sheraton-columbus-atLast week I attended the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) in Columbus, Ohio. The NWCU exists for “Equipping Church Leaders in the Quest for Christian Unity.” Until the fall of 2012, when my friend Fr. Tom Ryan, C.S.P., invited me to attend this event, I had never heard of the NWCU. What is this annual meeting and why did I decide to attend it in Ohio last week?

In 1963 a group of Roman Catholics, in the context of Vatican II, saw a need to equip local leadership for the task of ecumenical ministry. They held their first workshop in 1964 in Baltimore. The theme was: “Vatican II and the Ecumenical Movement.” Some of the issues addressed in that first meeting were inter-confessional scholarship, evangelism and ecumenism, Eastern Orthodoxy and ecumenism, joint worship, social problems and ecumenism and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an event that has now taken place around the world for over one hundred years. In 1965 the workshop was held in Boston and addressed developments in Protestant theology, religious education and ecumenism, the seminary role in the ecumenical movement and Catholic/Orthodox dialogue. Meetings followed in Oakland, Detroit and Philadelphia.

In 1969, the Catholic founders of the workshop invited leaders of other Christian communions to join them in Philadelphia. Some of the subjects at that meeting were ecumenical marriages, Christian-Jewish relations, Pentecostalism, conservative evangelicals and local clergy and ecumenism. Some of the speakers at this meeting included the well-known Killian McDonnell, as well as my Protestant friend Paul A. Crow, a seasoned ecumenist who I had the joy of meeting last year in his home in Indianapolis.

Today the national ecumenical officers of the member churches continue their oversight of the workshop, which is planned by both national and local committees. The workshop is sponsored by the National Ecumenical Officers Association. There are both denominational and ecumenical sessions during the workshop. This year was the 49th annual meeting. The NWCU celebrates the spirit of ecumenism by:

  1. Providing meeting seminars for all who are concerned with the ministry of Christian unity, laity, clergy, ecumenical officers, theologians and the staff of ecumenical organizations.
  2. Stimulating an exchange of ideas and experiences among people concerned with Christian unity and the bodies they represent.
  3. Being a course and balance between national planning and local responsibility, general ecumenical discussions, particular inter-church conversations, regional leadership efforts and local realities.
  4. Encouraging denominational networks to develop and serve as a framework within which they can interact.
  5. Celebrating the unity that already exists among Christians and searching for ways to overcome the divisions that remain.

nwcuLogo1The logo for the NWCU was adopted in 1995 to affirm the centrality of the cross to Christian unity. On either side of the cross is the outline of a chalice, which represents the existing unity (though not complete) and the anticipated full communion, which is the goal of the ecumenical movement. The space between the chalice and the cross suggests the hands of prayer embracing the reconciling cross.

The four denominational ecumenical networks that are represented at the NWCU are:

Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officers (CADEIO).

Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officers (EDEIO)

Lutheran Ecumenical & Inter-religious Network (LERN)

United Methodist Ecumenical and Inter-religious Training (UMEIT)

There are a number of related bodies involved in the workshop but the four listed above are by far the overwhelming majority of those in attendance. (I am guessing they constituted more than 75% of those in attendance.) Other bodies include:

Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT)

Graymoor Ecumenical and Inter-religious Institute (GEII)

National Council of Churches (NCC)

Presbyterian Church–USA (PCUSA)

World Council of Churches (WCC)

I attended the NWCU as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Sadly I was one of only two registered from my denomination. The RCA has been a significant contributor to global ecumenism for decades but interest within the RCA seems to be waning these days. We are embroiled in various battles, like so many older denominations, and our leadership now seems completely disinterested in ecumenism. (I hope I am wrong about this but it seems this way to me.)

In reality general interest in the workshop seems itself to be waning in recent years. I cannot determine the numbers who have attended in the past, from reading about the history of the NWCU, but the clear sense I had last week was that the NWCU is in decline. This is much like what we see in so many of these mainline ecumenical institutions that were formed in the “springtime” of denominational ecumenism in the 1970s and 80s. As theological debates have torn these groups apart internally, and as the generation that developed meetings like the NWCU have aged, the absence of younger leaders is very evident. On the last day the speaker asked all of those 35 and under to stand. Five people stood up out of 200-225. I think two or three of these were exactly 35. The youngest person in attendance was 33. Simply put, there was no millennial representation at the NWCU. 

This “absence” of young leaders led to public and private discussions and comments about how we are now entering the “wintertime” of ecumenism in America. I heard one statement, on the last day, that countered this view. A younger speaker suggested that in reality we were entering a “springtime” for ecumenism. I am of that persuasion. I will try to explain why I believe this over the next three days.