If we define “ecumenical” in the classical sense, that is, as the attempt by a variety of major church denominations to become “one” in theology and, by that theological unity, to move steps closer toward structural unity with a goal of making the Church entirely one, we are prepared also to claim that the Emergent movement is not ecumenical in that sense. We are then prepared to say that the ecumenical nature of the Emergent movement is not ecclesiastical. Ecclesiastical unity is about reducing theological tenets until we come to the bottom of what we “all” agree on. The 20th Century proved that quest less fruitful than the quest for the historical Jesus.
In part Emergent non-ecclesiastical ecumenism is because the Emergent movement is so grass roots, so local in color, so particular in missional, and a lot of other things along with these, that it really has no interest in the structural, ecclesiastical unity so characteristic of the aims of the classical ecumenical movement. Nor is it absorbed in seeking unity through theological confessional statements (though there are clear theological underpinnings). Missional and community are the operative words here.
But, are there other senses of “ecumenical” that might apply? Are there other senses that lead some to suggest that the Emergent movement might be called post-Evangelical ecumenism?
Let me try on one idea: my experience of the Emergent folk is that they are ecumenical in the sense of “affirmation” and in the sense of “catholic,” but they tend to think that catholicity of the Church is to be found missionally rather than creedally. They affirm that the Church, ultimately, is one, that the Church has existed for 2000 years (or so) and that they want to appreciate the whole Church and the entire history of the Church and they want to carry that Church missionally into our world – wherever that might be. Here, one may profitably learn from the impulses and teaching and suggestions and (not to forget) the provocations of Robert Webber, say in his “The Younger Evangelicals.” Brian McLaren seems to approach this sense when he lets that long banner of names unfurl in his subtitle – except he doesn’t say he is “ecumenical.” I haven’t spoken with him about this, but I’m guessing because he knows that “ecumenical” normally refers to the “ecclesiastical” sort outlined above.
Sometimes Emergent folk affirm classical creeds. But, creedal affirmation is not to be identified with ecumenical. From what I see in the Emergent movement, affirming or reciting the classical creeds – Nicene, Chalcedonian, et al – is not so much about laying down firm boundary lines but affirming continuity with the historic traditions of the Church and saying something like this: “this is what our heritage believed, and we stand on their shoulders, and are reaching into our world from their shoulders, and our reaching will transcend their affirmations as it will be guided by them.”
Yet, I find even these tentative suggestions incomplete because what I find is not so much “here is what we can reduce the faith to” but “here is what we like about many of our ancestors in the faith.” In other words, we can’t be surprised to learn that some Emergent folk will recite creeds, and some might just have a few icons, and some might have candles, and some might have colors celebrating the Church calendar, and some might … you can see where I am going.
The point here is that Emergent folk are “eclectic” in their ecumenism rather than “ecclesiastical” and what I like most about this is that it is not a power play to get everyone agreed on something but a living celebration of the entirety of Church history, the diversity of its faith, and the sheer glory of its manifoldness. One of my favorite colleagues at Trinity, now the President at Biblical Theological Seminary in Philly, was David Dunbar. In one of his sermons he said this: “we are united by life not by light.” Life in Christ rather than the light of what we can articulate – in Christ we are one. And there are a lot of us inside that circle and celebrating that manifoldness is a good thing – and takes us farther down the road than the official ecumenical movement ever did and ever will (if it does not soon peter out).