“Conservative ecumenism” about Christian unity or politics?

The time has come to look beyond classical ecumenism vs. anti-ecumenism and to pay attention to the emergence since the late 20th century of conservative Christian alliances to defend traditional values. So writes Andrey Shishkov (Saints Cyril and Methodius Institute of the Moscow Patriarchate) in the opening article of an issue of Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (October) devoted to developments in ecumenical relations, with a special focus on the Orthodox world. Last year Shishkov had already developed such views in an article translated into English, “Two Ecumenisms: Conservative Christian Alliances as a New Form of Ecumenical Cooperation” (State, Religion and Church, 4(2), 2017, available online). The key issue is to assess if those alliances can be seen as an expression of ecumenism, understood as a movement toward Christian unity, and not merely as cooperation between Christians. According to Shishkov, while the understanding of ecumenism as a movement toward Christian unity became normative in the 1960s and 1970s, there are other ways to understand such unity, more in the direction of a common witness and practical, interconfessional efforts.

In fact, writes Shishkov, faced with the non-fulfillment of hopes of reaching visible unity within a foreseeable future, views of an interconfessional ecumenism have become dominant within the ecumenical movement since the 1990s. But while classical ecumenism tended politically to the liberal side, conservative ecumenism leans toward the political right. In contrast with anti-ecumenists, who tend to see their own confessional views as the only valid Christianity, conservative ecumenists acknowledge the existence of Christians beyond their own confessional borders. On the other hand, in contrast with classical ecumenists, their goal is not sharing a common Eucharist. They rather see themselves as engaged together in a common culture-war front—whatever dogmatic differences there may be—and not in a struggle for a purity of faith. An example would be the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, and more generally the pro-life movements. Other contributors to the issue agree that Shishkov identifies some real developments, but dispute that the label of “conservative ecumenism” is appropriate for describing conservative Christian alliances that are rather of a political and cultural nature, raising questions about how one defines what ecumenism is.

They suggest that describing classical ecumenism as a whole as “progressive” and “liberal” is an oversimplification, that one cannot reduce ecumenism to a search for organizational unity, and that classical ecumenism cannot be limited to the World Council of Churches (WCC). Regina Elsner (Center for East European and International Studies, Berlin) writes that the search for unity has always gone along with practical efforts. She adds that ecumenism describes a variety of attitudes and is used with different nuances in different languages, and that one can question if every interconfessional activity should be described as “ecumenical.” Moreover, she notes that supporters of what Shishkov calls “conservative ecumenism” tend to avoid describing themselves as “ecumenists,” if only for fear of irritating anti-ecumenists in their own churches who might otherwise support some of their efforts to promote conservative values. Using the expression  “conservative ecumenism” as a label for conservative Christian alliances forgets the ecclesiological core of ecumenism that cannot be reduced to conservative and liberal categories. “Christian civilization” and “Christian moral values” are not sufficient for an ecclesiological foundation, stresses Jennifer Wasmuth (Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strasbourg). From a slightly different angle, Will Cohen (University of Scranton) writes that none of the three “camps” are free from political factors, but also that none of them can be merely described as politics masquerading as theology.