The Reunification Of Protestantism

This brief analysis of some of the major constituent elements of modern Protestantism raises an important question: might the denominations representing these elements settle their differences someday and form one large Protestant mega-church? The vision of a reunited Protestantism has captivated the imaginations of many Protestants, especially when the movement has felt itself to be under threat and in need of reaffirming its unity. Two threats in particular have brought home the importance of collaboration between the divergent Protestant groups.

In the West, the rise of secularism since the 1960s has brought home the need for Protestant unity in the face of this new threat. Secularism takes various forms: in the United Kingdom, secularism is basically an aspiration toward the elimination of any religious influence on public institutions; in the United States that aspiration takes the form of eliminating any religious presence in public institutions. In the face of this threat, increased collaboration between Protestants is to be expected. As we have constantly stressed in this work, "the other" is no longer Roman Catholicism but secularism. The threat of Catholicism once drew Protestants together; now the threat that predominantly catalyzes such collaboration and sets intra-Protestant differences in their proper perspective is the one coming from those opposed to religion.

A similar increase in cooperation among Protestants is occurring in the developing world, where there has also been a fundamental change in the identity of the "other" that is posing a common threat. Once it was Catholicism; now it is Islam, especially in its militant fundamentalist forms. Benjamin Franklin's famous quip at the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, has become a harsh reality for many Protestants: "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

These pressures might be expected to encourage denominational mergers. In fact, they have not, owing in part to widespread dissatisfaction in most parts of Protestantism with the most ambitious such ecumenical project to date—the World Council of Churches, headquartered in Geneva. The first assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in August 1948 in Amsterdam, was seen as a beacon of hope for postwar Europe.14 Its founders had no doubt that a landmark had been achieved in the history of Protestantism. The main Protestant churches had covenanted to work together and to stay together.

Yet when the time came to mark the World Council of Churches' golden jubilee in 1998, nobody felt there was all that much to celebrate. The group seemed to have lost its way, having fallen victim to institutional navel-gazing and become preoccupied with its closed circles of meetings, committees, reports, and publications. However noble its intentions, the organization had become bogged down in internal debates and ceased to play a credible role in bringing Protestants together. The beautiful princess had become a Cinderella. Yet this does not mean that Protestants have lost interest in each other or in working to deepen their unity. A different style of ecumenism has triumphed instead.

The new style of ecumenism that has swept through Protestantism since about 1990 is based on the grass roots of the movement, not its institutions. The World Council of Churches wanted "visible unity"— that is, either the uniting of denominations in a single global church or at least a reduction in the number of denominations through mergers.15 With the passing of time, it has become clear that this vision was quite unrealistic and failed to take seriously the realities of church life. What ordinary Protestants wanted was better working relationships with their fellow Christians of other denominations. They did not want their denomination to be swallowed up by someone else, nor did they want to take anyone else over. They just wanted to understand and get on with each other at both the individual and institutional levels.

In the United States, this grassroots ecumenism went further than anyone had expected. The election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 was seen by many Americans as marking the rise of secularism and hostility toward Christianity in the public arena. Though this turned out to be a misjudgment, the threat seemed real enough at the time. It persuaded some senior evangelical Protestants and Catholics that the time had come to do some serious talking.

It was an astonishing development. Could there be two more different groups? Yet there was enough shared ground to make this a positive and significant discussion. Both groups were conservative theologically. They certainly disagreed on a number of matters—such as the authority of the pope and whether there is a place called purgatory (and whether it matters). But they also shared certain core Christian beliefs, over and against a secular culture and a liberal bias in the mainline Protestant denominations.

What else, the leaders of this movement argued, could they do? They could refuse to have anything to do with each other on account of the continuing doctrinal disagreements associated with the agenda of the Reformation. Yet should feuds between Christians be allowed to help secularism win? A divided Christianity was simply a weakened Christianity. In the end, they agreed to collaborate with each other on a limited range of issues, while acknowledging that differences remained on others. The document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (1994) created a minor sensation. Many evangelicals and Roman Catholics were puzzled, and some outraged, that such discussions should be taking place at all. After all, the agenda of the Reformation remained and had not been resolved. So how could such collaboration be taking place?16

Since then, there has been a growing groundswell of support for collaboration between Roman Catholics and evangelicals while at the same time recognizing the doctrinal differences that remain between the two groups. In 1995 discussions began to bring Orthodox Christians into the collaborative networks that were being set up. It remains to be seen where this grassroots ecumenism leads in the future.

Protestants now find it easier to collaborate with each other than ever before, both in the West and in the developing world, as they huddle together for fellowship and mutual support in the face of real threats. Since neither secularism nor Islam seem likely to disappear in the foreseeable future, Protestantism can be expected to shrug off some of its historic debates and differences, in the interest of mutual survival.

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