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New visions and challenges to ecumenism in the 21st century

Presentation by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia on "New visions and challenges to ecumenism in the 21st century" at a meeting with ministers of the Shanghai Christian Council/TSPM on 16 November 2006.

17 November 2006

by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
General Secretary, World Council of Churches

Shanghai, People's Republic of China
16 November 2006

Introduction

The formation of the World Council of Churches as a culmination of several ecumenical movements is arguably the most significant development in ecumenical history in the second half of the 20th century. But during the same period the ecclesial landscape changed in other significant ways; the multiplicity and proliferation of denominations and non-denominational churches (especially since the 1980s), the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and the increase of bilateral ecumenical dialogues constitute part of the phenomena. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched an idea to contend that the 20th century ecumenism was very much characterized by the concept of movement.

By the dawn of the 21st century, ecumenical dialogue had gained greater acceptance. Some of the Pentecostal and Evangelical communities which, for a long time, had adopted an anti-ecumenical stance increasingly became open to ecumenical dialogue. One of the main outcomes of the Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) process was the creation of the Global Christian Forum as a way of broadening the fellowship. The GCF is a broad ecumenical platform which brings together the WCC, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals and Evangelicals for engagement and dialogue. In a sense this is a way of acknowledging that the Spirit is at work in the different ecclesial realities and that we should therefore listen to one another. One of the questions I wish to address in this presentation is what is the significance of these developments for ecumenism in the 21st century.

The ecclesial landscape is changing still. European Protestantism was a main pillar of the 20th century ecumenical movement in general and WCC in particular. By the end of the 20th century European Protestantism had begun to decline and this will have consequences for ecumenism in the 21st century. On the other hand, Christianity is witnessing a high growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America/Caribbean. The centre of gravity of Christianity is shifting to the global South. This trend will also have a big impact on ecumenism in the 21st century.

This presentation has two main sections. In the first section, I will consider possible ways in which these trends will impact and influence ecumenism in the 21st century. The second section focuses on spirituality and ecumenism (vision, form, character) as a way of raising the question as to whether 21st century ecumenism is likely to be spirituality-based vis-à-vis the 20th century which was movement-based. The conclusion I arrive at is that the search for visible unity must continue to be the ultimate goal of ecumenical endeavours in the 21st century. While theology will be a top priority in the process towards unity, the experiential dimension of lived ecumenism will emerge as a significant component.

European Protestantism, Christianity in the Global South, and 21st Century Ecumenism

It is true that Protestants, primarily European Protestants, have been the backbone of the ecumenical movement. They are the ones who were the driving forces behind the creation of WCC and many other ecumenical bodies. They are the primary funders of WCC - and the regional ecumenical organizations, the National Councils of Churches, the international ecumenical organizations (such as ACT, the World Student Christian Federation, and the YMCA) and the main confessional bodies. But Protestantism in Europe is changing: the number of church members is declining, their influence vis-à-vis the state seems to be decreasing, and financial arrangements are changing. At the same time, the agencies or specialized ministries associated with these churches have become important - and increasingly independent - actors in their own right. The situation in North America - another pillar of the ecumenical movement - is quite different in many respects, but in other ways is quite similar. The mainline churches are experiencing decreases in membership, funding for the national church is becoming more difficult, and access to those in power seems to have shifted to a different set of churches. The growth of non-denominational mega-churches is more a US (NA) phenomenon than a European one.

If those trends continue and the churches become weaker and experience financial problems, then there could be far-reaching implications for the agencies associated with them. They, too, could become weaker in society, have less influence with their governments and may not be able to support the ecumenical movement in another 20 years to come. Or they could become more secular in orientation and less inclined to support ecumenical structures. While this reference has been primarily to Protestant churches, I would like to note that similar changes are underway in the Roman Catholic Church, especially in countries of the North. Orthodox churches are also undergoing changes. For churches in formerly Eastern Europe, the demise of communism has led to new opportunities for Orthodox church growth, to changing relationships with their governments, and to increased "competition" from Western missionaries.

While institutional or mainline Protestantism may be in the decline in North America and Europe, Christianity is thriving in the countries of the South. New churches are springing up in all regions. For example, there is vibrant church growth in Africa and Asia. The Korean Church has emerged as a major player in missionary work overseas. Korean missionaries are active in other parts of Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and in Europe. We recognize that the centre of Christianity is shifting to the South. But what kind of Christianity is it? There is vibrant church growth in North America and Europe as well, but primarily in the so-called "mega-churches" and the Evangelical/Pentecostal sectors. Some WCC member churches have moved much closer to Evangelical/Pentecostal practices as a way of responding to the needs of their members and in response to the increased "competition" they face from these churches. This is very much a reality in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The challenge to the churches in the global South is the extent to which they are prepared to embrace their responsibility as the centre of Christianity. What kind of Christianity will emerge in these contexts, especially vis-à-vis the search for visible unity and ecumenical social responsibility? Will the new Christianity of the global South be one which is two miles long and one inch deep?

Christianity in the South is growing by leaps and bounds and it is thriving. By the mid-21st century, the centre of gravity of Christianity will have shifted to the global South.

The following statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) are illustrative of the emerging trend:

  1. 2 billion Christians
    Europe 560 million
    Latin America/Caribbean 480 million
    Africa 360 million
    Asia 313 million
    North America 260 million

  1. 2.6 billion Christians
    Latin America/Caribbean 640 million
    Africa 633 million
    Europe 555 million
    Asia 460 million

  1. 3 billion Christians, the majority of whom will be in Africa, followed by Latin America/Caribbean, Asia, Europe, North America

While demographic trends in themselves do not explain everything about Christianity in the 21st century, they do, nevertheless, point to some important factors about ecumenism of the future. One such factor is that scholarship of theologians from the South will need to be taken more seriously and be allowed to impact ecumenical thinking. The scholarship we are referring to should be the kind that takes into account and visualizes a typical contemporary Christian, i.e. the faith experience of a Christian woman living in a village in Korea, Ghana, or in a Brazilian favela, or in the slums of Trinidad and Tobago. This is what Professor Mbiti had in mind when he says: "The centres of the church's universality are no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but in Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila" (P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.2). The second factor is that the ecumenically well-established churches, including Lutherans, Reformed, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc., are confronted with a multitude of unfamiliar and uncultivated relationships among the emerging Pentecostal and charismatic communities which are having a strong influence on their (ecumenical churches) members and forms of worship. For their part, the Pentecostals, Evangelicals and charismatic groups, at least at the local level, are having to discover ways of relating to established ecumenical systems with which they have no historical linkage, but to whose social agenda they may now subscribe.

These emerging realities call for a new basis for ecumenical engagement in the 21st century; a basis that goes beyond traditional bilateral dialogues to embrace the local spiritual needs. A pointer in this direction could be a renewed ecumenical emphasis on spiritual gifts which could be shared more widely.

Because of their location, the National Councils of Churches (NCCs) are challenged to provide ecumenical frameworks and spaces for such sharing to be carried out. This brings me to the fourth factor: the programmatic activities that have characterized ecumenical work over the years are likely to decline. This means that ecumenical conciliar bodies at different levels will be challenged to pay more attention to and develop capacities to assist the churches in articulating the relationship of self-understanding (ecclesiastical) and self-representation (ecclesiology) among different churches and communities (Wolfgang Vondey, Widening the Circle, p.2). This presupposes a new role for NCCs, regional ecumenical fellowships and regional ecumenical organizations (REOs), a welcome development given that NGOs are gaining greater capacity to undertake development work which in many parts of the world was the preserve of ecumenical organizations.

A fifth factor is that ecumenism in the 21st century will have to take into account the growing phenomena of living in a multi-faith context. This is particularly evident in Canada as in many other countries. This challenges us to consider more deeply the concept of broader ecumenism and the relationship between deepening inter-church and inter-faith dialogue and relationships.

As a matter of greater urgency the ecumenical movement has a significant role in clearing up the misconceptions between Christians and Muslims as both sides are equally ill-informed about each other. The WCC considers inter-religious dialogue as an important ecumenical agenda that can contribute to the diffusion of tensions between these two great religions. The ecumenical initiatives on bilateral and multilateral dialogues seek to be relevant to inter-religious work and cooperation at the local community level. For it is here that the communities need to work together on issues of common concern in order to build a lasting relationship based on mutual understanding, mutual respect and common commitment.

As His Holiness Aram I argues: "There is no alternative to a dialogue that challenges all religions to go beyond their institutional and dogmatic boundaries to seek a common ground for living, reflecting and working together. With this understanding and vision our churches are called to re-engage responsibly in this ‘common adventure'. Given the complex and sensitive nature of inter-religious dialogue, the engagement of the churches must be constantly reviewed and re-assessed in a critical and realistic manner" (Report of the Moderator to the 2003 WCC Central Committee meeting, p.5).

Life-centred vision will inevitably be a key component of ecumenism in the 21st century. Konrad Raiser had already anticipated this: "…It has become ever clearer that the perspective on ‘the whole inhabited earth', based on a traditional human-centred view of the world and of history, is still too limited. One major challenge facing the ecumenical movement is thus the need to develop a life-centred understanding of the oikoumene which embraces all of God's creation" (Konrad Raiser, To Be the Church, p.19). Recapturing the life-centredness in the diversity of religious and cultural experiences is at the root of our understanding of God, humanity and the world as well as of our spirituality and ethical norms. This would also broaden our horizons and "widen our understanding of the oikoumene and open our ecumenical explorations to the insights which other cultures and religious traditions can contribute to the search for a life-centred spirituality and ethic".

Finally, I look at the challenge of ecumenical formation. Historically, ecumenical formation has been rooted in the ecumenical youth movements and in the lay training centres. Both of these have been stimulated and supported by Protestants in Europe and North America. Today youth movements associated with the mainline Protestants are decreasing, while the evangelical and Pentecostal youth movements are growing. Where are our future ecumenical leaders being formed? To what extent are the sites of ecumenical formation shifting to the new Christian movements and with what implications for the nature of ecumenism in the 21st century?

At the same time that all of these trends are evident, there is an equally compelling trend of a yearning for spirituality, among young and old alike. To what extent are we capable of meeting these needs for spiritual growth, for spiritual enrichment? Have our structures become too bureaucratized to respond to this hunger for spirituality?

For years, we have grappled with the question of ecumenism as a movement versus its institutional expression. While the movement - or movements -- seem to be doing quite well, the institutions are languishing. Members of our churches are the backbone of many of the fastest-growing coalitions, movements, and para-church organizations. These movements lack the legitimacy of the conciliar structures, but have a vitality that is lacking in some of our structures. At WCC, we work closely with the movements, but we do so with some caution - in part because some of the movements' political aims are not fully developed, but also in part because of our concern with not offending our constituents.

In recent years, we have devoted significant resources to broadening the ecumenical fellowship - to reaching out to Evangelicals and Pentecostals and to strengthening our work with the Roman Catholic Church. If we are serious about broadening the fellowship, we need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to make the costly compromises which might be entailed in creating something new. Are we willing to give up, for example, our conceptions of membership? Our insistence that all assistance be given on the basis of need alone? Our structures?

A related, and perhaps more sensitive issue, has to do with the relationship between commitment to ecumenical and to denominational/confessional structures. Until now, the churches have been able both to support ecumenical institutions and global confessional bodies. But the time may be coming when all of these global structures can no longer be sustained. There may be a time in the not-too-distant future when churches are forced to choose between supporting a global ecumenical organization and a global confessional body. On one level, of course, we hope that time never comes. We cherish our complementary working relationships with the Christian World Communions. On the other hand, perhaps being forced to choose would give an indication of the churches' commitment to ecumenism.

In part these concerns have led to the process which we have called "Re-configuration of the Ecumenical Movement," where questions are being raised about our hopes and visions for ecumenism in the 21st century and about the structural changes needed to realize these visions.

The above trends point to a major challenge to ecumenism in the 21st century: will "movement" as a concept and praxis continue to characterize ecumenism in the 21st century or will the ecumenical emphasis on spiritual gifts be more likely to serve as the basis for the development of a contemporary ecumenical praxis?

A major characteristic of ecumenism in the 21st century is the capacity to listen: tolisten to what the Spirit is saying to the churches in various places and situations. But also to listen to one another.

I am often asked what individuals can do in their own congregations and communities to advance the ecumenical movement. One of the most essential tasks on the mission frontiers of the early 21st century is to learn to listen, and to teach others around you to listen with care. Create models of receptive listening and clear communication within your own churches, and within troubled sectors of your towns and cities. Listen to those with whom you disagree. Listen to members of other churches, and to members of other faiths, and to members of none. By all means, we shall continue to follow the ecumenical adage, "Speak the truth to power!" But we are also challenged to put just as much of our energy into listening to the powerful, and to the powerless, instead of simply assuming we know what either of them has to say.

It is a time for listening. We need to listen to the cries and agonies of the world, but also to expressions of joy and hope. We need to understand the weight of others' burdens, as well as their capacity to love. And having listened and having understood, we shall be expected to respond to those whom we have heard in faith and love.

The Quest for Ecumenical Spirituality

Today the youth of much of the world have grown dissatisfied with institutional religion. Recently, I met with a group of Danish students who were visiting Geneva. Talking with them as they stopped at the Ecumenical Centre, I recognized that each of them was searching for a more profound meaning in life than they were being offered by their society. But almost all of them were engaging in this search outside the traditional channels defined by their churches or other traditions. For them, the old forms of religion ring hollow; they are looking for something of substance. What is it that so many established religions are failing to provide? The term that usually comes into play in discussing this phenomenon is "spirituality" - a spirituality understood as existing over against organized religion. This yearning must be taken into account as we discuss ecumenism in the 21st century.

The emphasis on "spirituality" in contemporary religious discourse provides one more enticement to battle-weary church leaders, and members, to retreat from social action and public controversy. If people are obsessed with the purely "spiritual", runs the argument, perhaps it is time for our theology and our practice to turn inward once more. In a similar vein, there are those in the churches who are hesitant to proceed too far in inter-religious dialogue. Almost all would agree that some conversation is necessary, but many professing Christians prefer to keep committed members of other faiths at a safe distance, fearing possible and unforeseen consequences of too frank a dialogue.

It seems to me that all these issues arise from questions of identity. It is imperative that we pay sufficient attention to the issue of identity because, unlike the 20th century which was dominated by politics of ideology, the 21st century will most likely be dominated by politics of identity. Who are we? What is the meaning of our lives and of our relationships to God and one another? How can we explore the "depth dimension" of human existence?

Over the past two decades, it has become almost "politically correct" to speak of spirituality in positive terms, where the word "religion" could breed suspicion and contempt. So let me risk saying one or two politically incorrect things about spirituality as it is often described.

The contemporary concept of "spirituality" too often embraces a vaguely psychological orientation toward the search for identity and meaning. It may present itself as an adjunct to the therapeutic, yet often in an uncritically self-affirming way. Indeed, especially in Western culture, "the self" can easily become the subject-matter of an ill-defined, egoistic spirituality. Joseph Campbell's mantra, "Follow your bliss", has been used as an excuse for selfishness - when it could as easily be interpreted as an invitation to discover the bliss of engaging creatively with the world.

Even when some schools of spirituality speak of a seeker's harmony with "the world" or with "nature", the linkage is frequently depicted on a sub-atomic level or through a purely mystical connection. The unity of all things is said to consist in being made of the same "star-stuff", or of feeding off the "good vibrations" of the universe. Seldom does this brand of spirituality take any real interest in the social, civic, political or economic dimensions of "the world".

John Wesley, one of my Methodist forebears, once observed that "The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion." To the extent that present-day spirituality threatens to turn a new generation inward, to focus minds on the self, to exalt the solitary, ecumenical Christianity has a word to say. And an important part of our calling today is to promote an alternative spirituality - a spirituality that rejoices in the continuity of things of the spirit with action for justice and peace.

I have said that the interest in spirituality today is part of a need felt by individuals to explore their own identity. But the discovery of identity, meaning and purpose must not be accepted as our ultimate goal. It is simply a spiritual starting point.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer quoted the ancient Greek thinker Archimedes, who said: "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth." Bonhoeffer encouraged the churches to seek "a spiritual Archimedean point", a holy ground on which to stand, from which we Christians may be able to exercise leverage on a world in need of transformation.

Spiritual practices and shared reflection are tools by which we may seek that stable place of moral clarity and confidence amid the turbulent human landscape of shifting values, uncertain hopes and crumbling commitments.

In 1975, as liberation theology was rising to prominence, M.M. Thomas of India, then Moderator of the World Council of Churches' Central Committee, spoke of the need for a "spirituality of combat" in confronting the principalities and powers of this life. In the 1980s the WCC-Urban Rural Mission (URM) sought the spirituality that undergirds the community of people engaged in the struggles for transformation of society. In Korea, for example, the Minjung theology was developed which provided the grounding for advocacy work by Christians during a very difficult period in the history of their country. In Africa, especially in South Africa, Black Theology became the most effective way of conscientizing the oppressed, and inspired them in their struggles against racism, just as it had been the case with Africans in diaspora in the USA. The Theology of Liberation in Latin America and generally in this region is perhaps the most significant paradigmatic shift in respect to the struggles of the poor and speaking the truth to power. Incarnation as the liberating love, which is both a gift and a task to be fulfilled, informed and influenced theological and hermeneutical discourses in the "Christian world". God's preferential option for the poor and oppressed became common language in mainline ecumenical theology. Today Christians in the South and elsewhere are challenged to build on contextual theologies as part of their ecumenical social responsibility in addressing contemporary issues of justice, peace and reconciliation. What is needed is a spirituality that takes hold of real-world as well as local challenges, and will not let them go unresolved.

Such a spirituality may begin in a profound encounter with the self, but from the beginning we must be prepared to move beyond self into close community, and from there into action in the world God loves. In the solitude of self we experience a yearning for companionship; in community we find the desire and commitment to help build a more just and caring world community. And, in our interaction with the world and its many people, the Holy Spirit will affirm our identity and give us a place to stand. From that stand, we will develop and nurture ecumenism for our times in the 21st century.