What is ecumenism?

Here’s a blog post I wrote yesterday, on the first full day of the WCC Assembly. I thought it might be interesting to some of you if you have interest in some of the issues we are dealing with here in Busan! Image

What is ecumenism? What is it for? Is it purposeful in a world marked by violence, injustice, and other threats to life in all of its interconnected forms? 

These are questions that have been on my mind a lot these days, as in the last two weeks I have participated first in a meeting of the global Executive Committee of the World Student Christian Federation, then in the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) and now in the beginning of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches  (WCC) as the GETI has begun participating in the Assembly as part of our programme here in Busan, Korea from October 30 – November 8.   

The theme for the Assembly is “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.” I learned recently that themes of the WCC assemblies used to be more positivistic and certain of the place of humanity, and more specifically Christianity, in having the ability to improve the world (and with the assumption that the definition of that “improvement” was clear). But, over time, the themes have begun to acknowledge the need for humility and have taken the form of a prayer asking for guidance and direction from God. 

The need for guidance seems particularly relevant at this point in the ecumenical movement. At this point in time, the WCC encompasses about 25% of the world’s Christians in its member churches (50% are Roman Catholic and 25% are Pentecostal/Non-Denominational). This causes many to ask if the WCC can really call itself a “world”  council and some see a need to radically re-imagine the WCC such that all Christians might be members, even the thousands who stand protesting outside the WCC meeting space critiquing the WCC for taking some of its stands on issues of peace and justice and engaging in interfaith dialogue. Some speak of the pain necessarily embodied in a church divided, a pain which is perhaps most profoundly embodied in separation during  communion/eucharist as not all Christians recognize a common meal. This leads to one approach to ecumenism: that all churches might be one. 

 Another view, which I would share personally, is that the purpose of ecumenism is pragmatic: to work with other churches to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed in the church and more broadly, to examine and make reparations for how Christian mission (and the actions of privileged Christians) has been (and is) damaging, to experience the diversity and richness of Christian expressions and Biblical interpretation, and to imagine new ways that Christian life can motivate and empower work for justice and help enlarge our creative imagination for what a peaceful world might be. In this approach, churches must work together in any case that they can, and certainly are enriched in doing so, but this is not the end goal in and of itself. Ecumenism is for just relations in the oikos (“household,” root of ecumenism) – economy, ecology: that all of life might be one. 

The tension between these views (and of course the many complex positions that I have not fully represented) has been a major issue we are grappling with in the GETI, and I imagine will also remain an issue in the Assembly itself as the WCC seeks to re-define itself and set its priorities for the next eight years. The Assembly will be amazing experience combining worship, Bible studies, thematic presentations, contextual exposure and learning about the divided Korea(s), and much more. Daily video summaries, photos, and other resources/information can be found at www.wcc.org – please follow along as you are able.    

During this Assembly, please pray with us as Christians from all over world gather to ask the God of Life to lead us to justice and peace.

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