As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
It is not hyperbole to say that the Collegeville Institute would not be what it is today without the work and leadership of Rev. Dr. Robert S. Bilheimer. Bilheimer was a Presbyterian minister and, through his work with the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, and then as executive director of the Collegeville Institute, was a leading figure in the global ecumenical movement. Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, founder and president of the Collegeville Institute, credits Bilheimer as being a “second founder,” given his profound influence on the direction and trajectory of the institution.
Educated at Yale (B.A., 1939; M.Div., 1945), he began his ecumenical activity as executive secretary of the Interseminary Movement. From 1948 to 1954 he was program secretary of the New York office of the World Council of Churches while also minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
In 1948, Bilheimer was administrative secretary for the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, and held the chief organizing role for the Second Assembly (Evanston, 1954) and the Third (New Delhi, 1961). He was associate general secretary and director of the division of studies of the World Council in Geneva, Switzerland, during which time he accomplished special missions to Hungary (1956), South Africa (1960), and the USSR (1962).
Returning to the parish pastorate in 1963, he served as senior minister of Central Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, until he was called back to the ecumenical movement as director of the international affairs program of the National Council of Churches (1966-73) during the time of fierce debate about the Vietnam War. Bilheimer organized a series of conferences for Christian and Jewish leaders against the war.
In 1974, Bilheimer’s career reflected the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement following the Second Vatican Council. He became executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, remembers especially his insistence, “Don’t just give me words. I want to see what you do.”
It was Bilheimer who established a tradition of first-person discourse and open-ended agendas that is recognized in ecumenical circles around the world as “the Collegeville method.” He retired from the Institute in 1984.
Bilheimer, who called himself an “ecumenical engineer,” was both an organizational genius and an inveterate provider and provoker of thought. His books include The Quest for Christian Unity (1953); A Spirituality for the Long Haul: Biblical Risk and Moral Stand (1984); and Breakthrough: The Emergence of the Ecumenical Tradition (1989), his personal account of those momentous first four decades of the World Council.
Of special significance is the “mission of fellowship through diplomacy” that he led to South Africa following the Sharpeville uprising in 1960. He organized a consultation in Cottesloe that held the churches together, but the next year the prime minister demanded that the Afrikaner participants retract their approval of the Cottesloe Report. All but one did, but that one, the late C. F. Beyers Naudé, went on to found the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, and became an internationally recognized symbol of an interracial confessing church movement. Naudé always acknowledged that it was Bob Bilheimer who turned him around.
The experience of being sent in a new direction is common among persons whose lives Bob Bilheimer touched. At the time of Bilheimer’s death, Richard Mouw, then president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a former Collegeville Institute board member, said: “There was a time in my life when I was very cynical about ecumenical dialogue, but Bob Bilheimer would not let me rest in my cynicism. He drew me into new conversations that changed my life.” The late Margaret O’Gara, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian and also an Institute board member, credited him with showing her that “commitment to Christ and proclamation of Christ are more important than divisions among Christ’s followers. His perseverance in commitment to the work of ecumenism was creative and exemplary.” Patrick Henry, Bilheimer’s successor as executive director of the Institute, praised “his mind fully capable of grasping academic abstractions—and a holy impatience with letting the matter rest there.”
At the Collegeville Institute, Bilheimer initiated a project that, for the first time, brought anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists together to study a religious culture—in this instance, that of Minnesota—resulting in a path-breaking book he edited, authored by Joan Chittister, OSB, and Martin Marty, Faith and Ferment: An Interdisciplinary Study of Christian Beliefs and Practices (1983). The book registered early what has since become commonplace, the shifting of fault lines from between denominations to within them. Sister Joan, another former Board member, said: “He opened both my mind and my heart to the ecumenical world. He made my church bigger and my world smaller.”
In 1985, Saint John’s Abbey and University gave Bilheimer their highest honor, the Pax Christi Award, which recognizes an individual of strong faith whose life exemplifies the importance of spiritual values and concern for the welfare of others.
Excerpted from “Renewed Discipleship: The Church and the Churches in Contemporary America,” by Robert S. Bilheimer, Occasional Paper No., 38, published in Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers (November 1991), pp. 9-15 and 22.
What is Ecumenism?
The word “ecumenism” points to one of the great movements in the Church’s life and history, analogous to the monastic movement and the Reformation. If monasticism concentrated upon the meaning of Christian calling, if the Reformation was concerned with the nature of the faith itself, the ecumenical movement concentrates upon the Church, its nature, its unity, its mission, and its renewal.
Another way of putting it is to say that the ecumenical movement seeks to understand the scriptural phrase “Now you are the Body of Christ,” and the meaning of that phrase for the many churches of the modern world and for the Christians in them. The ecumenical movement is a worldwide effort to rethink and reconceive the purpose of God for the Church. […]
The ecumenical movement has suggested standards by which the One Church may be discerned within the many churches. These standards are most frequently represented by three words: unity, mission, and renewal.
- In what measure do the churches throughout the world exhibit the unity of the Body of Christ?
- In what manner do the churches pursue the mission of the Body of Christ?
- To what extent do the churches seek the renewal inherent in their faith in Christ and in their being members one of another?
In short, to what degree does the local church embody the whole? […]
The excitement of ecumenism is that it is pioneering. Until our own time churches have proliferated and pursued their own interests, frequently in competitive isolation from one another, at best in polite acknowledgment of some sort of right to exist.
But in the early twentieth century they seemed to come alive. At the deepest level, they acknowledged one another. They saw that each served a common purpose, a common obedience to God-in-Christ, and a common life amid their varied societies.
This is the essence of the action of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In refusing to claim that the Church of Christ and the Church of Rome are one and the same—that is, exclusively identical to one another—Vatican II gave room for other Christians and other churches in its view of the total Christian family. Thus the common purpose, common obedience, and common life of ecumenism were marvelously enlarged. […]
Ours is a time of such rapid change that the ultimate ecumenical concerns and realities, while they remain what they have been throughout this century, need to be re-pioneered. We must not, and cannot, get away from these basic elements, but we must think them afresh.
The ecumenical movement cannot rely on the past, but it can certainly draw from the past. To re-pioneer means to rethink the basics—which can be found in Scripture and the great Tradition—as people of today, people subject to the inheritances, problems, and possible futures of our time.
Above all, to re-pioneer means to approach Scripture in the light of the ecumenical accomplishment, with boldness and humility, and with expectation, because Scripture speaks. When it speaks, a collective ear catches the nuances, vibrations, and relevancies that make for excitement.
Re-pioneering is needed nowhere more urgently than in the relationship between the Church, the churches, and the present-day world.
Beyond Issue-Oriented Discussion
The ecumenical movement, so far as it is vocal, seems to have slid down a well-worn path in which “world” is reduced to issues, and the approach to issues reduced to pleas for action. I sometimes wonder whether those engaged in the present ecumenical movement really think, or do they, with simply a mind-jerk rather than a knee-jerk, blow the horn for their favorite “issue”?
In the name of ecumenism, we are being immersed in wordage cranked out with scant attention to the quality and integrity of the thought behind the wordage. An all but blind attachment to issue-orientation carries with it the assumption that what is needed is a plunge into immediate action on issues that a majority of the delegates at a particular meeting feel are of primary importance. “You vote for my issue and I’ll vote for yours.”
But this issue-oriented mentality enfolds the ecumenical enterprise in a subtle captivity, namely, the captivity of dealing with the world on its terms, not on the terms of God’s Gospel.
The true purpose of the ecumenical movement and its organs, including the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, is not to muster votes for “our side,” “our issue,” or “our position on this and that.” Nor are we being good ecumenists when we merely work hard on one issue or another, whether sanctioned by current ecumenical organizations or not.
It is true that the “agenda” of the ecumenical movement is provided by the world; but the handling of the agenda thus provided does not come from the world. The Church has its own agenda, given by the Gospel and by the Spirit of God, as it approaches the needs of the world. […]
The Gift of Ecumenically Oriented Christians within Denominations[We have] a priceless gift, the first of our assets: namely, the fact that ecumenically oriented Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Christians have more in common with one another than they have with the non-ecumenically oriented persons and institutions within their own confessions. A substantial number of Christians in all four of these historic and historically divided confessions are bound together across confessional lines more strongly than to people who are strictly confessional or institutional in their loyalties. […]
Moreover, what ecumenical Roman Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox have in common with each other is more fundamental than what they have in common with the non-ecumenical membership of their own communions. This constitutes a tough, underlying glue, namely, a realization, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that in some recognizable measure “Church” exists in the other groupings.
When that recognition bursts on people across confessional lines, the result is a new bond, stronger than the bond previously known. The new bond does not obliterate the older, confessional bond; it transforms it, because the Spirit has enlarged it.
This bond contains a sense of task and calling. This is a calling to make this new bond visible, to demonstrate its power, to speak the truth that comes from within it. One notes with some amazement that there has never been a tendency in the ecumenical movement to found a new church composed of those who have all these things in common. Universally, ecumenical experience has led people to seek renewal of the confessions within which the bond has been formed. […]
Doing the Intellectual Work of Ecumenism
The depth of new personal relations in Christ … is precious, but should be augmented by the pursuit of an intellectual task. To put it more sharply: we should organize for intellectual purposes.
The great problem everywhere—in the theological seminaries, the churches and their offices and commissions, the councils of churches from local to national and international—the great problem everywhere is not an activist problem, not how to stir people to action, but an intellectual problem: essentially to discover the terms in which to articulate the Gospel in our contemporary world. […]
Consensus, agreement, and common mind are not produced by votes on a question. They are achieved by a common understanding, produced by arduous and perspicacious effort of the mind, the mind illumined by Christ. Of course churches, local and national, of course councils of churches, engage in this hard labor now. But it needs to be augmented by the thought of those who are not pressured, who are not now engaged in interdenominational effort and are thus free to bring fresh analyses and insights to the common task.
There is need for unpressured, substantive treatments of the Church and its work in varied aspects of contemporary America. Many of the studies that now exist are written only for one small group. New, more comprehensive works can supply a sense of direction, both by their content and their approach, thereby intensifying the sense of ecumenical identity within the varied churches. […]
Do these ecumenical things, if you do them at all, urgently, insistently for the sake of the Church and its Lord; and for the sake of the people of America. Why? I believe we have as Christians, as churches, and as ecumenists in the churches a high and urgent calling. In the America that has settled into a people of wealth, a people of no compelling identity, a people torn by a multiplicity of evils, in short in contemporary America, we have an urgent mission: to juxtapose to the contemporary American scene the power and intimacy of the koinonia [communion] in Christ, interpreting its meaning to the people at large, offering it and its meaning to all. […]
In [the] knowledge that there is no complete discipleship, no wholly right or correct position, no single issue that determines decisively the measure of our faithfulness, we may despair and give up. But we need not, for Christ is with us in every aspect of our culture in America today; and we must not give up, for Christ is there before us, and with us as we think and act.