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The Ecumenical Monologues

Randall Balmer (Professor, Columbia University)

This essay was published originally at

photo of Dr. Randall BalmerA 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.

The God Box

The lecture at Luther Seminary was not my first foray into the topic of ecumenism. In the early 1990s, shortly after I had published an ethnographic study of American evangelicalism, David Heim from The Christian Century called to ask if I would be interested in revisiting the twelve Protestant congregations that the magazine had designated "great churches" in 1950. My articles appeared serially in the Century, and at the conclusion of the assignment I drafted a kind of epilogue, reflecting on my travels along the mainline of American Protestantism. In most of the articles I had struggled to present the glass as half full rather than half empty, and I employed that very image in the epilogue.

But honesty compelled me to reflect as well on the failures of mainline Protestantism and the ecumenical movement. I chose as a metaphor the building that stands just across the street from my office window, the Interchurch Center, better known as the "God Box." After the formation of the National Council of Churches (NCC) during a snowstorm in Cleveland in November 1949, Protestant leaders talked about a building that could house the offices of mainline Protestant denominations as well as the National Council of Churches and its affiliated organizations. There was nothing wrong with such an idea, and Protestant leaders at the time were enamored of corporate models of organization, so it is not surprising that they would want a structure that looked and functioned like a corporate office building.

The venue, however, was another matter. Protestants across the country – including the editors of the Century – pleaded with NCC leaders to locate the building somewhere other than Manhattan, arguably the most provincial place in America. One reader even suggested Manhattan, Kansas, if mainline Protestantism was sincere about locating near, in the Century’s words, "the psychological center of its constituency to insure the maximum response to its leadership."

Not only did mainline Protestant leaders ignore those entreaties in choosing the site on the Upper West Side, they constructed a building whose International-style architecture – unwittingly, I’m sure – came to symbolize the theology coming out of the ecumenical movement. Cold and lifeless, without historical reference, and so careful not to offend that its very blandness became an affront. Even in a neighborhood of undistinguished and largely derivative architecture, the Interchurch Center stands out as the worst of a bad lot. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, never known for his aesthetic discrimination, showed up to lay the cornerstone for the God Box on October 12, 1958, offering paeans to Protestantism’s importance in defining the American way of life.

Eisenhower’s remarks point to another determining influence for the Protestant ecumenism in the latter half of the twentieth century: the Cold War. The United States in the 1950s was engaged in a titanic ideological struggle with the evils of Communism. We Americans had to present a united front. A kind of pan-Protestantism was ideal or, failing that, the Protestant, Catholic, Jew formulation that Will Herberg articulated in 1955 – with all three traditions eliding their distinctiveness in favor of white and middle-class Americanness.

A Crack in the Cornerstone

The Christian Century politely declined to publish my reflections on mainline Protestantism and its ill-fated alliance with ecumenism – sellout, really – but I included it in the epilogue to Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism together with one final observation about the God Box as a metaphor for the failures of ecumenism. "The decline of mainline Protestantism over the past four decades represents the failure of an ambitious, even noble, vision," I wrote; "the dream of ecumenical Protestantism ultimately collapsed beneath its own weight, beneath the burdens of ambition, arrogance, and pretension." I closed with a rhetorical question, wondering if we should read any significance into the fact that a large crack now runs diagonally through the cornerstone that Eisenhower laid in 1958.

Tough words. I acknowledge that. But the arguments were neither flippant nor condescending, and I hoped those words might trigger a serious and long-overdue discussion about the merits of ecumenism. Perhaps the National Council of Churches would organize a conference around a snappy title like "Ecumenism: A Fifty-year Retrospective" or "The Ecumenical Movement: What Have We Gained? What Have We Lost?" As the weeks and months went by, however, I’d have been content with a roundtable discussion or even a mild reprimand from some mid-level NCC bureaucrat, but no one in the God Box seemed to be interested in "dialoguing" with anyone who had the temerity to question the shibboleths of ecumenism.

How did the Interchurch Center respond? As God is my witness, they dispatched a mason to the corner of 120th Street and Riverside Drive to patch the crack in Eisenhower’s cornerstone. You can’t make this up!

* * *

As I stood in front of the Disgruntled Lutherans in Minnesota, I had still another reason to oppose ecumenism. I had become convinced in the preceding months that ecumenism was wrong for cultural reasons as well as theological reasons. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 and the arrival of immigrants, especially from South Asia and Southeast Asia, the United States has become, for the first time in its history, a truly pluralistic society. As these immigrants have altered the religious landscape of North America – Buddhist and Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, Islamic Centers – they have also taught us something about how to function in a pluralistic context. Like evangelicals throughout American history, the new immigrants were unapologetic about their faith; I’ve yet to hear a New York cabbie concede, "Yes, I’m a Sikh, but I also have a lot to learn from those Presbyterians." Immigrants have demonstrated the importance of particularity in a pluralistic context. The melting pot metaphor is hopelessly passé, even anachronistic, at the turn of the twenty-first century. Postmodernism means many things to many people, but it almost certainly affirms the importance of clinging to the life raft of identity and definition amid the seas of multiculturalism.

Finally, as a historian of religion in America, I’d observed long ago that the most successful religious movements in American history (success being defined, roughly, as transformative power both within and beyond their communities as well as numerical strength) have been exclusive rather than inclusive. The Mormons come to mind, as do nineteenth-century Methodists and twentieth-century pentecostals, to cite only a few examples. Americans look for definition in religion (if not in politics, but that is another matter), yet the denominations associated with mainline Protestantism suffer appallingly from a lack of definition.

In short, I had come to believe that ecumenism was not only misguided theologically, it was also tone-deaf to the culture. While there may be virtue in defining oneself against the culture, mainline Protestantism cannot avoid the consequences. "If mainline Protestants insist on pursuing this course," I wrote in Grant Us Courage, "they must reconcile themselves to the fact that they will never regain the influence they had over American religion and culture in the mid-1960s, much less in 1950."

Purple Shirts

The Disgruntled Lutherans in Minnesota were especially restive because the proposed Concordat between the ELCA and the Episcopalians included an affirmation of the historic episcopate. Whereas bishops are elected in both denominations, they serve essentially as administrators in the ELCA and for a fixed term, whereas the Episcopalians invoke the doctrine of apostolic succession. The terms for implementing the Concordat make the tax code read like a nursery rhyme, but the bottom line is that future ordinations would be considered valid only when administered by a bishop.

The Disgruntled Lutherans protested, rightly, that this provision undermined one of the foundations of Lutheran theology: the priesthood of believers. Already, they alleged, some of the ELCA bishops (who overwhelmingly supported the Concordat) had taken on airs, demanding deference and even wearing purple shirts. (Having grown up as an evangelical, the first time I saw a cleric wearing a purple shirt I thought it was simply poor sartorial taste.) The Disgruntled Lutherans claimed that, especially on this issue of apostolic succession but also in the overall Concordat, the Lutherans had capitulated entirely to the Episcopalians – and received little, or nothing, in return.

Indeed, in studying the document, I was inclined to agree. Some weeks later, when I had occasion to discuss the Concordat with J. Robert Wright, a professor at General Theological Seminary and one of the principal negotiators for the Episcopalians, I offered my impression that the Episcopalians had eaten the Lutherans’ lunch. Wright’s entire countenance glowed with a broad, Cheshire-like grin, but he declined to comment.

My final observation to the Disgruntled Lutherans was that unity with the Episcopalians was not only theologically suspect and culturally inept, it was tactically foolish. Why would the Lutherans want to climb aboard a sinking ship? If they were looking for buoyancy amid rough ecclesiastical waters, they should tether themselves to a steadier vessel than the Episcopal church.

What if They Gave a War?

One thing led to another after this gathering. A summary of my remarks apparently was posted on the Internet, several reporters called as the Lutherans neared a vote on whether to approve the Concordat, and The New York Times asked me to do an op-ed piece on the topic of ecumenism. Now, finally, I thought, we were approaching a full-fledged discussion of the issue. Once again, I was wrong, and I began to wonder if the ecumenists had succeeded precisely because of the widespread indifference toward the matter. Perhaps ecumenism had progressed (or regressed) as far as it did because no one (other than denominational bureaucrats) cared – and those who did care had long ago deserted the ranks of mainline Protestantism because of its theological aridity. The result was a variant on the old antiwar slogan, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" In this case: "Suppose we succeed in eradicating our theological differences – and in the process we come up with a common set of principles so innocuous that no one is around to appreciate our diplomatic triumph?"

After the op-ed piece appeared late in August last year, I received an e-mail from an old friend from college days who now works for the ELCA offices in Chicago. He upbraided me for criticizing ecumenism and characterized me as a petulant, kneejerk fundamentalist. Nothing could be farther from the truth, I assured him. I cared deeply about the future of mainline Protestantism, but I was convinced it was careening down a dead end. I even ventured that, rather than impugn my character, a more fruitful course might be to set up a meeting with church leaders so we could discuss the matter. My friend agreed to see what he could do and get back to me. So far, I’ve heard nothing.

Another friend, whom I had met when the two of us served on a diocesan committee a couple of years ago, arranged a debate on ecumenism during the adult forum hour at a local parish. My sparring partner was a seminary professor (who shall remain nameless). He steadfastly refused to engage the substance of my objections to ecumenism, however. His debating strategy seemed to consist of associating me with the Disgruntled Lutherans in Minnesota, and when I suggested that Jesus’ words in John 17 should be read eschatologically – that Christians will not all be one in this world any more than the meek will inherit the earth – he responded with a breathtaking exegetical non sequitur: If I believed that, he said, then I must also interpret eschatologically Jesus’ injunctions to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

* * *

And so it goes. I’ve come reluctantly to the conclusion that the very people so intent on "dialoguing" with one another have no interest in engaging their critics – even friendly critics, who mean to be constructive. Not that anyone has asked, but I believe that individual Protestant denominations should undertake a massive effort to educate themselves about their own traditions. Methodist laity should be introduced to John Wesley, as well as to Richard Allen, Phoebe Palmer, and Frances Willard. Presbyterians should learn something about the Westminster Standards and the significance of the Auburn Affirmation. Episcopalians should be able to recognize Thomas Cranmer and George Whitefield as well as Dennis Bennett and Barbara Harris. How many Congregationalists know that they are direct, lineal descendants of the Puritans?

The past is by no means an infallible guide to the future, but it provides a lodestar for navigating the shoals of pluralism. Americans are yearning for theological definition, even denominational identity, not ecumenism.

In the meantime, however, the ecumenical movement continues apace and mainline Protestantism continues to founder. No one has persuaded me that these two phenomena are unrelated – but then again, nobody’s talking.

Randall Balmer is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. His most recent book is Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Beacon).