Five general secretaries of international ecumenical organizations engaged in lively conversation with leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) on Friday, April 8, at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva. The general secretaries who engaged in this interesting and important dialog are the heads of the ACT Alliance, the Conference of European Churches (CEC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
“One of the most pressing challenges we face is religious intolerance,” said John Nduna of ACT Alliance, a coalition of churches and church-related agencies working in the areas of human development and emergency assistance. As a second concern, Nduna noted that “the shrinking humanitarian space around the world, [hinders] how we can reach people in need of aid.” Each of the five leaders acknowledges that partnership among Christian churches and missions is of key importance, both in promoting dialog with various governments and in advocating before various international organizations who are tasked with improving conditions in troubled locations. I have come to share this view deeply even though I believe various ecumenical organizations often retain a flawed political and social model of change.
Nduna notes that in Darfur, “we have had excellent results in working with Caritas,” the Roman Catholic global service ministry. “We are asking how we can replicate that in other regions, in interfaith as well as ecumenical cooperation.”
“We cannot be ecumenical on our own,” added the Rev. Dr Martin Junge of the Lutheran World Federation. These leaders all underscored the simple fact that it is necessary to overcome mutual suspicions not only among churches or traditions within Christianity, but among ecumenical organizations that may seem to be in competition with one another.
Dr. Junge spoke of what he called the “polycentricity of the communion of churches” as a strength, not as a weakness. He believes that it may become the basis of “the language of trans-contextual dialogue” enabling people from widely different backgrounds to meet and understand how diversity works. This response resonates with everything I’ve seen and learned in the ecumenical context.
The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit of the WCC advanced the idea of combining a commitment to mutual support with an expectation of “mutual accountability” in encounters among churches, agencies, states and cultures. Such partners need to strive for a sense of “unity that has substance” and to seek new models of dialogue and cooperation that will “bring all sorts of actors together.” It is beyond me how you could disagree with this conclusion. You might quarrel with the means employed, and I sometimes do vigorously, but I cannot sit on the sidelines in the modern world that cries out for Christians to work together in “polycentricity.”
Tviet sees two principal concerns driving churches in coming years: Continued dedication to “fostering the visible unity of the church”, and “addressing the many injustices that are experienced not only in the global South but by people everywhere.” A particular challenge to the WCRC is the call to heal divisions within its own confessional family. So long as these injustices are not understood in strictly economic terms, terms that are built on taking away freedom and killing human enterprise that truly addresses the poverty problem, I again have to agree. But, as many of you know, the devil can be in the details for some of these ecumenical leaders.
Prof. Viorel Ionita of Conference of European Churches noted that European congregations face specific issues arising from the secularization of nations and a continent that once was deemed Christian. Through dialog among the churches, CEC finds common ground with the Roman Catholic Church as well as among its own members.
In a new report provided by the World Council of Churches this statement provides meaningful context:
Ecumenical bodies like CEC exist to support churches in their vocation today, to participate with them in bearing the gospel of Jesus Christ within sometimes hostile societies, to advocate on behalf of churches and their members before European political institutions. “In all of this,” he concluded, “the EKD joins in playing an important role in Germany, in Europe and throughout the world.”
Bishop Dr Martin Schindehütte, who is responsible for the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany) office of foreign affairs and ecumenical relations, observed in the Geneva conversation that “we need each other’s insights to be faithful in our own contexts.” He further observes that: There are “complex relationships and connections within the ecumenical movement”, he said, yet the core of Christian unity and action is the gospel. From this foundation we are strengthened to devise patterns and plans that help the churches coordinate their activities with greater clarity and purpose.
This entire report, from which I have drawn my quotations and the material in this blog can be found at the news reports of the World Council of Churches.