An Interview with Rev. Aimee Moiso
Rev. Aimee Moiso serves as Chair of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations
Unbound: Some people say ecumenism is over, like the denomination, or joining anything beyond the local. How do you understand ecumenism today?
Aimee: To say ecumenism is over is to misunderstand the nature of ecumenism. Perhaps when people say that, they are thinking that the issues that have divided the church throughout history are passé, or that we’ve got bigger problems to deal with than relating with other Christians. But to the woman who’s estranged from her Baptist brother because she married a Catholic, or the parents who are pained because their kids have left the church, or the presbytery that has split apart after years of common ministry, the need for ecumenism – for talking about our differences and seeking the unity of the body of Christ – is real and present. In my experience, just about everyone has a story about feeling excluded or divided in the church. At its heart, ecumenism is about relationships. It’s about you and me and how we understand being together in Christian faith, and I’m not sure that will ever be ‘over’.
When I teach adult education classes on ecumenism, I talk about the historic ways in which different parts of the Christian tradition have understood what it means to be the church, and I ask the participants to think about how they understand their own boundaries around faith. I pose tough questions, like: what, if anything, would keep you from serving communion to someone in your church? If you think you would serve communion to anyone, under what circumstances would doing so cause you discomfort?
To say ecumenism is over is to misunderstand the nature of ecumenism.
This last question tends to catch people off guard. Many who consider themselves quite open and inclusive can still imagine circumstances where serving communion to someone (or a particular group of people) would be challenging, or would cause them to want to set limits. The question itself helps us think about how we understand our faith: are we more worried about particular beliefs? About acting in specific ways? Demonstrating faith in our social or ethical behavior? Having a particular kind of conversion experience?
Everyone has boundaries somewhere, but we don’t always take time to examine or even acknowledge them. The point, of course, is to get us to consider what matters in our Christian faith – and to imagine what might matter to others – in order to move toward common understanding, if not appreciation.
Unbound: You are one of the few U.S. Presbyterians to study at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland in recent years. What did that educational program after seminary teach you?
Aimee: In a way, ecumenism has been in me for a long time. I attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and found myself a mainline pastor’s kid among a student population that was much more evangelical than I. During my college years, as is true for many young adults, I found myself wrestling with my own Christian faith as it rubbed up against people who understood their faith differently, even to the point of excluding mine. But I also learned something about listening in those years: listening to people who also wanted to follow Jesus but whose experiences were foreign to me, listening for their faithfulness even if it didn’t mirror mine, listening for the ways in which God was speaking to us through the other.
At its heart, ecumenism is about relationships. It’s about you and me and how we understand being together in Christian faith, and I’m not sure that will ever be ‘over’.
Bossey felt like a continuation of that same journey. Before seminary, I worked at Bread for the World in Washington, DC, whose staff was both ecumenical and interfaith. During my M.Div. at San Francisco Theological Seminary, I had a number of opportunities to travel around the country and world and engage in the ecumenical movement through the National Council of Churches of Christ (U.S.A.), the World Council of Churches, and the World Alliance (now Communion) of Reformed Churches. The masters in ecumenical studies at Bossey seemed like a logical next step after my M.Div. It formalized my ecumenical training – that is, I learned in a more concrete way about the history of ecumenism and the divisions of the church – and it gave me a chance to live and study with Christians of all stripes from all over the world, which is eye-opening and enriching beyond all description.
Unbound: Part of your ecumenical journey has been to serve as a Protestant chaplain at a Catholic Jesuit university. What was that like? How did you work with college students as they wrestled with religious pluralism around them?
Aimee: The Campus Ministry department at Santa Clara University welcomed me into their Catholic fold with open arms. They hired me because they recognized that the diversity of their student body necessitated a more diverse Campus Ministry team. But I’m not sure they knew what they were getting into when they hired me. One of my more hare-brained schemes was to bring in two undergraduate interns – a Muslim woman and an evangelical Christian man – to work with me on ecumenical and interfaith ministries. All three of us were ‘outsiders’ to an extent in the Jesuit context, but we were also quite different from each other.
Those two interns, though, turned out to be something of a miracle: while they vehemently disagreed with each other about theology, they also became fiercely loyal to each other, and our department’s best witnesses to the power and honor of working through differences. Both interns are now in seminary – the woman in an Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford, and the man in his third year of an M.Div. at Princeton – and they remain as close as siblings.
There were challenges, of course – both with my interns and with my Catholic colleagues. In truth, it remains tender to me that I was not able to participate in the Eucharist during Mass, even when I was the preacher. Those moments were equally tender to my colleagues, who with me longed for a day when we would not be separated at the table, and when my ordination might be fully recognized.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we can’t do that if we keep them at arm’s length or think of them as competitors, or strangers.
Unbound: How do you see ecumenism differently from our interfaith or interreligious relationships?
Aimee: Historically, the word ‘ecumenism’ has referred to intra-Christian relationships. Interfaith or interreligious engagement, on the other hand, has to do with how we as Presbyterian Christians understand our relationships to people of other religious traditions and backgrounds. The Presbyterian Church has a long history of participating in both ecumenical and interreligious engagement, though we have more formally engaged in ecumenical endeavors, especially through regional, national, and international ecumenical bodies. Much of our interreligious engagement took place in the mission field as our mission workers encountered people of various faith traditions and sought partnership for the common good around the world.
In recent decades, however, interfaith dialogue has gotten much more attention here at home, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with many of our ecumenical partners, has worked to broaden our understanding of the religious pluralism around us, to deepen our interreligious relationships, and to help our equip our congregations and middle governing bodies for local interfaith engagement. At this moment, for example, my Facebook newsfeed is full of Presbyterian colleagues attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City!
Unbound: Where does all of this take you as you chair the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations?
Aimee: There is a difference between the goals of ecumenism and interreligious engagement – the former being the unity of Christ’s church, and the latter being mutual understanding and respect as we work together toward the common good. But as I said before, it’s all about relationships. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we can’t do that if we keep them at arm’s length or think of them as competitors, or strangers. The church needs to be active in this work, especially in this season of religious diversity and religious conflict. I hope is that Committee can continue to provide guidance and leadership to the church in ways that facilitate true and deep – though sometimes difficult – relationships across differences.
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Aimee Moiso was born in Portland, Oregon, the eldest child of a Presbyterian pastor. She graduated from Whitworth College, received her M.Div. from San Francisco Theological Seminary and has a masters in ecumenical studies from the Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. She also worked in communications for the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. She previously served as Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Ministries at Santa Clara University in California, and is now a PhD student in Homiletics and Liturgics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!