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Whatever Became of the New Ecumenism?

by James Gibson

Was the “New Ecumenism” only a passing fancy or is it still awaiting its proper moment in which to come to full and glorious flower? Thomas C. Oden, Wesleyan scholar extraordinaire, seems to have been the first to coin the term and to identify its major components. He expanded on his thesis in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins 2002), a book which I reviewed favorably when it was released two years ago. Since that time, however, the term “New Ecumenism” as a description of the growing movement across all sectors of the Christian Church to rediscover and embrace ancient orthodoxy has largely been supplanted by the more trendy-sounding “Emerging Church.” Elder statesmen such as Oden and the equally prolific Robert Webber are respected by leaders of the emerging generation but many of them have, for better or worse, begun to chart a course which their forebears would not have envisioned.

Oden’s vision set forth in his aforementioned book was, in hindsight, overly optimistic about the future of mainline Protestant denominations. He is, after all, a permanent fixture and leading conservative voice in one such institution, the United Methodist Church. The emerging leaders among the people called Methodists, along with their evangelical counterparts in other branches of the faith, do not think of the church as an institution under the managerial stewardship of fallible human beings vulnerable to their own preferred agendas, but as a movement under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit of the living God whose only “agenda” is to draw all people to himself by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, as a recent article in Christianity Today makes clear, the emerging generation still has much to learn, particularly in terms of the nature, identity, and mission of the church and how to appropriate the evangelical message in the midst of a post-modern culture. The wisdom of the elders can be very helpful in this area. However, the paradigm shift from church as human institution to church as Spirit-led movement will probably never be fully accepted by the older generation.

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