Despite a separation by doctrine, history or traditions, churches in Africa are engaged in ecumenism that helps cement unity and action.
Church membership in the continent is surging. Here, the voices of the Christians and their leaders highlight the crucial role of ecumenism, whether it is in helping decipher the existing ideological differences or boosting humanitarian action.
Ecumenical dialogues are boosting peace and justice, and respect for human dignity, according to pastors and lay Christians. For them, the World Council Churches (WCC) is an important linkage and an inspiration for the churches, which thrive in complex and challenging circumstances including, among others, chronic food shortages, armed conflict, and climate crisis.
Anthony Adebayo Kehinde, a deacon in the Nigerian-based, The Church of the Lord (Prayer Fellowship) Worldwide—a Pentecostal church with a presence in the whole of West Africa—explains that the global ecumenical grouping has aided the church’s acceptance and involvement in ecumenism.
“Our interactions with the WCC have helped shape our sense of importance and relevance of achieving Christian unity and our shared resistance to divisions within Christendom,” says the minister, whose church has a presence in Europe and the United States of America.
According to the deacon, the church’s decision to join the global ecumenical body, nearly 50 years ago, remains one of the most important decisions to this day. “Our membership, in particular, has aided our reaction in seeking and working for peace in places where we have a presence around the world,” says Kehinde, a former member of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and a former steward with WCC. He adds that the organization has helped many young adults identify a distinct purpose for their ecumenical calling and journey.
Rev. Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest in the Mount Kenya West diocese, says in his region, the WCC is viewed as an organization that seeks to strengthen ecumenism.
“In the past its impact was felt in its partnership with organizations such as the National Council of Churches of Kenya and the Interreligious Council of Kenya, among others” says the priest. “Nowadays I've not heard much [about it].”
In Zimbabwe, Masimba Lovemore Kuchera, a lay member of the United Church of Christ, says the WCC is an important pillar of his church as it provides the linkages between local, regional, and international church communities.
“As an international body it provides relevant ecumenical experiences which I and my church can draw from,” says Kuchera, also a former member of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
Njakai says churches in the region are involved in ecumenical activities. The churches hold forums for leaders of different denominations and at times have interdenominational prayers. He cites as an example, an annual prayer breakfast for his county, known as Nyeri.
“Local ecumenism is a very effective way of enhancing Christian unity,” he says. “My parish has partnered with the local Catholic parish in choir matters. The Catholic priest in charge of the parish mentors my choir. He was also the guest preacher during our choir day.”
Kehinde explains that his church maintains a policy position on ecumenism that is relevant to its day-to-day work in the communities and the nations where it has a presence. “We make sure that we are part of every narrative that deepens the culture of encounters among Christian communities, as evidenced by our participation in various ecumenical expressions at the global, continental, sub-regional, national, and local levels,” he says.
Kuchera says for his church, local ecumenism means linking up with other Christian denominations in various activities. “For instance, attending each other’s functions, organizing joint functions and speaking with one voice on critical issues,” he says.
But such activities and actions need to spread to the grassroots, according to pastors and lay Christians, so that ecumenism can gain a stronger grip in areas where most Christians live.
Kehinde observes that the unity the churches profess at international, regional, ecumenical gatherings is not usually visible locally in most cases. “With rising divisions, several churches have not been interacting with one another while some just find it convenient to relate with their church family alone,” he says.
So as to support and give more meaning to the unity witnessed at a global and regional level, Kehinde hopes to see a growth in inter and intra ecumenical relations.
“For example, a Catholic priest or Orthodox minister share communion in an African-instituted church and an exchange of the pulpits, as this will deepen peace at that level,” says the minister.
Njakai says he hopes to see activities that are “proactive in bringing Christians together through common activities targeting the wellbeing of the community.”
For Kuchera, the most important is for churches to accept that they are one in Christ. “I believe that holding joint activities is a step towards fostering that unity. I think it’s important for both the leadership and congregation to always interact,” he says, adding such is happening in his country- through the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.