The ecumenical movement is a gospel imperative, integrally linked to the Church’s mission globally and locally, writes EMMA HALGREN.
A few days after moving into her home in Sydney in 1971 with her husband and young sons, Lorraine Murphy had a knock on the door.
The visitor was a man from the neighbourhood, inviting her to sign a petition to prevent “those Catholics” from building on a nearby corner.
The building went ahead, and Ms Murphy has been worshipping in the Catholic parish of Christ the King, North Rocks, ever since.
Many Australians born before the 1960s will remember a time when divisions between Catholics and Protestants were bitter and tangible, affecting education, job prospects and marriage. It’s a situation almost unimaginable today.
For Lorraine Murphy, who is now Chair of the Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue in the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, her encounters across church traditions and across faiths are generally a lot more positive these days.
She is involved in a range of local and national ecumenical activities, and sees first-hand the value of talking, listening and learning with people of other traditions — and working towards the broader unity and understanding that can grow from those encounters.
The ecumenical movement is undergoing something of a check-up this year. It’s 100 years since representatives of missionary organisations and churches gathered in Edinburgh for the World Missionary Conference, which is now seen as marking the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement.
Delegates at the 1910 conference had a clear goal, and one which to modern ears sounds naive at best: evangelisation of the entire world, within a generation.
But what actually emerged from the gathering was something quite different and quite unexpected: a realisation that the profound disunity among Christians at the time threatened mission and distorted the gospel message, and contradicted Christ’s will for the Church.
A vision was born — a vision not just of cooperation between churches, but of one united Church, a Church which fulfilled Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel “that they may be one” as Christ and the Father are one, so that the world may believe.
A global movement
The global ecumenical movement is currently living through both the best of times and the worst of times, according to Canon John Gibaut, Director of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.
Canon Gibaut, from the Anglican Church of Canada, visited Australia in July to give a series of presentations as part of an ecumenics winter school called “Looking Beyond Division”, run by the Centre for Ecumenical Studies at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture at Charles Sturt University.
He said that, in many ways, this was an exciting time to be engaged in ecumenical work.
“We stand as heirs and successors of a century of ecumenical engagement with one another, which has changed the face of Christianity,” he said. “There are new expressions of Christian unity in things like the Global Christian Forum, which provides a place for Christians across a wide theological spectrum to meet and talk about questions of faith.
“There are new ecumenical relationships between churches around the world — I think of the movements towards organic unity in some of the churches of South Africa that were once dismembered by the laws of apartheid.
“There is fresh impetus for dialogue with new partners, such as the Pentecostal churches. The urgent demands of interreligious dialogue call for a fresh coherence among the churches.”
But amid the excitement, there were challenges being faced, he said.
“There are undeniable feelings of fatigue, lethargy and disillusionment towards the ecumenical movement. There are new church-dividing issues, often around ethical questions like sexuality, science and religion, and economics.
“A financial crisis like the one we are currently living through affects budgets of churches at the local, national and world levels, with ecumenical engagement and partnerships being among its first victims.”
In this somewhat gloomy context, what should give us the hope and courage to continue the quest for Christian unity?
Quite simply, said Canon Gibaut, it is a non-negotiable aspect of our Christian witness, mission and faith.
“The ecumenical movement is not just another ‘ism’, but a gospel imperative integrally linked to the Church’s mission,” he said. “The delegates at Edinburgh in 1910 saw it with striking clarity: how was it possible to proclaim a gospel of reconciliation — a gospel of repentance and forgiveness to all the nations — when the bearers of that gospel were un-reconciled amongst themselves?”
The call to unity is as urgent now as it was then, he said.
“By working together, not in isolation or competition with one another, we can speak so much more effectively on the myriad ethical, social and justice issues that face the world today.”
One example was how we approached the increasingly important field of interreligious dialogue.
“Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are not one and the same, although the methodologies used in each can enrich the other. But the issue of interfaith dialogue makes all the more pressing the need for a united Church.
“If Christianity can’t say things together to other world religious traditions, if we can’t speak with a common voice, we can’t authentically and practically speak in an interfaith context.”
The Faith and Order movement, which emerged in 1910, is the widest theological forum in the world today and includes Protestants, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
It seeks to reconcile separated Christians through informed, respectful theological dialogue about the issues that keep them apart, helping churches to find common ground, mutual understanding and consensus in such a way that the visible unity of the Church is furthered.
The Uniting Church was formed out of this very vision of unity through mutual understanding — in its opening paragraph, the Basis of Union calls unity “Christ’s gift and will for the Church”.
“The United and Uniting churches around the world are important fruits of the ecumenical movement,” said Canon Gibaut. “In the case of the Uniting Church in Australia, it’s easy to forget how different the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions actually were, and the courage it took for those churches to think, we can do this better together than apart, and we can learn from each other; there’s more that unites us than divides us.”
The Australian context
The Rev. Dr Jonathan Inkpin, until this month General Secretary of the New South Wales Ecumenical Council, said what was truly astonishing about the ecumenical movement was the scale and variety of changes that had taken place over the past 100 years.
“Perhaps it is because we are so used to it, that we sometimes fail to recognise and celebrate the astonishing levels of convergence between Christian traditions that were once so distant and even antagonistic towards one another,” he said.
“We can so easily fail to see and give thanks for the stunning array of common achievements and intentional ecumenical endeavours and agreements at local, regional, national and international levels of Church life.”
In the Australian context, those achievements include a landmark covenant signed by the then 15 member churches of the National Council of Churches (NCCA) at its fifth National Forum in 2004.
Australian Churches Covenanting Together invites churches to take specific steps, as they are able, towards a more visible expression of unity. It commits churches to share property, explore strategies for joint mission, and, for some of the signatories, work towards recognition of each other’s ordained ministry, and mutual recognition of baptism.
A variety of local covenants and cooperative ventures have developed out of this national agreement.
The Rev. Tara Curlewis, General Secretary of the NCCA, said it was important to continually remind ourselves of the steps we have taken together so far as churches, and to look for steps that might be taken in the future.
“The quest for unity really needs to focus on the possibilities rather than the impossible,” she said. “In some places cooperation in a shared mission is a realistic possibility. A few places around the country have discovered ways to pool resources to build shared church property. Some have even reached points of agreement for sharing clergy.”
In the Canowindra area, in the New South Wales central west, Uniting Church and Anglican congregations have had a cooperative agreement in place since April 2004. From a starting point of monthly combined services, the arrangement went a step further in August 2005, with the Anglican and Uniting congregations of Canowindra deciding to worship together every Sunday — in the one place, at the same time.
Ms Curlewis said that when the voices of the churches were united on significant issues, it provided a powerful witness; for example, in January this year when Coptic Christians around Australia held peace marches in many capital cities to speak out about the persecution of Christians in Egypt. As they did, many of the other Australian churches joined in solidarity with them.
“The march in Sydney, where the clergy from the Coptic Orthodox Church were flanked by clergy from other churches walking side by side through our city streets, was a powerful image that spoke of how when one part of the body of Christ hurts, the other parts of the body experience the pain also,” said Ms Curlewis.
“To have visible moments where the churches are standing together supporting one another is what this ministry is ultimately about.”
In recent years, Australian churches have worked together to raise concerns on issues like Work Choices and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Through the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission, Indigenous Australians from different churches have had a forum in which to meet and advocate around issues of faith, mission and evangelism; spirituality and theology; and social justice and land rights, and to launch specific projects like the Make Indigenous Poverty History Campaign.
“When we stop fearing loss of identity and discover that the Christian message shared by other denominations has a similar emphasis and concern for the needy, poor and oppressed, then we can offer a united voice in our community and to our political leaders,” said Ms Curlewis.
Edinburgh, 100 years on
Of the 1215 delegates to the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, just 18 were from Asia and one was from Africa. The overwhelmingly majority of delegates were British or North American, male, and Evangelical or Protestant. No Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic missionary representatives were invited to attend.
In June this year, some 200 men and women from over 60 countries — including many in the Global South, where the centre of Christianity has clearly shifted — gathered in Edinburgh to mark the centenary of the 1910 event with a conference called “Mission for the 21st Century”. Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostals rubbed shoulders with Protestants, Catholics and Anglicans.
A simple comparison of participants at the two events, separated by 100 years, gives us a powerful insight into just how much things have evolved in that time.Claudine Chionh from the Anglican Church in Victoria was a delegate at the Edinburgh 2010 conference. She said that, despite those kinds of changes, there was still a great need to ensure that conversations about mission were not restricted to the academic and clerical domain, but were taken into wider church life.
“The Edinburgh 2010 conference was only one stepping stone in an ongoing process of re-evaluating mission, a process that must engage the whole church at both global and local levels,” she said.
Jonathan Inkpin said that just as participants at the 1910 World Missionary Conference would be stunned at the changes that have unfolded since their landmark meeting, so too would the shape of mission continue to evolve in surprising ways.
“It will certainly involve new partners, including a broader range of Evangelicals and Pentecostals, and continued dialogue and action with people of other faiths and none,” he said.
“It will definitely embrace the biggest challenges of our day, including ecological action, sustainable economic development for all, and affirmation of the rights and diversity of human beings who and where ever they may be found.
“Above all, it will be grounded, as it was, is, and ever will be, on the gift of God, who always surprises us when we least expect it.”
Emma Halgren is a freelance journalist and editor.