Renewing Ecumenism

At the end of our course we return to questions of denominational identity and Presbyterian relationships with other Churches. How much does identity include commitment to those relationships? How much does commitment to constructive relationships with other parts of the Christian family inside and outside of the historic ecumenical movement compromise a strong sense of identity and how much does it both inform it and create it? Is there a challenge to be faced for our relationships for other parts of the Reformed family, not just wider Christianity? If we engage with these are we facing our responsibilities as part of the body of Christ, or running away from them?

Renewing the promise, and the challenge, of working together not going it alone. 

John Roxborogh, Candour, 9, October 2002, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, 5-7.


If the old promise of the ecumenical movement has faded, the challenge of ecumenical responsibility remains. Yet it is not all that obvious what that means or requires. We need frank discussion. None of us can claim to have all the answers, but we can all contribute to the discussion. These ideas are offered as a contribution to that process. Thanks to the Editor of Candour for inviting a candid contribution!


1. Ecumenism in New Zealand needs to be reinvented. 


If this requires a further letting go of power by those whose vision and commitment carried the movement for so long, it also requires a new openness on the part of those who historically found it difficult to identify with what ecumenism seemed to be about. It requires a new generation who have probably never heard of either the achievements or the flaws of one of the great movements in Christian history. It requires that together we ask what is now needed for Christian mission together in New Zealand today. It requires responsible church leadership to get involved and set an example. It requires courage for grass-roots ecumenism to make connections with Christians and churches in their communities. It requires Christian media to celebrate what is already going on among those who know nothing of the word ecumenical, but who in towns and cities and rural parishes throughout New Zealand break down barriers and get on with affirming faith and fellowship across the frustrating boundaries of personality and difference which of course remain. 


2. The past should be a source of inspiration, but how we do it will be different.


In reaching for a new vision, the story of ecumenism in New Zealand and around the world should continue to inspire. There was an almost heroic risk-taking faith which sought to seize the moment seen as a move of God in their time, there was a sense of obedience to a Gospel imperative as it was then understood, there was a sense of adventure which captured the imagination of so many young Christians whose leadership in the churches is only now passing from the scene. 


However nostalgia for what might have been had these visions been more carefully nurtured or different decisions taken, does not much help us now. None of our churches are the same as they were. Cooperating Ventures need to move on, just as churches and Christians in all sorts of other situations. Ecumenism can no longer be about endless discussions which resolve little. It may however again be about finding ways to inspire, encourage, learn and stimulate in the face of diversities which need to be affirmed rather than conquered. 


There will still be situations where protocols need to be further developed to facilitate working together. Areas of practical cooperation demanding careful committee work may arise afresh, and when they do they will have the energy of vision and the sense of necessity which will make those tasks worthwhile. 


3. We need to achieve more by doing less, and affirm the importance of rebuilding a counciliar movement. 


Some of our energy as a church must consciously be directed at our working with other Christian churches, but not on the same grand scale as used to be envisaged. We need to be creating forums where churches and Christians share, listen, and challenge one another, and leave the resolution of differences to those who want to get together round common platforms on particular issues, or where concrete situations need appropriate protocols.


In my view the old ecumenical movement sacrificed its unique and essential role of being a council of churches when it got into the habit of presuming to speak for the churches of New Zealand on issues which were divisive. It was an understandable and forgivable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. It is not that critical political viewpoints should not be expressed by church leaders, but that a conciliar function requires limitations on prophetic statements where unanimity does not exist. 


This is the same issue church leaders discover when they find that appointment to a representative role for their church means that some things they would love to say have to be left to others. Governors General have the same problem as Moderators in this respect.


4. We need fresh ecumenical initiatives.


Many Cooperating Ventures thrive and continue to challenge the rest of us. May they prosper! Some however pass their use-by date and dissolve. That is life. There are many places where cooperation needs fresh starts and new experimentation. New adventures in mission together are possible in addressing the spiritual and practical challenges of New Zealand today. The issues of cultural identity and its threats thrown up by this year's election suggest areas for common exploration. Mission in a pluralist and multi-religious society needs our best combined efforts. Ecumenism is not about controlling these processes, but it should be about encouraging them. An ecumenical commitment is not about endlessly working at fruitless and reluctant cooperation, it is about seeking areas where people are willing and getting on with it in those situations.


5. We need to see denominational identity incorporating ecumenical commitment.


Relating positively to other Christians is not about ignoring our own cultural identity and theological heritage; it is about affirming God in the culture and heritage of others as well as ourselves. Presbyterianism may have divided on principle and many may have felt that ecumenical values did not require their consent to all manner of ecumenical schemes. However in our tradition there is the persistent conviction that loyalty to Christ also demands taking seriously people of faith who see things differently and the realisation that we do not have all the answers about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.


At the end of the day what was right about ecumenism is more important than its faults - and those faults were often no more than the temptations and failings from which no noble vision is ever exempt. How Christians relate to each other continues to witness to what the Gospel is about. In every age we have a responsibility for the expression and quality of those relationships corporately and individually. An age which values diversity still needs its expressions of overarching unity.


6. Weakness is often a road to faith, even in things ecumenical.


In August 2002 I was in Willingen, Germany, attending a Missions Festival and Congress marking the 50th anniversary of the International Missionary Council which met there in 1952. Faced with the apparent failure of Christian mission to China, the reality of war in Korea, and the sense of frustration after two world wars, in 1952 the IMC struggled to find a way forward in thinking about what Christian mission should be and where it should be centred. Out of their sense of weakness came an affirmation of mission as fundamentally arising out the mission of God, the "missio Dei". This phrase survived being over politicised by some, and over spiritualised by others, to become one of the most enduring missiological affirmations of the ecumenical movement. 


Often it is corporately not just personally that a sense of inability leads to fresh faith and the direction we need. This may also be the case with the future of ecumenism. It does not hurt to confess our difficulty in coping with Christian conflict, diversity within and between our churches, or in admitting that our own tradition does not own the fullness of Christ. It may or may not involve a "12 step" process, but realism about our weaknesses more than confidence in our personal convictions may be the necessary spiritual climate for, dare I say it, a healthy ecumenism.