During a visit to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva on 16 February, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke on an “ecumenism of action” as he also congratulated the WCC on its 70th anniversary.
“Bi- and multi-lateral theological dialogue over the course of the twentieth century bore much fruit but at times it could be appear to be akin to diplomatic renegotiation of borders: the barriers to communion still exist but not where we thought they did,” said Welby. “The underlying problem with these discussions, however, is that they are what I would call negotiation of the frontiers.”
The negotiation of the ways in which frontiers are set down, and in which they are crossed, is one of the most difficult aspects of international relations at times of tension, he continued.
“Frontiers imply difference,” he explained. “They say that on one side of the frontier there is the ‘other’.”
Ecumenism that looks as though it is about the negotiation of frontiers is an ecumenism that is based on theological foundations of sand, he said. “Indeed, one might argue that it is not based on foundations at all,” he said. “Negotiated frontiers start with barriers.”
One of the great gifts of the ecumenical movement is that it has allowed Christians from different denominations, who might once have kept separate from one another, to get to know one another, Welby reflected.
“There were times before, say, the 1960s, when people of one denomination might never have entered the church building of another,” he said. “In England today, and I am sure it is similar in other parts of the world, many congregations are made up of people who started their Christian life in other denominations.”
The result of this is that traditions, ideas and worship styles from one church are brought into the other, he noted. “The wind of the spirit which has brought such movements into reality, is blowing ever more powerfully,” he said. “In many places it is becoming a hurricane.”
An ecumenism of action says that faced with evil, we come together in love and show that we are one.
“There is a great danger that the ecumenism of action turns into the ecumenism of being useful,” he cautioned. “We can easily fall into the trap of believing that if we cannot agree, then we can at least do something together that is nice and useful.”
But this is massively to understate and to misrepresent the nature of the ecumenism of action, he said. “The world is crying out in need,” he said. “We can become too pragmatic about this, forgetting its theological foundations.”
The ecumenism of action is also based in this reality that need does not wait for theological agreement, but for the compassion of Christ, he added. “When non-believers meet missionaries who do not agree among themselves, even though they all appeal to Christ, will they be in a position to receive the true message?” he asked. “It is not the case that an ecumenism of action leaves theology outside the room.”
One of the genius characteristics of the WCC was, from very early on, to hold together the theological, diaconal and evangelistic ecumenical movements, Welby concluded.
“Theological dialogue and discussion brings people closer together and sets up the framework for joint action,” he said. “Joint action brings people closer together, and sets up the relationship that enables theological dialogue and discussion.”