The erosion and gradual disintegration of the vision of an ecumenical movement
The headquarters of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is located here in Beirut. The General Assembly of this organization is physically meeting in Egypt these days. The MECC differs from other ecumenical organizations in the region in that it includes the various Catholic churches. However, one cannot infer from this that ecumenism is more intense here than elsewhere. The reasons for this are, in particular, the presence of Christian holy sites in the region and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Here, as elsewhere, ecumenical cooperation is becoming less important, and the WCC in Geneva seems very distant. Almost none of my local interlocutors know anything about what is currently going on in the WCC. This is also true of the Protestant churches. The Protestant family of churches is gathered together in the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), whose office – consisting of only one person working from home – is also located in Beirut. The signs of fatigue in ecumenism are visible. Significant progress in uniting these small churches has yet to be made. For many leaders, ecumenism means primarily financial aid to ensure the implementation of projects, or even the payment of salaries.
But here, as in other parts of the world, it is clear that behind this erosion, which has been evident for some time, lies the disintegration of the realization of the ecumenical vision, the erosion of the fundamental principle: ‘That all of them may be one’. These signs of disintegration have at least three forms:
Firstly, there is Christian nationalism. Several churches are tempted to follow the vision according to which the appearance or bearing of Christianity in the national context takes precedence and practically has universal validity. In any case, it has priority over other orientations. This can be seen today not only in Russia. It is about defending locally held values, which protect against perceived or real dangers that penetrate from the outside or from another church of the same church family, or from a new church with a Pentecostal or fundamentalist character. Even ultra-small minority churches suddenly begin to defend or refrain from speaking out against governments that both protect and threaten them. This can be seen in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and to some extent in Lebanon. But also in Poland and Hungary.
Secondly, there is wokism – I don’t have a better term for it at the moment. It’s about what is being spread by the social media at will. An expressed opinion is enough to be credible and taken seriously – regardless of how much theological expertise or knowledge of the history of ecumenism the author has, or whether that person has institutional responsibility. It is an ecumenism of the ‘here and now or never.’ A position taken on a particular event or a decision is understood as a decision of an absolute nature; this evaluation is made without situating it in a context or in history. If a position contradicts the liberal view of ecumenism, then ecumenism is simply dead. The point of reference is not the discussion from which that position emerged, but the meaning of that position in comparison to the absolute ideal of ecumenism. The disintegration is the result of a snapshot of an idea. This form is widespread in our European and western context.
Thirdly, there is denominationalism. In many church circles throughout the world, only confessional interpretations can reflect the opinion of the church and especially of other churches. Dogmatic primacy takes precedence over the call to unity, which presupposes self-critical reflection and the conviction that other traditions have something of divine truth that I lack. Denominational hardening is particularly noticeable here between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. At home in Europe, it is noticeable within each denomination – between different currents that fight against each other intensely and are not able to place the unity of their own church in the forefront. These internal fault lines also limit the scope of the ecumenical vision.
All of these challenges will also be part of the conversations we will have in the hallways and in plenary at the WCC assembly in Karlsruhe in September.