Exploring Ecumenism

August 18, 2019

Micah 6:8 John 17: 20-25; Matt 25:31-46

Back when I was still in theological school I had the privilege to go to an event run by the World Council of Churches in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. I received a grant to join several other students, mostly from Duke University in the Southern U.S., to attend Ta Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. The subject was how to share the Gospel in both word and deed in a culturally appropriate and non-colonial way within a whole variety of contexts.

One of the things that stood out for me from that experience was the music: I heard for the first time many songs from around the world that have found their way into United Church hymnals: “Oh so so Oh so so” (Come now O God of Peace); Thuma Mina (Send me Jesus), Wa Wa Wa Emimimo; Asante Sana Yesu; a Calypso version of Our Father; Masithi Amen; as well as many Taize refrains I had learned from a German professor at my undergraduate university. That’s the ecumenical church for you – many languages, many voices, gathered as one in worship. It was the ecumenical movement – the movement to bring the whole worldwide church together in dialogue – that brought us this wonderful music! There are few things that join people as harmoniously and easily as being able to sing a song we all know together!

Another observation was the potential conflict between cultures and colonial Christianity. For example, we met with a small Methodist Brazilian church that had been censured by their Bishop because they had begun using drums and shakers in their worship – traditional AfroBrazilian instruments. This congregation’s ancestors, for the most part, were brought to Brazil as slaves. Like many parts of the world that have large imported African populations, the slaves brought their religion with them – especially a belief that the world is full of Spirit, and that there are spirits all around us, that can intervene for both good and evil. When they were forcibly converted, they incorporated some of those beliefs into their Christian worship and faith, producing a unique blend of Catholicism (or Anglicanism, or Methodism, etc) with indigenous religions. Sometimes that was a reasonably comfortable marriage, and sometimes it was not. More often than not the colonizing church suppressed native beliefs for fear that they were pagan, idolatrous, witchcraft or demon worship –we know that history from our own here in Canada. The forced conversion of residential school students. The potlatch, sweat lodges and sundances that were banned in Canada until 1951. There still remains tension to this day in First Nations community between those who follow Christian teachings and those who follow traditional wisdom. Some are able to blend them, but they don’t always sit easily together.

As AfroCaribbean and AfroBrazilian peoples became liberated, they began to incorporate their indigenous elements once more. In Brazil, the spirit-filled worship of charismatic Christianity has made significant inroads among Christians, as the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostalism and other such Christian denominations sit well with people accustomed to seeing the world as spirited. They simply need to change their focus from multiple spirits to the one Holy Spirit! The more staid traditions, like the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran or Anglican traditions that are part of the World Council of Churches, have both looked askance at the enthusiasm, energy, and ecstasy of such worship, but also envied the ways in which it connects with culture. So they are wondering how much AfroBrazilian traditions and Christianity can meld without becoming something other than Christian. In the case of this little Methodist congregation, the Bishop had decided no drums, no shakers – it’s just not Christian! (I think those of us at Gordon United would disagree!)

The Christian church has an unfortunate history of colonialism and the ecumenical movement is not immune from that. When the urge for churches to come together was at its strongest at the turn of the last century, it was truly meant for the healing of the world. The great project – still the great project of the ecumenical movement! – was to bring God’s justice, peace and compassion into the world so that the world would indeed, manifest God’s will on earth as in heaven. But the assumption in its early days was that the way to do that was to convert the whole world to Christianity – a Christianity defined by the large, European-born, colonizing denominations of Christianity.

We are learning better now, though it has taken us a long time, and we still struggle with what it means to share the Gospel in a culture that is not Middle Eastern or GrecoRoman (like early Christianity) and not European (like most of the members of the WCC’s founding churches). Perhaps that’s why as members of the World Council of Churches we focus a good part of our energy on actions together – the power of public witness from a body that represents half a billion Christians worldwide! Yes, there are lengthy discussions about theology too, through the Commission on Faith and Order, but most of the world doesn’t care too much about that. They care about what we do!

The third perspective I experienced was the influence of liberation theology. With its roots in Christian and Hebrew Scripture, Marxist social analysis and the culture and context of Latin America in the late 1960s forward, liberation theology has expanded to Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and all over the world. There are regional forms of liberation theology such as Political theology in Germany and England, Black Womanist theology in the States, Minjung theology in Korea, and queer theology in North America and Europe. Liberation theology teaches that the Bible speaks particularly to the poor and that it cannot be understood until read from the perspective of the poor and marginalized. It is acutely aware of the sinful structures and systems that keep people caught in oppressive and harmful situations.

So for example, if as we heard at the time, a large number of Brazilian women in the northern province of Bahia were resorting to prostitution to feed their children from a number of different men, traditional Christian theology might condemn her and the men who use her services, whereas liberation theology would ask, “Why was she in this situation? What about this society, this economy, has put her in this position?” When I was in Brazil we were told that the macho nature of the society (Machismo is a cherished trait there) and the system of employment that took men in rural areas away from their families for months at a time meant that men had multiple families in different cities or areas of Brazil, often abandoning a previous family, and the only way a woman could find to support her family was to attach herself to another man – thus, more mouths to feed, another abandonment, and eventually, prostitution. Today Brazil has the second highest rate of prostitution in the world, after Thailand – over half a million women!

Liberation theology sees the sin in the system, and challenges the system – an important corrective to traditional views of sin, and one that has heavily influenced much of the work of the United Church for justice in the world.

The 350 member denominations of the World Council of Churches are the Orthodox churches (both Eastern and Oriental), as well as African Instituted, Anglican, Assyrian, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian, Old-Catholic, Pentecostal, Reformed, United/Uniting and Free/Independent churches, Disciples of Christ and Friends (Quakers). All of these churches take seriously the messages found in the Gospels and in the prophets to seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, to love God and neighbour, and to treat the most vulnerable among us as we would treat Christ – knowing that as we minister to them, we are ministering to Jesus. The United Church has taken strong leadership in both the World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches, as well as the World Council of Reformed Churches. (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/about-us)

If you go to the World Council of Church’s website (above), you will find statements and action plans regarding stewardship of the environment, the plight of Palestinians and peace in the Middle East, combating the commercialization of water resources, peace in the Korean peninsula, condemnation of anti-Semitism while upholding the right to critique unjust acts in Israel, fighting persecution of Christians in Asia, ending modern slavery, greetings to Muslims on their high Holy Days, the HIV/AIDS situation in many African nations, and more. The United Church has been vocal within our own nation and outside of it, on all of these fronts as well.

The United Church of Canada has been a champion of the ecumenical movement since its earliest days. “That all may be one” is the motto of the United Church of Canada, and that call for unity is extended to the worldwide Christian Church. In recent decades ecumenism has gone farther, to include interfaith and interspiritual dialogue and cooperation as well. Our partnership with West Village Church for Messy Church is ecumenical; our relationship with the Anglican Church of the Advent is ecumenical; the new interfaith group will embody a wider understanding of ecumenism. None of these partnerships exist solely for their own sake. They exist to serve the community and to nurture Godly values in the places where we live.

We can see what some of the gifts of this movement are: social change, conviction, justice-seeking, passionate action, stewardship of the environment, equality and dignity for others, and union with God through, as one writer put it “worrying about what God worries about when God gets up in the morning!” There are dangers though: dangers of being caught up in an ideology without realizing its full implications or without being self-aware; the danger of cynicism, which as one person put it, is another word for “disappointed idealism”, burnt out from trying to save the world. Another danger is that in the interests of ecumenical harmony, we might water down our own convictions and mute the call we are hearing from the Holy Spirit. For example, churches that are Affirming of the full participation of LGBTQ2S+ in Christian community have gotten a rough ride from ecumenical partners, as we are still very much in a minority worldwide. Fortunately, the UCC has stuck to its principals on this one, but not without some real push-back from other Christian denominations, especially those in Africa who have absorbed conservative fundamentalist social values along with the televangelist preaching culture of the United States, and the conservative family values of the Roman Catholic church.

The purpose of the ecumenical movement is to bring churches and faiths together to bring hope and healing into the world. I am so proud that the United Church is a part of this movement! Together we can avoid the dangers by being involved on the ground, in real relationships with our partners in faith and life. That’s where we work out our differences and find common cause; that’s where hope lives; that’s where we see new life emerging; that’s where we see authenticity and integrity being lived out. When we work together with people of good will for the common good, change happens. Life happens. Joy happens! Thanks be to God who put us on this earth in a multiplicity of peoples and with many ways to encounter the Holy. Let us learn from one another, and work together for the mending of the world. Amen.

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