The Ecumenical Monologues

LutheransA frantic phone call about a year ago thrust me into what passes for the debate over ecumenism. “O, Professor Balmer! Thank God you’re there!”

It wasn’t clear to me where else I would be, but the breathless voice went on to say that The Situation among the Lutherans had reached crisis proportions. Apparently, a number of leaders in her denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), had gotten it into their heads that they really wanted to be Episcopalians and, despite considerable opposition from the grass roots, were determined to enact something akin to a merger with the Episcopal church.

As a historian of American religion, I had been at least peripherally aware that the Lutherans and the Episcopalians were talking – or, as the ecumenists say, “dialoguing.” But they were always talking, it seemed, so this didn’t strike me as unusual. I wasn’t at all sure how this development related to me, but it turned out that my help was urgently needed – next week, in fact – at a rump gathering of Disgruntled Minnesota Lutherans. Could I come and address the group?

I lunged for my calendar, desperate for a reprieve. Sure enough, I found a couple of conflicts that made a trip to Minnesota impossible. My interlocutor, however, was undaunted and continued to argue that my presence at the gathering was crucial. I protested that I was an Episcopalian, albeit a somewhat lukewarm and not fully persuaded Episcopalian (what Episcopalian isn’t?) and that I didn’t care to fall into the mother-in-law syndrome: poking my nose into the business of others (in this case, the Lutherans).

There were other reasons to demur. Taking a stand against Episcopal-Lutheran unity would place me in the camp opposite an array of Episcopal and Lutheran worthies, not least of whom was the redoubtable Martin E. Marty, who had vigorously supported the moves toward unity. One should always think twice before tangling with an icon.

In the face of relentless entreaties, however, I consented to consider the offer and to investigate the pliability of the conflicting engagements. A few days later I was on my way to the Midwest to face a roomful of Disgruntled Lutherans meeting at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities.

A Lather Over Ecumenism

What do you say to a group of Lutherans all in a lather over ecumenism? Although I acknowledge the contribution of ecumenism in bringing comity to interdenominational relations, I’ve long held theological reservations about the ecumenical movement. I don’t pretend to be a biblical scholar, but it seems to me at least arguable that mainline Protestants have misinterpreted the foundational text for ecumenism: Jesus’ hopeful statement, recorded in John 17, that his followers “may all be one.” This, I believe, was wishful thinking. Jesus was speaking eschatologically; the verb mood is subjunctive, not hortative. Yes, his followers will all be one – but not in this world, where, to quote Paul, “we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” In the first letter to the Corinthians, moreover, Paul acknowledged that “some follow Paul and some follow Appollos,” a passage that suggests to me a kind of nascent denominationalism as early as the first century.

The other reason to be suspicious of ecumenism is that it has led to theological reductionism into the lowest common denominator of agreement. Put another way (with only modest hyperbole), mainline Protestants over the past several decades have traded the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for the “unholy trinity,” usually expressed as peace, justice, and inclusiveness, or some variant thereof. Let me hasten to add that, despite my offhanded use of the term “unholy trinity,” I think that peace, justice, and inclusiveness are noble ideals, ones that I affirm wholeheartedly. But there is nothing distinctively or exclusively Christian about them (my friends in the Ethical Culture movement, for instance, are ardent advocates of peace, justice, and inclusiveness). Individual Protestant denominations enamored of ecumenism appear ready, even eager, to discard their theological birthright in quest of the holy grail of Protestant unity. The result of this quixotic pursuit is an ideology denuded of historical reference and offering the theological nutritional value of a Twinkie.

For the gathering of Disgruntled Lutherans, I had been asked to summarize a lecture I had given at Luther Seminary in St. Paul the previous November. In the course of the lecture, I had rehearsed some of the perils of ecumenism, all of which had come to seem rather self-evident to me in my studies of religion in twentieth-century America. I had opened the lecture with a vignette about a childhood visit to a Lutheran church in rural southern Minnesota for a union Good Friday service. My father was pastor of the evangelical church down the road, and I felt awkward and out of place in this new and alien environment. Lutheranism was the established religion of Minnesota, and we were the interlopers, clearly on the margins of the local society.

I continued by noting how dramatically things had changed in American Protestantism since that visit in the 1950s. Evangelicalism had regained the momentum, and the fortunes of mainline Protestants had declined – at least by any empirical index of attendance, membership, or giving. I also speculated on the reasons for this slide, reasons that included ecumenism and the concomitant loss of theological definition. Mainline Protestants, I suggested, would be better served by paying attention to their historical and theological roots than by plunging headlong into the theological gully wash of ecumenism.

That lecture prompted a couple of polite letters and e-mails. One of my colleagues at Union Theological Seminary (where I am both an adjunct professor and a part-time divinity student) took friendly exception to my arguments and promised to arrange for a fuller discussion, but nothing came of it. Apparently the only folks who took the lecture seriously were those gathered at Mahtomedi.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book, God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, was released by HarperOne in January 2008.