As a continuation of my last post - “The End of Ecumenism?” - I now ask the question: If this is so, what’s next?
I suggest* that we will see the end of most of the official dialogues** - unofficial discussion will continue, of course - and a strategic retreat (or is it an advance?) to what I shall call “principled pluralism“, wherein each confession attends to its own house (heaven knows, we each have our burning issues, which are often the same issues!) and holds to its own confession as tenaciously as it can, while working together with other confessions in those res externa (external matters) where common witness can be given to the world and legitimate common objectives pursued without compromise of doctrine (thus “principled pluralism“). For example, life matters (the beginning and end of life questions) and other social questions could be addressed with common statements.
But, as stated, there would be no compromise on doctrinal matters, no mealy-mouthed language papering over substantial differences, but rather mutual respect in spite of such differences and a commitment to keep inter-Christian relations civil on all levels. In the midst of this, there might even be robust debates in the new media which could further the cause of doctrinal unity to a greater extent than the official dialogues have done to date.
There will be powerful forces working against this development initially, both within and without the churches. One could cite doctrinal indifference amongst the laity and clergy ambition within (the ecumenical movement has been a wonderful gravy train for ambitious theologians hoping to make a name for themselves - it was not for nothing that Luther remarked that "ambitious pastors are a pestilence in the church"), and secularism and the liberal agenda without, which will soon become intolerant of robust confession by the churches in the public space. We will also see the devolution of church bodies formed in the ecumenical-modernist era through mergers with insufficient doctrinal consensus (this is already happening), and possibly even the dissolution of centuries-old communions as they break upon the rocks of the liberal agenda (viz. Anglicanism). But, also, alliances will be formed across confessional boundaries because of a common commitment to fundamental articles of faith, e.g. authority of scripture, trinitarianism, justification.
At the end of this period, I suggest, paraphrasing Dr Sasse, it will be found that those church bodies which have held to their confessions (i.e. their doctrine) will actually be closer to each other than ever before, because closer to their Lord, their faith having been refined as if by fire.
* Of course, who really cares what I think! But permit me to indulge in this delusion of granduer for a moment and imagine that what I think matters ;0)
** Orthodox-Catholic dialogue may continue, although I believe papal primacy will be the sticking point on which neither side will budge.
[Pic courtesy OZinOhio http://www.flickr.com/photos/75905404@N00/with/3553235341/]