Receptive Ecumenism and the Reconstruction of Christian Identity in Christian Higher Education
Steven R. Harmon

F ourteen years ago, the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University sponsored a conference titled “Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community.” Part of its impetus was conflict—both internal and external—over Baylor’s institutional vision for becoming a top-tier research university while strengthening its Christian identity through the interdisciplinary integration of faith and learning.

In my paper for that conference, I noted that numerous other universities with historic church-related ties faced similar skirmishes over Christian identity. Many faculty members at such institutions, I suggested, had “had the experience of discussing religious matters at lunch with fellow faculty members from various departments or schools and realizing during a less-than-cordial turn in the conversation that the cross-disciplinary integration of faith and learning in their own institution would be rough going indeed.” I attributed this to three factors. First, faculty members had experienced the theological-political polarization of their denominations and weren’t eager for these battles to be re-enacted on their campuses. Second, the politicization of academic disciplines and professional fields in relation to the American “culture wars” had been met with conflicting claims about the positions Christians ought to take in those conflicts. Third, religious studies faculty are formed by an academic theological education as well as by the church, while faculty in other disciplines have a theological formation primarily from church and para-church contexts; this had sometimes led to mutual suspicion of one another’s theological perspectives. These factors coalesced into an aversion to the intellectual conflict that might arise from efforts at transdisciplinary theological engagement.

Moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre proposes some helpful ways to regard the contested character of a community’s tradition. In his book After Virtue, he defined “a living tradition” as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” If a tradition doesn’t embody this continuity of conflict, he writes, “it is always dying or dead.”[2] 

In 2004, I argued that MacIntyre’s understanding of traditioned rationality and the necessary conflict it entails has much potential for overcoming the aforementioned obstacles to a robust reclamation of Christian institutional identity. I continue to believe that this is an immensely helpful way to frame the Christian identity of a Christian university. A Christian university need not be—and perhaps ought not to be—a place that advocates for particular positions on the range of matters currently dividing the American body politic and churches alike. But it can and should be a place where these issues are earnestly contested by Christians who disagree about them. Such contestation is not an end in itself, but rather a means of moving together toward a deeper understanding of God’s truth and how we should live in light of it.

That is also an approach to Christian institutional identity that makes for a robust and receptive ecumenism, though I didn’t use that terminology in 2004. I did recognize back then that the ecumenical diversity of most Christian university faculties was a resource for making Christian faith foundational for intellectual community. In my paper I wrote, “The encounter, and even conflict, of multiple denominational traditions in the Christian university is beneficial both to the sponsoring tradition [institution] and to the Church catholic: it requires that our story be genuinely contested.”[3] Now I return to that sentence as a point of departure for developing the theme of our conference.

As an ecumenical theologian, I now recognize that the ecumenical diversity of Christian university faculties is not only a resource for making Christian faith foundational for intellectual community; the ecumenical diversity of Christian university faculties, student bodies, and broader constituencies is a resource both for the participation of the divided church in the quest for the unity Christ prayed for his followers. This is not an end in itself, but a means by which the church participates in the mission of God to draw all creation toward the full realization of God’s creative purposes. It is also a resource for the participation of Christian universities themselves in this quest of the church in relation to the divine mission.

A couple of things that have changed since I first made connections between Christian higher education and ecumenical encounter a decade and a half ago, both in my own work and in the larger context in which we’re thinking about the identity of Christian universities. My contribution to the faith-and-learning conversation in the mid-2000s came during a shift in the focus of my work. My early research and writing had focused on patristic theology, the thought of theologians in the first few centuries of the church. I was one of the relatively few Baptist scholars then doing work in that field (that tribe has since increased). This led to invitations from the Baptist World Alliance, the world communion for Baptists, to serve on delegations to international ecumenical dialogues with other Christian communions for which the patristic theological tradition has significance. A few months before the 2004 Baylor conference, I had my first experience of ecumenical dialogue as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to the North American phase of the bilateral dialogue between the BWA and the Anglican Communion. During my participation, I realized that all other aspects of my theological work seemed oriented toward and fulfilled in this ecumenical task of theology in the service of the divided church. I recognized this as a calling within my vocation to a ministry of theological education, and soon I had other opportunities to participate in ecumenical dialogue: including dialogues between the BWA and the Catholic Church, in preliminary conversations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and as the BWA representative to the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order. Most of my writing since then has focused on ecumenical theology. Through that work I’ve developed some perspectives on ecumenism that may help us to conceive of Christian universities as places of robust and receptive ecumenical encounter. First, though, some history about the modern ecumenical movement will provide clarity and context.

It’s no accident that the nineteenth-century beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement coincided with the beginnings of the modern missions movement. The missionaries quickly concluded that taking a divided Christianity to the mission field scandalized their witness for Christ, and some of them issued the earliest modern calls for ecumenical convergence. One such call came from William Carey, a Baptist missionary to India. In 1806 Carey proposed that “a general association of all denominations of Christians from the four quarters of the earth” meet each decade at the Cape of Good Hope. Carey’s dream was realized in part a century later by the 1910 World Missionary Conference, which gave birth to the International Missionary Conference in 1921. These gatherings were initially limited to Protestants, but they served as the nucleus for what became the primary institutional expression of the worldwide ecumenical movement.

One of the speakers at the 1910 World Missionary Conference was Bishop Charles Brent, an Episcopal missionary to the Philippines from the United States. Brent urged conference participants not to be content with merely seeking greater cooperation in missions among the denominations, since visible unity would require that divisive issues of doctrine and church order be addressed. He called for creating an international commission devoted to studying the matters of faith and order that presently divided the churches, and he personally made this proposal to representatives of the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the various Protestant communions. In 1927 a World Conference on Faith and Order held its initial meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, with representatives of all major Christian communions, including the Orthodox, but with the exception of the Catholic Church. Two years earlier, the Conference on Life and Work had been founded in Stockholm to seek worldwide cooperation between the churches in addressing social issues in the wake of the industrial revolution and the First World War.

Cooperation in mission, joint work on doctrine and church order, and solidarity in social action—these three complementary expressions of the worldwide ecumenical movement ultimately coalesced in a unified institutional embodiment of the quest for Christian unity. In 1948 the Life and Work and Faith and Order movements joined to form the World Council of Churches, and in 1961 the International Missionary Conference also merged into the WCC. The ecumenical movement has been its healthiest when these three emphases—mission, doctrine, and social justice—have gone hand in hand. It’s suffered whenever any one of those emphases has dominated to the neglect of the others.

In 1961, the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi issued what is now regarded as the classic definition of the visible unity sought by the ecumenical movement:

We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and [God’s] gift to [God’s] Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully-committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in
common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such ways that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls [God’s] people.[4]

The New Delhi definition is now commonly embraced as the best concise explanation of the ecumenical movement’s goal. It imagines what the destination might look like rather than providing a roadmap for getting there. There are no voices asking from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” because everyone in the car knows that we’ve not yet seen that place.

Since the New Delhi Assembly, its goal of visible unity has become both more plausibly near and more seemingly distant. On the one hand, the ecumenical movement has perhaps enjoyed greater successes within a shorter timeline than its framers may have imagined possible. The Second Vatican Council marked the full entry of the largest global communion of Christians, the Catholic Church, into the modern ecumenical movement and its institutional instruments. In 1982 the WCC Faith and Order Commission issued a convergence statement on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. It was the fruit of fifty years of multilateral work on Faith and Order, shaped by input from representatives of all Christian communions. It commended two legitimate patterns for uniting baptism, personal faith, and Christian formation in a way that has encouraged much progress toward mutual baptismal recognition, between churches that baptize only those who have embraced the faith of their own volition and churches that also baptize infants whom the church nurtures in faith.

The most exciting outcome of the bilateral dialogues is the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification ratified by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church on October 31 that year. This fundamental consensus on the doctrine of justification, with remaining differences understood as not imperiling this consensus, became a multilateral consensus in 2006, when it was joined by the World Methodist Council. In 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, both the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Anglican Communion also joined the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. There remain other church-dividing issues, but the very doctrine that divided the Western church in the sixteenth century is no longer one of them. Justification as the gracious work by which God accepts us as righteous and makes us righteous may now be considered an ecumenically shared doctrine.

The ecumenical movement has enjoyed great successes, but we’re also in the midst of what many ecumenists have called an “ecumenical winter.” There are many reasons for this, but I’ll name four. First, the denominations that historically led the ecumenical movement have now had to turn their energies to their own worsening internal divisions. Second, there’s what Presbyterian ecumenist Joseph Small has called “the scandal of a division that ceases to offend.” It just doesn’t bother us anymore that we don’t have visible unity with other Christians. We already have spiritual unity, and that’s good enough for us. Third, in this world of worsening religiously-motivated violence, interreligious dialogue seems the more urgent endeavor. Working to increase mutual understanding among the religions is desperately needed if we’re to help the world toward God’s goal of community, but our own Christian disunity makes that much more difficult. And fourth, ecumenism has long been perceived as something that concerned only theologians and those at the highest levels of church and denominational leadership. Unfortunately, we haven’t always done a good job of helping Christians at the grassroots to understand that they, too, have a stake in the ecumenical movement and are in fact its most important participants. Participants in this conference can do something about that fourth factor, for our institutions are places where grassroots Christianity intersects with the theological academy and denominational leadership.

How can we progress further along the road that leads to the visible unity for which our Lord prayed—the place where we are one as Jesus and the Father are one, that the world might believe? It’s clear that the merger of all churches and denominations into a “super church” is not the way forward, nor is a paradigm of “home to ____” (fill in the blank with your own church thought to be the true one; “Rome” isn’t the only way that blank has been filled). It’s also clear that a “thin ecumenism,” one that reduces the basis for visible unity to a lowest-common-denominator Christian identity, does not span the chasm between our current reality and a visible Christian unity. But there is a growing recognition that the best means of navigating this journey is a counter-intuitive one: rather than a “thin” ecumenism that views difference as an unfortunate obstacle to unity that ought to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, the way forward is a “thick” ecumenism that takes difference seriously and embraces difference as a means toward unity. A thick ecumenism is, in other words, a robust ecumenism. It goes deep within our divided traditions both to find our connections to a larger, shared tradition and to appreciate the distinctive, historically conditioned separate journeys that are the bearers of the unique ecclesial gifts that each tradition has to offer the whole church as resources for renewal toward unity.

A recent “robust” ecumenical paradigm that takes difference seriously is “receptive ecumenism.” In receptive ecumenism, communions in conversation with one another seek to identify distinctive gifts that each tradition has to offer the other and gifts that each could receive from the other with integrity. It’s reflected in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (“that they may be one”), which said, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some ways it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’.”

Some ecumenical dialogues, like the one between the Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council, have worked toward concrete proposals for the exchange of ecclesial gifts. Yet as an international conference on receptive ecumenism held at Durham University in 2006 defined this approach, “the primary emphasis is on learning rather than teaching....each tradition takes responsibility for its own potential learning from others and is, in turn, willing to facilitate the learning of others as requested but without dictating terms and without making others’ learning a precondition to attending to ones’ own.”

In many respects, receptive ecumenism is  a more user-friendly approach to ecumenism for churches that haven’t yet been active participants in the ecumenical movement. It assumes that because each tradition has been entrusted with a unique historical journey as a people of God, it possesses distinctive gifts to be offered to the rest of the body of Christ. It also suggests the possibility that any tradition can incorporate the gifts of others into its own distinctive pattern of faith and practice without abandoning or distorting the gifts that already define its identity.

As an intentional approach to ecumenical convergence, receptive ecumenism is a new thing—but it has a long history. Look at your hymnal or book of worship, for instance. I’ve never sung from a Baptist hymnal in which all the hymns were composed by Baptists. Most Baptist hymnals include multiple hymn texts from the ancient church. Beyond these hymns, Baptists receive through their hymnals the liturgical gifts of hymn texts by Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Jesus from the pre-Reformation medieval church; the fifteenth-century Jewish hymn “The God of Abraham Praise” by Daniel ben Judah Dayyan; the hymns and chorales of Martin Luther; the post-Reformation Catholic hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” from the Münster Gesangbuch; the hymnody of Methodist Charles Wesley; and more recently songs with origins in the Pentecostal movement. These ecclesial gifts from other traditions Baptists have gladly received with their voices and hearts in a well-established form of receptive ecumenism. Other churches have been doing that for a long time, too.

My Baptist tradition has also benefited from the trans-denominational liturgical renewal of the late twentieth century, and today a growing number of Baptist congregations have incorporated other liturgical gifts from beyond the Baptist tradition into their worship: the full Christian year and the liturgical colors that accompany its seasons, the lectionary, the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and processions with palm fronds at the start of Holy Week, and even incense and icons here and there. The same kind of thing has been happening in other churches, from non-denominational and Pentecostal fellowships to the more self-consciously liturgical churches whose liturgies have been mutually enriched by this trans-denominational liturgical renewal.

There is also a receptive ecumenism that belongs to the sphere of personal piety. Many younger Christians across the denominational spectrum have a keen interest in spirituality, and they’re drawn to the practice of spiritual disciplines that originated in churches other than their own. These same younger Christians, along with some more mature ones, are taking up practices that are new to them and their churches, such as meditating on Scripture according to the pattern of Lectio Divina, walking labyrinths, using the sign of the cross as an embodied act of personal devotion, and experimenting with praying the Rosary and using Orthodox chotkis to pray the Jesus Prayer.

In various ways, all our churches have received gifts from other traditions through an ecumenism of the confession of faith, of the sanctuary and the hymnal, of the seminary classroom and pastor’s study, and of personal devotion. We’ve received these gifts from the church in its catholicity along with other Christians and, more directly, from other Christians in a contemporary convergence toward our common catholicity. The more we receive these gifts from each other, the more we become like each other and the less church-dividing our differences become. When we do this over a long period of time, led by the Spirit, visible unity naturally begins to happen.

Another change since 2004 is the complex of challenges facing Christian higher education in America. In addition to the current fiscal and enrollment challenges generally shared by private liberal arts colleges, there are particular pressures related to cultivating a constituency to populate our student bodies. These affect our respective institutions in different ways; the anecdotal circumstances of my own institution may apply elsewhere, as well.

Gardner-Webb University is a church-related university in North Carolina, about an hour’s drive west of Charlotte, an hour and a half east of Asheville, and an hour north of Greenville, South Carolina. Our historic relationship is to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, a relationship that is now voluntary; along with other Baptist State Convention-related universities in North Carolina, in the 2000s we re-negotiated our relationship so that we now have a self-perpetuating board of trustees and thus are not owned or operated by the Convention. We are beginning to experience the effects of what I call the cultural mainstreaming of evangelical fundamentalism (and by “fundamentalism” I don’t mean the neo-evangelical descendants of the conservative pole in the early twentieth century fundamentalist-modernist controversy, but rather their ultra-conservative cousins who would likely regard the comparatively broad-minded and intellectually sophisticated authors of “The Fundamentals” tracts—among whom were theistic evolutionists like B. B. Warfield—as liberals).

Not too many years ago, when mainline Protestantism was still culturally ascendant nationally, and in my regional context when a more moderate instantiation of the Southern Baptist Convention still prevailed, Baptist parents who wanted their children to have a Christian higher education encouraged their children to attend institutions like Gardner-Webb. An institution like the one in the state to our north that recently encouraged its students to obtain concealed handgun permits and bused 300 students to Washington, D.C. to support a beleaguered Supreme Court nominee once would have been considered appropriate for the progeny of folk out on the fringes, but not for the kids of respectable Baptist parents. Now parents in our region who want a Christian higher education for their children think first of the institution I did not name, while more progressive Baptist parents increasingly tend to send their kids to state universities and non-church-related private universities rather than a place like Gardner-Webb. The cultural mainstreaming of fundamentalism has left institutions like Gardner-Webb occupying a disappearing niche in higher education.

A not-unrelated challenge has to do with increasingly negative perceptions of Christianity in American society. One segment of the American church is saddled with its overwhelming support for a president whose policies and character contradict core Christian commitments, and another segment of the American church is coping with an ever-more-horrifying clergy sex abuse scandal—a scandal that overshadows similar but lower-profile scandals in other ecclesial communions, including my own. (I have no desire to recover some bygone cultural establishment of Christianity as the cure for what ails Christian higher education. We’re experiencing the sharpening of the cultural disestablishment of Christianity that Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon addressed back in 1989 in their book Resident Aliens. Along with Hauerwas and Willimon, I welcome cultural disestablishment as an opportunity for the church to become a more fully Christian countercultural community.) The Christian identity of our institutions needs some serious reconstruction. We cannot take up this task unless we do so together, ecumenically—within our institutions as places of receptive ecumenical encounter, and in ecumenical cooperation with one another’s institutions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a former member of the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order, once declared that “Apartheid is too strong for the divided churches.” So are these challenges facing Christian higher education.

A recent book by fellow Baptist theologian Elizabeth Newman points to the necessity of receptive ecumenism for the renewal of Christian higher education. Divine Abundance: Leisure, the Basis of Academic Culture (Cascade Books, 2018) alludes in its subtitle to Josef Pieper’s 1948 book Leisure, the Basis of Culture. If you are familiar with the latter book, you know that neither Pieper nor Newman are calling for us simply to have more spare time for thinking great thoughts. I call attention to an ecumenical application that she makes toward the end of the book’s final chapter:

[D]ivision in the church…has contributed to the disengaged academy. Stated differently, a crisis in friendship…has made it more difficult for the academy to see how leisure is the basis of its culture. This reality suggests that recovering ecclesial friendship is crucial for a renewal of academic leisure.[5]

Newman draws on Brad Gregory’s work in The Unintended Reformation to show how Catholic and Protestant theologians turned to anti-Protestant and anti-Catholic polemics that separated theology from the rest of the university disciplines
in their quest for knowledge and made theology relevant only insofar as it was useful for something like refuting the arguments of one’s opponents, she echoes James Burtchaell in insisting that “academic renewal calls for an ecumenical effort by discovering how healing elements within different traditions might renew the whole.” She continues,

[S]uch renewal is not only about discovering elements in another communion and taking them as incentives for self-renewal; it is also more fully about being open to being drawn into communion with others through Divine Wisdom even in the midst of brokenness….And the renewal of leisure strengthens friendship by rooting it more fully in a shared reception of the gifts that God desires to give and that are, in a sense, already present….If love and knowledge reciprocally nourish one another…then friendship across ecclesial division becomes a key way of realizing
divine abundance in the academy and moving toward leisure as its true basis.[6]

What Newman is writing about is robust and receptive ecumenism, which can enable us to receive from the different traditions resources we need for reconstructing Christian identity in Christian higher education.

Neither the visible unity of the church nor the renewal of Christian higher education is an end in itself. They participate in the bigger thing that God is doing from creation through consummation. This is the final paragraph in Divine Abundance:

Rightly understood, the challenge today is not how to get God back into the academy. It is rather how to become persons capable of seeking and listening to God in all places. This would be an impossible task if it were not for the gift of friendship, most fully the Friendship of God. Such Divine Friendship…identifies how God, the source of all that is, desires communion with all of creation. It is only in light of this cosmic logic that leisure as the basis of academic culture makes sense. Such Divine Abundance opens the academy up to a Mystery so rich, so illuminating, and so profound that it exceeds human understanding even as it is the beginning of wisdom.[7]

I hope that continued reflection on our conference theme “Robust and Receptive Ecumenism” will help us receive the gift of ecclesial friendship, sourced in the Friendship of God, that our institutions might participate in God’s goal of drawing all creation into communion with God.



Steven R. Harmon is associate professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity. This essay is adapted from his plenary address for the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Hope College, October 13, 2018.

[1] My conference paper, titled “Contesting Our Story: Tradition, Narrative, and Communal Conflict in the Postmodern Christian University,” had a subsequent life as “Communal Conflict in the Postmodern Christian University,” a chapter in Christianity and the Soul of the University (Baker Academic, 2006). An adaptation also appeared in my own book, Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Paternoster, 2006) as a chapter on Baptist-related institutions of Christian higher education.

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222.

[3]  See Harmon, “Communal Conflict in the Postmodern Christian University,” in Christianity and the Soul of the University (Baker Academic, 2006)., 142-43.

[4]  World Council of Churches, “Report of the Section on Unity,” in The New Delhi Report: The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1961 (Association Press, 1962), 116.

[5]  Elizabeth Newman, Divine Abundance: Leisure, the Basis of Academic Culture (Cascade Books, 2018), Kindle loc. 3942.

[6] Newman, Divine Abundance, Kindle loc. 4013.

[7] Newman, Divine Abundance, Kindle loc. 4060.


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