Ecumenism

First Orthodox Church Council in More Than Millennium May Be Postponed

Hagia Irene church. Image via  / Shutterstock.com

A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago suddenly risks being downgraded or postponed because of Syria’s four-year civil war. This unexpected twist has come as the world’s Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity, were supposed to be only months away from their first major council since 787.

Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a summit first proposed at least as far back as 1961 and provisionally scheduled for May in Istanbul, will be held.

With its traditional icons and complex liturgies, Orthodox Christianity can seem like an unchanging remnant of a long-lost era. But it lives very much in today’s world and its 14 autocephalous (independent) member churches can be wrapped up in its politics and subject to its pressures.

Did Pope Francis Say Lutherans Can Take Communion at Catholic Mass?

Image via Claudia Daut / REUTERS / RNS

Pope Francis has a knack for setting traditionalist teeth on edge with unscripted musings on sacred topics. He recently did it again when he seemed to suggest that a Lutheran could receive Communion in the Catholic Church after consulting her conscience.

The exchange came up during a prayer service Nov. 15 at a Lutheran church in Rome that had invited the pontiff. And he used the occasion to engage in a question-and-answer session with some of the congregants.

One woman, Anke de Bernardinis, told Francis that she was married to a Catholic and that she and her husband share many “joys and sorrows” in life, but not Communion at church.

“What can we do on this point to finally attain Communion?” she asked.

U.S., Canadian Denominations to Sign Mutual Recognition Pact

Image via United Church of Canada / RNS

Two of North America’s most liberal Protestant church groups have teamed up and agreed to recognize each other’s members, ministers, and sacraments.

The United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada will celebrate their full communion agreement on Oct. 17 at a church in Niagara Falls. Leaders from the two denominations will sign the agreement during the service.

Full communion means the two denominations will recognize each other’s members, ordained ministers, and sacraments.

Engaging in 'Wider Ecumenism' to Cure Injustice

Illustration of global church, John T Takai / Shutterstock.com
Illustration of global church, John T Takai / Shutterstock.com

From the Pacific islands, Rev. Male’ma Puloka shared how only 0.03 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced by the islands in her region, but they are they ones directly experiencing the devastating effects of climate change. What more can be done by the churches to combat global warming and defend the integrity of God’s creation?

We also began looking at global economic inequality. The facts are these: the top 20 percent of the world’s people control 83 percent of the world’s wealth. The next 20 percent control 11 percent of global wealth. That leaves the bottom 60 percent of the world’s population with only 6 percent of the world’s economic wealth. What can the churches do in the face of such severe global injustice?

Beneath this some voiced the cry for hope. Facing such stark challenges of injustice requires a foundation of spirituality and prayer that can inspire our Christian witness.

One Baptism, One Faith

AFTER SEVEN YEARS of theological, historical, and pastoral conversation, leaders of Reformed and Catholic churches in the U.S. this January signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other's churches. This agreement represents dedicated—and inspiring—ecumenical work.

The agreement was signed by representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Christ. This agreement is not unprecedented, coming as it does nearly five decades since Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, in which the Catholic Church recognized non-Catholic baptism whenever "duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and ... received with the right dispositions." However, for each tradition, baptism gives sacramental expression to that tradition's understanding of the church and what it means to be a member. For these churches to recognize each other's baptismal rites gives visible witness to their mutual desire for unity among the members of Christ's body.

This desire for unity between the churches is not an add-on to the gospel; it is not something we do if we happen to get to it. It is central to the saving work and mission of Jesus.

This January's agreement is spare in its requirements. It states that the use of water and a reference to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all that are needed for mutual recognition. By specifying these two simple elements, the ecumenical team made a decision to respect the liturgical tradition of each church. The unique way that components of the rite have developed in each church—how catechesis is done, the use of scripture, the use of sponsors, anointing, and other elements—do not need to be changed.

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A Revival for Justice

In November, Dallas hosted Sojourners’ Justice Revival. Com-bining the tradition of Billy Graham with that of Martin Luther King Jr., Dallas churches came together across racial, theological, and geographic boundaries to connect personal faith to social justice.

Rev. Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. preached the opening night. Dr. Holmes, who has been ministering in the Dallas area for more than 50 years, said of the Justice Revival, “This is historic ... we have never come together like this.” He added that he had been waiting for this his whole life.

On that first night, a young man stayed afterward to talk to me. “I’m ready,” he said. “Ready for what?” I asked. “Ready to change the world!” This young African American told me that he was the youngest Methodist minister in the state of Texas. He drove into Dallas every night from the small, rural town he is serving.

Church historians say that spiritual activity doesn’t get to be called “revival” until it has changed something in the society. This revival had specific goals laid out by the pastors who came together—creating at least 25 church partnerships with Dallas public schools and advocating for 700 new units of permanent housing for chronically homeless people. The Revival has already hired a full-time organizer to make sure those goals are met. “What has changed,” the pastor of an evangelical megachurch said to me, “is that our church used to be just internally focused, but now it is externally focused.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2010
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Can I Get a Witness?

Thousands gathered in the Dallas Market Center in November for three days of preaching, Bible study, and action for social justice. The Justice Revival, organized by Sojourners, convened Dallas clergy, activists, and political leaders representing more than 200 churches to address two main concerns: the city’s 6,000 homeless people and the high percentage of high school students in the Dallas school district who are not adequately prepared for college. Eleven-year-old Dallas public school student Dalton Sherman was a highlight of the event. “Do you believe that what you’re doing in your community is shaping not just my generation, but that of my children—and my children’s children?” he asked a cheering crowd.

In a highly segregated city, participants came from across denominational, political, and ethnic lines—including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, historic black church pastors, Latino ministers, and the Catholic bishop. Service projects following the event took nearly 1,000 volunteers to five low-income neighborhoods throughout Dallas.

Following Sojourners’ 2008 Justice Revival in Columbus, Ohio, volunteers worked at 50 projects cleaning parks, rehabbing homeless shelters, organizing food pantries, and hosting gasoline-giveaways in poor neighborhoods. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland convened a statewide anti-poverty task force that included more than 300 participants, with one segment dedicated to addressing challenges unique to children and youth.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2010
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The Global Christian Forum

The vision of the Global Christian Forum is simple but bold: Can the four main “families” of the Christian community—Orthodox, historic Protestant, evangelical/pentecostal, and Catholic—be brought into intentional, ongoing fellowship on the global level?

For several years this fragile initiative has worked with scarce funding and minimal recognition. But the Global Christian Forum (GCF) has begun producing promising fruit.

An example is found in regional consultations on the GCF, the first of which was in Asia in May 2004. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, said the Global Christian Forum “is the best thing that could have happened to the Christian church in Asia. It created an open space where people could come together for the first time to share their stories and faith journey.” Howell said the GCF was especially important because “The church in Asia is growing, and growth brings challenges. The Global Christian Forum gave an opportunity for those from different traditions to listen. We discovered one another. And we discovered Christ at work within our different traditions.”

Last August, the Global Christian Forum held its African regional consultation in Lusaka, Zambia. About 70 church leaders from all parts of Africa, and all parts of Christ’s body, gathered together. They represented denominations and Christian organizations that included Baptist, Anglican, pentecostal, Reformed, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist, evangelical, and Lutheran churches, as well as the All Africa Christian Council, the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the World Student Christian Federation, World Vision, the United Bible Societies, the African Theological Fellowship, various national councils of churches, and the African Instituted Churches.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Christian Churches Together

The journey of Christian Churches Together in the USA began in September 2001 when church leaders representing the wider spectrum of the Christian community articulated a vision for a place of fellowship that would draw them together. When publicly shared the next year, they said this:

“We lament that we are divided and that our divisions too often result in distrust, misunderstandings, fear and even hostility between us. We long for the broken body of Christ made whole, where unity can be celebrated in the midst of our diversity.... We long for a more common witness, vision and mission.”

Early on, CCT identified five major Christian families that needed to be represented—in addition to Catholic, Orthodox, historic Protestant, and evangelical/pentecostal, “racial and ethnic churches” were also included in light of the history and reality of these issues in the United States. Over these past years a process of mutual engagement, agreement on purposes, and organizational planning has moved forward.

Today 32 denominations and Christian organizations have agreed to become founding participants of CCT. They represent well the first four “families.” At its meeting in June 2005, CCT’s participants decided to delay the official launch in order to enable further dialogue with the historic black churches, whose participation in CCT is vitally desired. Recently, the first historic black church decided to join, and others are in the process of discernment and dialogue.

CCT’s next gathering will be in March 2006, in Atlanta. A central focus will be how our respective churches understand and confront the challenge of poverty—a focus proposed by the pentecostal/evangelical participants in CCT and embraced by all.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Christian Churches Together

When representatives of 40 denominations, communions, and Christian organizations gathered in late January 2003 at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, no one knew for sure the outcome. Eighteen months earlier a nucleus of this group had met outside of Baltimore to begin asking whether it was possible to form a new, more inclusive structure of Christian fellowship. Their vision was to draw mainline Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, pentecostal, Orthodox, and historic black churches to a fresh table of ecumenical participation.

Nothing quite like it had ever been tried in the United States. The National Council of Churches of Christ encompasses mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and historic black churches, but not others. The National Association of Evangelicals was organized largely in reaction to the NCC. Suspicion and hostility between the two groupings has long spread division and mistrust. Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not officially joined any wider ecumenical fellowship in the United States.

Around the world, the situation is quite different. In about 65 countries, the Catholic Church is a full member in such national church councils or associations. The National Council of Churches in Korea recently welcomed the Assemblies of God. Likewise, the South African Council of Churches now includes two of the largest pentecostal bodies in that country. And in many countries, national ecumenical organizations have undergone radical changes to build a fellowship that expresses more fully the breadth of the Christian community within their land, as church leaders have concluded that new ecumenical wine cannot be poured into old wineskins.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2003
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