A gift to the churches in the form of an open space
“It was four days of relentless ecumenism,” said one man, a Pentecostal from the USA, “and I have never been sure about ecumenical movement, but I know it was right for me to be here.”
That’s the kind of honest comment about the “need” and “right” to be involved in what has been described as probably the most varied gathering of Christian communities in recent history.
About 300 people, representing almost every Christian faith grouping, from every continent found themselves in Manado on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi for the 2nd Global Christian Forum held October 4-7, 2011.
And its task was as simple and as profound as the church can get: “What is the Spirit saying to the churches?”
It was a genuinely unique gathering — with all the great streams of modern Christian faith present: Anglican, African Instituted, Charismatic, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant, Roman Catholic, mega churches and many contemplative communities.
The theme was Life together in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
It brought together some Christians and Christian groups who rarely, if ever, talk to each other!
Many had long histories of distrust. Others didn’t even know the other’s version of Christian faith existed but they talked anyway. It was ecumenism of relationships, built conversation by conversation.
Leaders representing 12 world Christian communions and nine global ecumenical organisations, including the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pentecostal World Fellowship, sat down with national councils of churches, evangelical organisations and mega church leaders from around the world.
The Vatican was represented through representative of the Pontifical Council for Promotion of Christian Unity and a special message of support came from the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventists, Society of Friends and Syrian Orthodox Church leaders were all there.
Organisers tried to ensure that 50 per cent of participants were from evangelical and Pentecostal communities. They also aimed for a balance of participants from Europe/North America with that of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
All in all, each one present was trying to catch a glimpse of just that one thing: “What is the Spirit saying to the churches” at our time in history?
To do that, more than anything else participants just listened to each other.
From across the oceans, traditions, ages, languages and backgrounds each person shared their deepest faith experiences. One young man described it as discovering the “humbling power of listening”.
Another woman from Latin America had been advised not to attend and warned to keep a low profile upon her return. But she said, “The GCF is a great venue for open discussions, meet people, know how they think, and to include more colours in “my picture” of Christianity in the world.
“Here is a truly different environment, because in my country there is a big void between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and there are no Orthodox or Anglicans and other churches. To talk to these people is very enriching.”
She also said she was a strong woman and would speak up to her communities.
In addition to personal sharing there were study groups, regional groups, meetings by tradition, Bible study, prayer and worship.
Special emphasis was given to a statistical analysis of global Christianity that showed the great swing of numbers of Christians from the northern hemisphere to the south and east spheres of the globe.
The “centre of gravity” of the church has changed because of the extraordinary rise in the number of Christians due to Pentecostal, Charismatic and Evangelical movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Inspirational moments came when five stories were told of what the Spirit is doing in specific instances around the world — from the miracle of Christianity resurrected in Albania to the exponential growth of the church in China (without denominations!)
Members also heard about the history of Pentecostalism and the life of the Charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic Church.
And all this was undergirded by two incisive theological papers reflecting on the reality the profound demographic changes in the global church and the fact of so much division.
Dr Dana Robert of the Theological School Boston University called on churches to reflect across the ecclesiastical boundaries on the well known creedal formula of the church being “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” as a way to “frame the relationship between witness and unity in world Christianity today”.
In the other paper from Fr Dr K. M. George, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India, applied patristic thinking on the role of the Holy Spirit in healing the divisions and dichotomies amid the “friendship and mutual witness” of Christians.
According to Dr George, any ecumenical encounter is “essentially a pilgrimage that we undertake like the disciples along the road to Emmaus, in deep humility, ongoing conversation, patient listening, true friendship with the stranger, genuine hospitality and the readiness for transforming flashes of insight anytime on the way.”
In the end, the participants did have “flashes of insight” into what the Spirit is saying to the churches: it was the desire to continue to keep going with the listening, the talking and the unique gatherings that stretched across the old the barriers and paradigms.
In a final message, they said the whole experience of such an open space was a “gift of God” and a “grace-filled moment in the life of the Church.”
Building such an open space “is a helpful model for building authentic Christian relationships in every place”, the message said.
Across their diversity, the participants decided to continue the task of fostering respect for one another by moving forward and decided to take the next step and confront pressing issues and common challenges.
“We have heard the Spirit calling us not only to continue to foster respect for one another but now also to move forward together exploring and addressing common challenges,” the message said.
This included “renewed attention to the relationship between unity and mission”. That means careful listening to various approaches to our work and how we foster our oneness in Christ.
Addressing the wealth disparity between churches of Europe and North America and those in Africa and Asia was noted.
It was also agreed that local and regional meetings should continue to take place, following the same model of listening, sharing and prayer.
As if to give practical expression to what unfolded in terms of growing trust and the need for continued “open space” among the church, during the final session Indonesian church leaders — Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Salvation Army, Adventists, Evangelical and the Indonesia Communion of Churches — jointly launched the Indonesian Christian Forum.
Given all that happened, and that new ways of encountering each other in an ecumenical way, one can understand why it was so “right to be here”.
Kim Cain is a journalist and minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He acted as the communication officer for the GCF but the views in this article are his own and do not necessarily express the official view of the GFC committee.
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