An Ecumenical Vision for the 21st Century
“In Christ God was reconciling the world…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” –II Corinthians 5:19
You won’t be surprised that a professor of Ecumenical Studies has chosen to write on the gift of the ecumenical movement for our common Christian pilgrimage. I do that out of the conviction that ecumenism, while it has had a tremendous impact on the churches and the faithfulness of their witness, has made its most profound impact by offering Christians a fresh insight into the heart of the gospel. That has certainly been true for me, and I hope it is – or will be – for you as well.
My Ecumenical Journey
I was raised and nurtured in a deeply evangelical Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. That church introduced me to a living relation with Jesus Christ and challenged me to consider God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. In fact, by the time I was in the eleventh grade I was already a candidate for the ministry in Memphis Presbytery – a practice I do not recommend to high school juniors these days! This congregation nurtured me in a profound way.
And then, when I came home after my freshman year at Davidson College in the summer of 1964, I found the elders at that congregation with their arms locked into one another to keep African Americans from worshiping in the church.
The human instrument for my ‘second conversion’ was the ecumenical movement.
It was a profoundly disturbing moment for me. While I too was quite conservative in my orientation, I simply could find no way to reconcile faith in Jesus Christ with exclusion of people from church on the basis of race. I returned to Davidson profoundly shaken by this experience and questioning both the truth of the Christian faith and my own call to ministry, which seemed so rock solid only months before.
It was in this context that the student YMCA, which in those days was actively involved in campus ministry, reached out to me with their passion for ecumenism that was sparked by the then-recent General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, India. They had been inspired by the message of the New Delhi Assembly that Christ calls us to unity in the church for the sake of the unity of humankind. This connection (so absent in much of Southern American Protestantism at the time) between God’s reconciliation with us in Christ and the work for unity and reconciliation in the church and in the world was just what I needed to hear – and just what the American South needed at a time of deep unrest and injustice.
The human instrument for my ‘second conversion’ was the ecumenical movement. Its vision has shaped my life and ministry ever since. Here I want to share with you the evolution and maturation of the core vision that has guided the ecumenical movement in different phases of its life and explore its significance for Christian life and mission in our time.
Edinburgh 1910 and 2010
This is an opportune time for such an exploration. A few years ago (in 2010) we marked the 100th anniversary of the modern ecumenical movement. Most would agree that while the roots of ecumenism go all the way back to biblical times and the message of Jesus, it began its modern movement character with the great world mission conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. The biblical foundation for that gathering was John 17:21, “that they may all be one….that the world might believe.” The contextual impetus was the rallying cry of “the world for Christ in this generation” and the scandal of a church and a missionary movement divided along hundreds of denominational lines seeking to share the reconciling gospel of Christ with a non?Christian world.
There was great optimism among the 1400 men who were delegates to the Edinburgh conference (yes, they were all men, and all but a handful were from Europe and North America!) that the period of great missionary advance and of the advance of Christian civilization was just ahead but could only be seized if churches worked together in unity. This gathering planted the seeds that produced the Life and Work Movement, the Faith and Order Movement, and the International Missionary Council – all of which sought to unite the Protestant world and which, following two world wars, would come together to create the World Council of Churches (WCC).
That the movement chose the word, ecumenical (from the Greek word, oikumene, meaning the whole inhabited earth), is indicative of the fact that this was not a movement to withdraw into a tight circle of unity among Christians. Rather, it sought to extend this vision of unity and reconciliation to the whole world. This energy would lead Archbishop William Temple to declare that “ecumenism is the great new fact of our time.”  Twenty years later it would also lead the Roman Catholic Church to join and enrich this movement some years later at Vatican II.
I had the privilege of being in Edinburgh for the 100th anniversary celebration in 2010 through an ecumenical conference known as Edinburgh 2010. This conference celebrated the impetus that Edinburgh 1910 gave to unity and ecumenical mission among the churches and sought to renew and recontextualize that commitment for our time. In many ways it was a very different gathering – made up equally of men and women with two thirds of the delegates coming from churches in the Global South. It no longer equated ecumenism with mainline Protestantism but rather had a solid majority representing the Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Evangelical Churches. It was a conference that celebrated the incredible spread of the Christian faith around the world over the last century, but it clearly did not repeat the earlier strategy of looking to Christian civilization or the churches in the Western world to be the primary agents of God’s work in the world. It did once again seek to appropriate Jesus great prayer, “that they may all be one…that the world might believe,” but this time for a postmodern, interconnected world where the urgency for reconciliation and unity is even greater than ever before.
An Evolving and Maturing Ecumenical Paradigm
While the biblical foundation of ‘being one in Christ that the world might believe’ continues to empower the ecumenical movement, its operating paradigms have not been static. The commitment to Christian unity for the sake of the world that God loves has found expression in guiding visions or paradigms that have evolved and matured over the years – and that today challenge us to live in communion with the incredible diversity we find in God’s Church and God’s world. Dr. Konrad Raiser, the well-known German ecumenical theologian and former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, has highlighted in his book, Ecumenism in Transition  the empowering paradigms that guided the ecumenical movement in different periods of the twentieth century.
The first paradigm, which began the modern ecumenical movement, reflected the hubris of Western culture and Christianity and the confidence of the Enlightenment era. Its primary focus was on Christian (or Church) unity and the expansion of ‘Christian civilization’ to all parts of the world. Its aim was to move toward organic unity in one church in place of the multitude of different communions that were the legacy of the Reformation. Through the early Faith and Order movement, real progress was made toward identifying a common faith, expressed in the Nicene Creed, and key elements were identified as essential for the foundation of this one united church: the authority of scripture, recognition of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as two principal sacraments, and common recognition of a three?fold ordering of ministry (bishops, elders, and deacons). Early breakthroughs like the Church of South India gave ecumenists hope that this paradigm would indeed succeed. On the world front, while those in the ecumenical movement recognized that injustice also existed in the West (and indeed were leaders in the Social Gospel movement), they had great hope that the legacy of the Colonial era would be the spread of Christian civilization, which was best expressed in the West.
In short, it was a vision that connected unity with uniformity and had confidence that the fruits of the ecumenical movement would indeed be one church, which would be uniform in its basic beliefs and practices, and a Christian social order that would come about through the spread (and renewal) of Western Christian civilization.
Our faith cannot grow and flourish in isolation or in a homogeneous community. To experience the multiple riches of God’s grace, we need to be connected to and learn from Christians who are very different from ourselves.
By the middle of the twentieth century a number of factors were causing the ecumenical movement to rethink its guiding vision:
- Two world wars stripped away any confidence that Western civilization could be easily equated with Christian social order,
- The churches were finding that it was not easy – or even possible ? to move toward organic union on a grand scale,
- The entrance of Catholic and Orthodox Churches into the ecumenical movement raised new questions about its basic direction,
- The emergence of widely diverse and rapidly growing churches in the Global South and the moral claims on the world’s conscience from liberation movements outside of the Christian West made the assumptions of church union and Christian civilization seem strange indeed.
All of these factors and many more made this paradigm of Church unity and the expansion of Western Christian civilization seem far less desirable in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first. What gradually came to take its place was the paradigm that captured my imagination and my heart at Davidson College, a paradigm known as Christocentric universalism.
What happened at the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, was not to put those who were different in a strait jacket of uniformity but rather to welcome their diversity, granting equal respect to all members of the body of Christ.
Christocentric universalism focused less on hopes for the institutional church and ‘the Christian West’ and more on the centrality of Christ who wills unity and who is at work in the world. The emphasis in missionary circles on the Missio Dei, God’s mission in the world (and not just in and through the church), was a natural concomitant to this vision. The clear conviction was that while Christian civilization may not always be the bearer of Christian values, Christ is still at work in the world, often through emerging social movements for liberation. The Uppsala Assembly of the WCC best developed this motif of the unity of the church and the unity of humankind as the watchwords for this paradigm.
This vision was at the core of my ‘second conversion,’ and it captured the commitment of churches and a generation of Christian activists not only in the Global North but also in the Global South. It allowed Catholics and Orthodox, who could not imagine themselves merged into an ecumenical church based on the earlier assumptions, to become active partners in the ecumenical movement, and it made the ecumenical movement a leader in the struggle against racism and for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation.
However, as Konrad Raiser has remarked, this vision has now “lost much of its power to inspire.” A focus on a Christ-centered universalism is hard to maintain in a postmodern world that has little interest in global unity and a growing consciousness of religious (and not just Christian) plurality. The confidence that Christocentric universalism placed in God’s action in history is also hard to square with a clear pattern of social relations that are destroying our ecology and marginalizing the vast majority of the world’s people through global economic and political systems based on greed. Also, in an increasingly religious world, the confidence that Christocentric universalism placed in secular movements for justice and liberation seems excessive if not misplaced. A new guiding vision was needed, one that placed theological emphasis not only on Christology but also on the Trinity as a relational model for the church’s life.
An Emerging Paradigm of Koinonia and Reconciled Diversity
What has emerged in our time is a fresh paradigm for the ecumenical movement based on the biblical concept of koinonia or communion. Rather than seeking unity by discouraging diversity, this new paradigm sees diversity as a gift from God that is to be encouraged while we also seek to be reconciled to one another in the model of the triune God. At its core is the conviction that the world and the church need to welcome and honor diversity, seek reconciliation, and live together in communion. If taken to heart, it will be a transforming vision for ordering our church life and constructing a just, peaceful, and sustainable world!
The statement on The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling coming out of the WCC’s Assembly in Canberra in 1991 marks the transition to this new guiding vision. It grew out of deeper New Testament study that found that communion was far more often emphasized than unity in the early church. In the Greco?Roman world of the New Testament, unity was a rallying cry of the empire to squash diversity and dissonance and to establish a uniformity based on the control, hierarchy, and dominance of the Roman empire – a concept far different from the biblical vision of an incredible diversity of people and cultures linked together in communion based on the model of the Trinitarian communion of God. What happened at the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, was not to put those who were different in a strait jacket of uniformity but rather to welcome their diversity, grant equal respect to all members of the body of Christ, and to link them together in a genuine spirit of community that is modeled in a Trinitarian God. This is what it means to be the body of Christ.
In this new paradigm the emphasis in church union is much more on seeking full communion among churches rather than organic mergers, so that their diverse gifts can be honored while they are, nevertheless, one in Christ in a very meaningful sense. The vision of reconciled diversity, of living together in communion, is not only a vision for the Christian community but also a model for the world. In our time when there is an unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, when women and people of different sexual orientations are denied equal rights, when the biological diversity of our world is being destroyed, when ethnic and religious violence is the basis of our major wars, it is urgent that we promote a social ethic that honors diversity, seeks reconciliation, and builds a world where people and the planet can live together in community.
Reconciled Diversity and Its Implications For Us
While this guiding vision of reconciled diversity is reshaping the ecumenical movement in some very creative and promising ways, what is most important is that this vision – that is deeply biblical and strongly contextual – also reshape our minds and hearts as Christians, renew our churches, and guide our witness in the world.
For us as individuals this paradigm of reconciled diversity is a reminder that “life in fullness” (John 10:10) in the Christian pilgrimage is always life in community – with God and with one another. It is a reminder that our faith cannot grow and flourish in isolation or in a homogeneous community, but to experience the multiple riches of God’s grace, we need to be connected to and learn from Christians who are very different from ourselves. It also is a challenge to understand our calling as disciples in terms of working for reconciliation, inclusion, and communion in the world.
For our congregations it is a reminder that we should be less worried about church order, doctrine, liturgical, and worship practices and more concerned about the quality of our communal life, our openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the hospitality we extend in welcoming those who are different. Letty Russell, in her wonderful book The Church in the Round,  gives us a helpful metaphor for the life of this kind of church as it is gathered at round tables (for building community and discerning God’s will for our life), at kitchen tables (for doing the difficult work of seeking justice), and at welcoming tables (for extending the hospitality and welcome of the church to those who are outside of its fellowship). Such an approach to congregational life resonates with a guiding vision of reconciled diversity.
In our time when there is an unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor, when women and people of different sexual orientations are denied equal rights, when the biological diversity of our world is being destroyed…it is urgent that we promote a social ethic that honors diversity, seeks reconciliation, and builds a world where people and the planet can live together in community.
For theological seminaries, such a vision means that we will shape our seminaries not to resemble the world of the 1950s but rather the world of 2050, where there will be no dominant racial ethnic group and where we will be much more interrelated with the global church. It means that students, faculty and administrators will be a community of women and men from all ethnic groups and various parts of the world committed to living and learning together with mutual respect and mutual sharing in leadership and learning – and being partners in a common passion for the church ecumenical and its faithful witness.
For social witness this paradigm encourages us to find concrete ways to celebrate and affirm the diversity God has given us in different races, cultures, languages, peoples, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, and in the rich diversity of our environment. We are called to take prophetic leadership to make those affirmations a reality in our nation and the world. We are called to take a strong stand against domination, war, poverty, racism, unjust immigration laws, and the destruction of our planet not just as a social concern but as an affront to a triune God who created the world and humanity in God’s image.
This vision of reconciled diversity – of living in communion with God, with one another, and with our planet – is a wonderful paradigm to renew and build a strong ecumenical movement for the 21st century. However, more than that, it is a gift to us to understand and reclaim the heart of the gospel for faithful Christian living in our time.
If the trip is long, if there are many obstacles and difficulties on the way, and if you have never done it before, the best way is to go together.
I want to conclude by sharing a bit of African folk wisdom that I picked up from a meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches a few years ago. It was shared with us by Sam Kobia, who was then the General Secretary of the Council. Sam is a Methodist who comes from Kenya, and he was sharing with us a piece of folk wisdom from his context that speaks to the truth of this emerging paradigm. This wisdom goes like this: “If you want to go fast, you go alone,” but “If you want to go far, you need to go together.”
If it is a short trip, if there are no obstacles, and if you have done it many times before, then the quickest and easiest way is to go by yourself. However, if the trip is long, if there are many obstacles and difficulties on the way, and if you have never done it before, the best way is to go together.
Friends, the reality that we live in for Christian witness in the 21st century is not quick and easy. Rather, it is a reality that will take the gifts of us all and of the wider community of God’s people. The only way to get where God intends us to go is to go together – to go forth in communion, honoring diversity, and seeking reconciliation with all people and the earth. This vision of the Christian life is the gift of the ecumenical movement for our time, and I hope you will seize it for yourself and live it! May God richly bless us all as we seek to go far together in reconciled diversity!
 Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: the Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003) p. 60.
 Konrad Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1991), see especially chapters two and three, pp. 31?78.
 Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).
AUTHOR BIO: Clifton Kirkpatrick is Professor of World Christianity and Ecumenical Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Emeritus of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).