart Murray-Williams defines “Post-Christendom” when he says, “Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence . . . Post-Christendom refers to the changing place of the Christian community in a complex society that is increasingly unfamiliar with the gospel and culturally more distant from the churches” (Stuart Murray-Williams, Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World).
A summary of the book elaborates on the effects, opportunities, and challenges of post-Christendom presented by Murray-Williams:
Western societies are experiencing a series of disorientating culture shifts. Uncertain where we are heading, observers use “post” words to signal that familiar landmarks are disappearing, but we cannot yet discern the shape of what is emerging. One of the most significant shifts, “post-Christendom,” raises many questions about the mission and role of the church in this strange new world. What does it mean to be one of many minorities in a culture that the church no longer dominates? How do followers of Jesus engage in mission from the margins? What do we bring with us as precious resources from the fading Christendom era, and what do we lay down as baggage that will weigh us down on our journey into post-Christendom? Post-Christendom identifies the challenges and opportunities of this unsettling but exciting time.
Due to the spiritual and moral corrosion of post-Christendom, Rod Dreher writes in his classic book, The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2017), “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” Murray-Williams states, however, the opportunity presented by the post-Christendom world. He says, “Post-Christendom offers an opportunity to reconsider theological, ethical, and ecclesial issues once the Christendom blinkers are removed. And the challenge is to think and act as cross-cultural missionaries within our own culture.” This brings me to the second aspect of the need for a new ecumenism.
Exclusivist Secularism and Its False Theology and Morality
Second, a radical exclusive secularism has entered many churches to the point that their theology and moral theology have been compromised. Just as scholars have brought us to the need to recognize “post-Christendom” and its effects, so other theologians and Christian philosophers have explained our time as “a secular age.”
To date, the most extensive analyses of the secularism of our cultural environment are the writings of the Roman Catholic Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, and the Protestant scholar James K. A. Smith in his work entitled, How Not to be Secular. They both conclude that our culture has become one of exclusive secularism. This is a different kind of “secular” from the Middles Ages when the word referred to Christian work outside the Church like a baker or candlestick maker. The understanding of “secular” changed significantly in the 18th century Enlightenment. The natural world and morality were understood as having no inherent definition in themselves. Many philosophers began to assume that the world did not even have God’s created revealed meaning of it. Instead, the natural and the moral were considered neutral in design until human reason provided their value. The famous philosopher Rene Descartes crafted the popular phrase on which this new meaning of secular was based. He said, “I think, therefore I am.” Culture and all aspects of it are reduced to what human reason dictates. The Christian worldview became one option among others.
Taylor and Smith speak of a third type of secularism prevalent in our day. James K. A. Smith says about this new version of secularism, “Religious belief or belief in God . . . [that has been] understood to be one option among others,” has become “contested” (pp. 21-23). By “contested” he means “belief in God” is no longer even to be considered a possibility but culturally opposed. Taylor therefore concludes that we are now in a secular age of “exclusive humanism” (Smith, p. 22). To understand the exclusiveness of the present secularism, Taylor and Smith define it with the phrase “closed world structure.”
These scholars also use the image of a two-story house to explain this exclusive, secular “closed world.” In this two-story structure the lower story representing our present culture closes itself from the upper floor. They refer to the two floors of this house with the words, transcendence, and immanence. The upper story is the transcendent supernatural realm of God beyond the physical lower floor. It is the transcendent realm of God, and His meaning of humanity, morality, and so forth, according to the Scriptures. The lower story is immanent and the natural, this present world. Taylor and Smith point out that until recently in history, the upper story gave meaning and life to the lower story of this immanent world. However, they explain that exclusive secularism now attempts to shut out the upper story. That is, it will not allow the transcendent world of God and the supernatural into the lower story. The immanent, secular, ground floor relegates the upper floor of the Biblical worldview to an attic where no one is allowed to go and still be taken seriously by media, the arts, and the institutions of our society.
The immanent floor has become so hostile to the upper transcendent story that it even erects what Taylor and Smith call a brass ceiling above it. In other words, there is no connection allowed between the two stories. It is a way of excluding “a vision of life in which anything beyond the immanent is eclipsed” (Smith, pp. 22-23). By “eclipsed” these authors mean blotted out, like an eclipse of the sun by the moon. The immanent floor eclipses the transcendent historic Christian perspective by making it socially unacceptable through the arts, the media, and popular leaders. Those considered authoritative in the lower story close off the transcendent by not allowing the Biblical view to be represented in the institutions of society. For example, a Christian professor and head of a chemistry department at a major state university in Texas recently told me, “If I talk about the God of the Bible to my students it’s cause for my losing tenure.” Yet other religious viewpoints and worldviews are allowed on campuses.
Sadly, there are many Christian churches who have been tempted with and taken in bits and pieces of the secular. According to the late 20th century Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, he used the image churches doing secular “laundry.” That is, by trying to clean the secular laundry of ideas and practices so that Christians may wear a synergized or mixed worldview, they believe they can better win over the secularist. Yet, not realizing that the new secularism is the old, exclusivist version that doesn’t allow the Christian worldview, they are overcome by it rather than vice versa. This is nothing new. Tertullian in the 2nd century said, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Early Christian defenders of the Faith like him concluded that the Biblical worldview is unraveled with attempts to weave truth with the secular. These early church fathers noted how the prophets of Israel in the Old Testament brought covenant lawsuit from God against His people because they comingled beliefs of the gods and cultures around them with the teachings of the Scriptures. In doing so they became like the pagan culture rather than the other way around. Israel ceased being the light to lighten the Gentiles. The opposite happened. Their synergistic worship and secular worldview dimmed the true Light of Scripture.
The secular is not after all inclusive. With a synergism leading to a false inclusivity, whole churches and denominations have collapsed into secularism in our lifetimes. You’ll notice that once this happens, those churches striving to be contemporary with post modernity and allegedly inclusive begin to exclude those who hold to Biblical and traditional theology and morality – they end up becoming post-modern, truly. Reform by going back to the sources becomes necessary as St. Augustine explained: “God’s Son assuming Humanity without destroying Divinity established and founded this faith, that there might be a way for man to man’s God by God’s man.”
Charles Taylor says in his analysis of the postmodern secular exclusivist age that it is “unique.” In one regard he’s correct. In the last two centuries atheistic movements such as Fascism and Communism have arisen that attempted to blot out completely any reference to the transcendent God and His followers. In seeming contrast, the Greeks on Mars Hill to whom St. Paul preached had their gods and belief in “universal ideals.” They alleged both to be transcendent. In some sense they were, but as the apostle reveals, these “universal ideals” and their gods were in fact only false versions of real transcendence. Where the early cultures of the first three centuries and ours do meet and are similar, however, is in their exclusive rejection of the transcendence of Jesus Christ and His Word. Those on Mars Hill for the most part rejected the apostle’s message, as our contemporary culture does today. To borrow Taylor’s and Smith’s description of our exclusivist secularism —the Athenian Greeks eclipsed St. Paul. But the message of the apostle did finally penetrate their secular culture over time.
New Ecclesial Regrouping and Relationships
In our time, therefore, exclusive secularist ideas and immoral practices have entered many churches in our post-Christendom period of history. The result has been a regrouping that has produced new relationships. The regrouping has been in two ways both of which center around what I call “holy remnants.”
Among Protestants, within virtually every Christian denomination, faithful “holy remnants” have emerged. They reject secularist philosophy and morality. To do so, they have returned to the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, the ancient confessions of faith and their councils, and their 16th century doctrinal statements. This has happened in America, for example, within the historic Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. In the last few decades these remnants have left their churches to form new faithful ecclesiastical jurisdictions and churches.
The most recent emergence of a “holy remnant” has been in United Methodism. The new Methodist ecclesial body is called the Global Methodist Church. Over three thousand churches have joined this new denomination.
Among Catholic denominations such as the Roman and Eastern Churches, secular philosophy, theology and moral theology have unfortunately also made inroads into pockets of many of these churches. New denominations to date have not been formed. But the “holy remnant” principle has still been in effect among Roman Catholics and Eastern Churches. These “holy remnants” have gathered by moving into different parts of and geographies of their churches. In Rome, there has been the creation of the “ordinariates” non-geographical dioceses. Though the ordinariates have been intended to allow those from other denominations to become Roman Catholic, they have also permitted Roman Catholics to join them instead of the local geographic dioceses. In Orthodoxy in America, there has been movement from some ethnic churches that have been more influenced by secular thought and practice into the more faithful Orthodox communities.
Importantly, the rise of these “holy remnants” has resulted in new ecclesial conversations and dialogues. In some cases, whole new dialogues are occurring. In other cases, previous dialogues from the “old ecumenism world” have been transformed into new ecumenical dialogues. In every new ecumenical situation, the basis has shifted from secular political and social ideals around human sexuality, to the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, ancient creeds and confessions, and traditional Christian morality. This brings me to a description of the new ecumenical relationships and dialogues.
The New Ecumenical Dialogues and Conversations
The new ecumenism among God’s “holy remnants” in various denominations has come about different ways. Old dialogues that have been able to become new. Then there are completely new dialogues tracking emerging denominations out of the old ones.
Old Dialogues Become New
One example of an old ecumenical dialogue become new is the one between the Anglican Church in North America and the Orthodox Church of America. This dialogue is the continuation of a historic relationship between American Anglicans and Orthodox since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Russian Orthodox Church sent an important Missionary Bishop to North America in the late 1800s. His name was Tikhon; he later became a Saint. As he traveled in the northern part of America doing missionary work, he discovered an Anglican seminary in the Upper Midwest of the United States. It is Nashotah House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He met many Episcopal Bishops and befriended them. He knew of the long history of dialogue between the Orthodox and Anglicans. He spent much time at this seminary in the summers. He even sent his postulants/candidates for Holy Orders to this Anglican Seminary. At the time, there was no Orthodox seminary in America.
Eventually, Missionary Bishop Tikhon became Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the Anglican Bishops he had befriended in America, Charles Grafton, visited him. The Anglican book of worship, the Book of Common Prayer, was proposed for acceptance by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was approved and a plan was developed toward unity with Eucharistic sharing between the Russian Orthodox Church and the American Episcopal Church. Sadly, the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia in 1917. Atheists killed the monarchy and violently seized control of the country. They executed many bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, including Patriarch Tikhon. He was martyred and is now recognized as St. Tikhon. Because of the relationship between him and Nashotah House Anglican Seminary, an iconic stained-glass window is dedicated to him in the chapel of the seminary.
This historic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and American Anglicanism explains why churches established by St. Tikhon in the United States continued a relationship with the Episcopal Church. His churches became the Orthodox Church of America. When the American Episcopal Church abandoned traditional Christian moral theology by allowing same-sex union among Bishops and clergy, the Orthodox Church of America broke off ecumenical dialogue. Anglican Church in North America was called into existence in 2008 by the Biblically faithful and traditional Primates and Archbishops of the Global South of the Anglican Communion. The Orthodox Church in American then gave ecumenical dialogue that it had had with the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Church in North America in 2009. The ACNA and the OCA have been in ecumenical dialogue since that time.
We have been able to pray together and worship together in non-sacramental services of Morning (Mattins) and Evening (Vespers) Prayer. We have also been able to produce statements together on Biblical and traditional Christian moral theology.
A new dialogue has grown out of the old. The new dialogue between the OCA and the ACNA have built on an even larger dialogue that has gone on between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism since the latter half of the previous century. Conversations between Anglicans and Orthodox began in the 1930s. They became official in 1973. Meetings in Moscow and Dublin produced the Moscow (1976) and Dublin (1984) Statements. A third Cyprus Statement was agreed in 2006. These statements work through important issues and differences. Anglicans have been able to explain that the Filioque is understood with reference to the Economic (Persons) not the Ontological (Being) Trinity. The phrase means “through” not “and.” The traditional Lambeth Meetings of Bishops every ten years have concluded twice that the original Nicene Creed does not have the Filioque and should be removed. These Lambeth meetings have also offered that the Filioque be at least footnoted in all new editions of the Book of Common Prayer to allow that it not be said. Such is the case in the Prayer Book for the Anglican Church in North America. The historic agreed upon statements, therefore, provide an extraordinary basis for much work together. However, it’s the Biblically faithful and Gospel Anglicans who are continuing the old dialogue and transforming it into something new.
Another old dialogue become new is between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia in the Baltic Sea area and the Anglican Church in North America. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has Apostolic Succession of order in its Bishops, priests, and deacons. It adheres to the ancient creeds and councils as well as its 16th century Lutheran Confessional Documents (The Augsburg Confession and The Book of Concord). It has been in communion with Canterbury and the Anglican Communion since 1938. Yet today it lives out this communion with the Anglican Church in North America because of the latter’s communion with the Global South Anglicanism consisting of sixty-million of the eighty-five million Anglican Christians.
As for one other old dialogue become new, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has entered ecumenical conversation with the Anglican Church in North America. This is in addition to their dialogue with the Episcopal Church. Normally, the Roman Church does not have two different dialogues within a denominational grouping. They have permitted it with our new Anglican Province.
New Dialogues Among New Jurisdictions
Turning from old ecumenical dialogues become new, there are many new dialogues emerging among conservative evangelical and catholic denominations. I’ll only mention a few.
First the Presbyterian Church in America came into existence from the old Presbyterian Northern and Southern Churches. They have a fraternal relationship with many Reformed Churches as well as the Anglican Church in Norther America. This relationship allows for communion and witness among our churches to the world.
Second, the North American Lutheran Church emerged from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 2010. They have established Lutheran Chair at the conservative Anglican seminary, The Episcopal School for Ministry. They have been in ecumenical dialogue with the Anglican Church in North America since their beginning. They share Eucharistic hospitality with the ACNA. This means the members of both churches can receive Holy Communion at each other’s services.
Third, the new Global Methodist Church has come out of the United Methodist Church. As mentioned, it presently has over three thousand congregations. It has already sent its ecumenical bishop to bring greetings and to meet with the Anglican Church in North America Bishops. We will soon share Eucharistic hospitality with one another.
Fourth, I have already mentioned the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. I did not explain, however, that due to the relationship we both share with the Anglican Communion, the ELCL and the Anglican Church in North America participate in pulpit and altar ministry. There is potential for similar relationships with other remnant Lutheran churches in the Baltic States. I believe parenthetically that these faithful Lutheran Churches here in Europe can be quite helpful in the work of mission and re-evangelization all across the continent.
Fifth, the Anglican Church in North America has had a strong relationship with the Messianic Jewish communities, fellowships, and churches. These Jews are ones who have accepted Jesus Christ as Messiah Savior and Lord and been baptized. They often refer to themselves as “completed Jews,” since they have believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah. The Church of England and the Anglican Communion have had an historic relationship with the Jewish people. Missionaries from the Church of England and America have been involved in the important work of evangelization of the Jewish People. As a result, many of these completed Jews are interested in the Anglican Church in North America. Our bishops will be considering the formation of a Messianic Jewish Diocese for their churches to join.
The last new ecumenical development concerns the work of God in the Muslim world. Over twenty-five years ago many Muslims began to have visions of Jesus and dream of the Messiah. To date, well over a million Muslim Background Believers as they are called have become believers in Christ and been baptized. Largely a house-church movement, they elected twelve elders to lead them. The elders chose a presiding elder from among them. About five years ago, these elders and the people decided the Holy Spirit was leading them to join the Anglican Communion. Their leader contacted us. Our Primates and Archbishops approved his entering Holy Orders. After a period of theological study (Even a Ph.D. in theology) and examination, he has been ordained a Deacon and a Priest. Our Primates have now authorized that he would become the first Missionary Bishop of this movement of Muslim converts. He and a number of our other Bishops will be working with him to form this movement now called Communio Messianica into an Anglican Province.
Therefore, many new ecumenical relationships have been raised up by God. They involve the old historic jurisdictions. They also include many new holy remnants who have formed new churches out of the old. These relationships, however, are at different levels of development. Finally, I finish my lecture by mentioning three levels of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.
Three Levels of the New Ecumenism
Like all relationships, there can be differences of closeness among churches in ecumenical dialogue. The goal is to seek the highest level of oneness in Christ. Our Lord prayed for this oneness in Gethsemane (John 17). As we know through history, re-uniting God’s Church takes time. Not all churches are able to achieve the same levels of oneness. But I have observed three levels of ecumenical oneness in a kind of progression of relational development.
Level one in ecumenical relation is conversational and acknowledgement of each other’s churches. Usually there is a recognition of true belief in the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the ancient creeds. The ecumenical conversations are to get to know one another’s church, what might be done together such as prayer, sharing common meals, and witness in the world. Students may attend each other’s seminaries for training. Time is spent also determining the next possible steps toward a greater unity.
Level two progresses from ecumenical conversation to official dialogue recognized by the leadership of each church. At this level more can be done together. Joint theological and moral statements can be produced for witness in the world. Worship together with the Daily Office of Morning (Mattins) and Evening (Vespers) Prayer can be shared. Mission and pilgrimages can be carried out with each other.
Level three enters a stage of ecumenical dialogue to consider how churches might share in the Sacramental life together. This requires a significant level of agreement with each other’s confessions and belief. Recognition of the apostolic succession of each other’s orders is included. After this, sacramental participation usually begins with Eucharistic hospitality. This is where members are allowed to take communion at each other’s churches. Level three also allows for discussion regarding shared mutual ministry. Eventually, as part of this third level’s completed development, ministers of each other’s church may be licensed to do some kind of ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Of course, one more level can be added. This is the complete oneness of churches. For a thousand years there were no denominations. There was simply the Undivided Church. Yes, there were national churches in the East and West. There was only one Church. May that day return to us when we are one Church together.
In this lecture I have introduced a new kind of ecumenism. It has ancient roots with contemporary needs. I have expressed those needs as existing in the context of what scholars call post-Christendom, the introduction of exclusivist secularism into our countries and churches, and the emergence of holy remnants across Christianity entering conversation and dialogue with one another.
These new ecumenical dialogues have generally followed three levels. The levels start with getting to know one another, prayer, and joint witness of the Gospel with the world where possible. The first level progresses into official recognition of a dialogue. Joint theological and moral statements can be formulated. Non-sacramental worship can be done together. Then the final level moves into recognition of common faith and order resulting in mutually shared ministry. The hope all along is to achieve that for which our Lord prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
I leave us with one final thought. It was discovered by me in a powerful book by the late Greek Orthodox theologian and Bishop, John Zizioulos. The name of the book is Being as Communion. He writes in the introduction of his book how that when churches divide, they tend to develop apart from each other. They go their separate ways without the whole church to pull the gifts and contributions of each other into one another’s churches. The gifts and charisms that each has is cut adrift. The divided Church is therefore incomplete. Bishop John reminds us that we need all of each other’s gifts for wholeness.
The desire is for the new ecumenism to help the church move closer to that for which our Lord and the Saints of heaven pray. May we be one, as according to Jesus’ prayer the Blessed Trinity is one. Perhaps the time has come in history to quit blaming each other for our divisions. It’s like the quarreling married couple attributing fault to each other instead of figuring out a way to move past their differences and keep the marriage together.
However, in the discussions about ecumenical unity we often forget the end goal of that unity. Jesus says it in His prayer. When He petitions the Father, He offers, “That they may be one; as thou, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). The ultimate goal of the mystical, coinhering oneness for which our Lord prays is that the “world may believe.” Our complete mission and evangelization of the world depend heavily on our oneness. With God’s help, may the new ecumenism bring us closer that the world might believe! Amen.