11.05.10 17:36 Age: 2 yrs

Taking the pulse of the ecumenical movement


Church ecumenical officers play a key role in the advancement of ecumenism at a time when resources are scarce and inward-looking tendencies thrive.


"I regard you as the group that is closest to us in our daily work", the World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit told a gathering of church ecumenical officers on Tuesday, 4 May.


A former ecumenical officer himself, Tveit emphasized the crucial relevance of the ecumenical officers' work: "Serving the churches in their response to the call to seek Christian unity, nurturing opportunities for the churches to be one in faith, prayer and service, encouraging their witness for justice and peace – these are indeed huge tasks, sometimes quite demanding."


Some 55 ecumenical officers from as many churches and all over the world met at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, near Geneva, 4-6 May. The network of ecumenical officers of WCC member churches meets once every year, alternating global and regional gatherings.


Walking the paths of ecumenism


The Rev. Grace Moon, from the Presbyterian Church of Korea, found the encounter with fellow ecumenical officers "amazingly helpful". Being her first meeting of this kind, she discovered a rich of insights on a number of issues. "I've been able to learn ecumenical methodologies to address, for instance, gender issues", she said.


Although "most Koreans are unaware of the ecumenical movement and the WCC, they live out the three dimensions of the WCC's ecumenical vision – unity, witness and service – in their daily church life", Moon pointed out. The Presbyterian Church of Korea is a member of the National Council of Churches in Korea, which will host the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea in 2013.


For Moon, the ecumenical movement is not structures but an ongoing process: "It has to do with the life of the churches", she said. One of her challenges as ecumenical officer is to convey to faithful and leadership the view that ecumenism "is not about an agenda to fulfill or outcomes to achieve, but about embracing the diversity of Christian traditions". "This is the most valuable insight we gain from the WCC", Moon added.


The meeting was also a first for Metropolitan Mor Eustathius Matta Roham, from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. Although as a member of the WCC central committee he is well aware of the discussions held at these gatherings, he found it very useful – in particular, he appreciated the sharing of information about the upcoming International Ecumenical Peace Convocation to take place in Kingston, Jamaica, from 17-25 May 2011. The Convocation will be the climax of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence 2001-2010.


The four themes in which the Convocation is to focus – peace in the community, with the Earth, in the marketplace and among the peoples – are very relevant for the Middle East context, said Matta Roham. "For instance when we talk about peace in the community, we are talking about neighbors, and from a Christian viewpoint, that is a concept which embraces all human beings, all communities, not just those who are closer to me or live near by me."


Peace among the peoples also translates very concretely in the Middle East context. "We see war between nations and competition for nuclear weapons", Matta Roham said. "However, we need not nuclear weapons in any Middle Eastern country, but to develop technologies that serve the common good."


For the Rev. Juan Abelardo Schvindt, from the Evangelical Church of the River Plate (Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), participating at the gathering of ecumenical officers allowed him to gain insights on the ongoing efforts of the WCC to refocus its programmatic work and redefine its agenda. "We learnt how the WCC is trying to find its place in a world and church landscape that have changed", he said.


One of the biggest challenges Schvindt faces as ecumenical officer is the need to "rebuild trust" amongst ecumenical actors in order to achieve a renewed agenda. The vitality of the ecumenical movement of the 70s and 80s has suffered under the pressure of inward-looking tendencies in the churches. "The goal isn't to suppress the churches own identities, but to find a space of convergence where they can cooperate and express their unity in a visible form", he said.


Another challenge is the scarcity of resources, said the Rev. Dr Gail Allan, from the United Church of Canada. "Everybody is struggling to work with reduced capacity", she said. In part, the decrease in resources is due to a growing conservatism that affects the Canadian society and impacts the funding not only of churches but also NGOs.


This scarcity "may actually be an opportunity", said Allan, "as it is a challenge to strengthen our joint prophetic witness, which may become stronger at the end." This view, together with a number of hopeful signs, like the growing membership of the Canadian Council of Churches, justifies Allan's optimism.


Strong denominationalism is the biggest challenge for the ecumenical movement in Ghana, said the Rev. Dr Samuel Ayete Nyampong, from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. "This tendency to see ourselves as different from others divides us", said Ayete. "We need to build stronger ecumenical ties so we can sacrifice our self-interest and pull resources and ideas together; we ought to see ourselves as belonging to one fellowship in Christ."


Encountering fellow ecumenical officers allowed Ayete to hear other churches' stories and learn from their challenges. "I can bring home information my church wouldn't have received if I hadn't been here", said Ayete. "Learning that others are going through similar struggles makes us Africans to feel we are not alone."



WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence


International Ecumenical Peace Convocation



Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.