World Council of Churches

Eine weltweite Gemeinschaft von Kirchen auf der Suche nach Einheit, gemeinsamem Zeugnis und Dienst

Isabel Apawo Phiri presentation

20. Februar 2006

Plenary on church unity

Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri is current head and professor of African theology at the School of Religion and Theology, University of KwaZulu Natal, and general coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians

"Called to be the One Church" The Future of Ecumenism
A Protestant Voice


In this presentation I attempt to present only "one" perspective of the Protestant voice as a response to the text: "Called to be the One Church" as an impulse for the churches' search for visible unity in faith, life, witness and action. This perspective is shaped by my own context as a Malawian Presbyterian, living in South Africa. In addition, it is informed by my work in theological education in ecumenical and multi-faith environments and my commitment to social justice issues through the work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

Unity a divine gift and calling

"Is the Holy Spirit present in these ecumenical gatherings that you attend?"

I was recently asked by my Minister's spouse whether the Holy Spirit is present in ecumenical gatherings, as she understood ecumenical gatherings to be simply about what she called "head knowledge." When reflecting on her question I realized that this is a view that is shared by a significant number of Christians across the denominations in Africa who think that the Holy Spirit is not present in Ecumenical gatherings, let alone among ecumenical believers. What is missing in this understanding however is that church unity is indeed both a divine gift and calling. It is the Holy Spirit that guides the Church, both at a global and local level, to be obedient to the command of Jesus that all Christians should be one.

As part of a Charismatic Presbyterian Church, my own congregation shows signs of visible church unity by broad acceptance of: a) a variety of different types of baptism; b) invitation to all believers in Christ from all churches to partake of the Holy Communion; c) Ordained ministers of other denominations to share the pulpit; and d) allowing Ministers of other denominations to preside over the Holy Communion.

Koinonia/Communion through theological education and formation

The document "called to be the one church" has affirmed that we confess one, holy, catholic and apostolic church". The School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa is an example of an attempt to live out the consequences of this unity through the formation of a cluster of theological institutions who offer theological education and formation to the Roman Catholic Church, The Evangelical Churches, The Lutheran Church, The Moravian Church, The Congregational Church, The Anglican Church and soon the Methodist Church. At a time when many ecumenical institutions are closing in favour of denominational ones, Pietermaritzburg is thriving again as the hub of visible unity of the church as a witness of Christ. The school also engages in a multi-faith dialogue and collaboration. This is a clear affirmation and example that ecumenism goes beyond "church unity". This is a very important angle in our witness as one Church because Africa is home to many religions. 

The fact that many more churches in South Africa, the African continent and other continents are sending their students to be part of this ecumenical body of Christ is promising to the future of ecumenism in our region and strengthens the urgent need for ecumenical theology to guide the theological institutions and the church in Africa.

Church unity through ecumenical rites of marriage

I come from a family of six children. Despite our Presbyterian background, through inter-church marriages the Assemblies of God Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Church of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, the Living Waters Church, and the Anglican Church have found their way into our family and we embrace them all. Our family has resisted the assumption that women follow their husband's denomination. Inter-church marriages have been a thorny issue in the body of Christ due to our different church doctrines, especially among the Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant churches. To some marriage is a civil or social contract, while to others it is a sacrament. However it is what happens at grassroots level that calls for the Church in Africa to heed the call for ecumenical rites of marriage, as one visible symbol of the obedience of the Church in Africa to Jesus' call for one church. Ecumenical marriages should be a place to celebrate the spirit of fellowship and Christian unity.

The church as communion of believers

The document on "called to be one Church' has reminded us that the Church is a communion of believers. In practise, the marginalisation of people on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and ability undermines and challenges what we have been given by God. 

Several publications of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (which is both an ecumenical and a multi-faith movement) illustrate gender challenges to the unity of the Churches. For example, many women express the frustration that gender difference is used "to divide women from men and assign their gifts an inferior value." This can be seen in the inability to deal with gender-based violence in the church; and in the difficulties which women who are already ordained experience in the church as they carry out their ministry. A continuing source of tension is the fact that some churches ordain women, and others do not.


The topic of church unity is far too broad to have done justice to in this short presentation. Notwithstanding, I have attempted to hone in on my own context to frame the discussion. I have highlighted some of the possibilities that exist for further exploration such as the potential for unity which exists in all the Protestant churches in Africa. If indeed we believe that God is calling us to unity we need to show it in action through recognition of ordained ministers (of all races, gender, age, ability and sexual orientation) of other churches at our Holy Communion table; through ecumenical rites for inter church marriages; embracing the spirituality of others through theological education and formation; and affirming the church as communion of believers by getting rid of all that undermines this belief.

Thank you