Ecumenism needs reinvention, Pentecostal scholar says

 — Nov. 9, 20079 nov. 2007

Pentecostal theologian and scholar Cheryl Bridges-Johns proposed a radical reinvention of the ecumenical movement in a keynote address delivered on the third day of the Global Christian Forum which takes place 6-9 November in Limuru, near Nairobi, Kenya.

Bridges-Johns, a professor at the Theological Seminary of the Church of God in Cleveland (Tennessee), US, sparked a vivid discussion with her lecture, which elaborated on a statement from the 1961 New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches: “the achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them.”

For Bridges-Johns, what is dying is “the old ‘mainstream’ ecumenical paradigm,” as “the structures built to create and sustain the visible unity of the church are no longer viable.” As a result, “a new form of ecumenism is needed that is able to embrace the challenges of world-wide Christianity.” The Global Christian Forum “represents such an effort.” It is one instance of “a number of new ecumenical tables” that have arisen over the last decade or so.

The Global Christian Forum is for many the most inclusive Christian meeting ever gathered to advance Christian unity and explore common challenges. It has brought together over four days some 240 high level representatives from Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, Pentecostal and other traditions as well as interchurch organizations from some 70 countries.

But, Bridges-Johns affirmed, “even among those who seek a new form of ecumenism and applaud the death of the old, there is a lack of awareness of the extent of the death and re-birth necessary for the achievement of the visible unity of the world-wide church.”

According to the speaker, “any new form of ecumenism must take into account the new faces, the different worldviews and new voices of non-Western Christianity.” But the so-called “new ecumenism” fails to understand the reality of the “indigenous, multi-faceted forms of Christianity” outside the Western context. “Western conservatives look to the South for support, but fail to understand the worldview of Southern Christianity.”

Those wishing to “construct a new ecumenical table” will therefore need to undergo a process of conversion. “All of us, those from the North and those from the South, those from the East and those from the West [need] to die to old assumptions regarding each other.”

For Western Christianity, conversion means, among other things, examining its sense that it represents “the pinnacle of evolutionary development,” and that it must “die to its elevation of certain forms of scientific reason as more developed than other ways of knowing.”

For churches from the South and East, “conversion would mean not being so quick to label Western Christianity as ‘apostate’ or ‘post-Christian’,” as well as to “avoid the temptation of judgment.”

“We should not dismiss too quickly and easily the ecumenical movement and the instruments it has created,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, speaking at a panel later in the day.

Affirming the value and role of the Global Christian Forum, Farrell recalled that the Forum owes its existence to those instruments. “Even if it is 100 years old, the ecumenical movement is still in its beginnings. The cause of Christian unity takes patience and a continued effort.”

“Churches in the South should be allowed to set their own agenda,” said the Rev. Israel Batista, general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches, in a comment to the plenary following the afternoon panel. “This Forum is still too Western-oriented; the churches in the South also have the capacity to discern what the Spirit is doing among them,” Batista affirmed.

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