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The New Ecumenism 

Three recent books suggest ecumenism is extending its long-established commitment to church unity with an increasing emphasis on the wholeness of living, writes Alec Gilmore


'Ecumenism' (never popular among Baptists) is now something of a turn-off word for many others, reinforced by those dismissive of anything that comes out of the World Council of Churches as 'Geneva old hat', but hang on. If you still think of 'Geneva Ecumenism' as Church Unity, the Week of Prayer and all that you may be the one wearing the 'old hat'. Ecumenism has moved on.

My first encounter with ecumenism was in the early 1950s, one of two Baptists (Gwennyth Hubble the other) attending a Friends of Reunion Conference where 'Reunion' meant Anglicans and Catholics. With the arrival of the WCC in 1948, Christian Unity (often in practice Church Unity) took centre stage and I can still feel the emotions of the 1965 Nottingham Faith and Order Conference where the British Churches were bold enough to vote for the reunion of mainstream British churches by 1980.

Attending the 1975 World Council in Nairobi widened my vision of what Christian Unity might mean, as we debated criticism of Apartheid in South Africa but were wary of any criticism of the Soviet bloque.

Travelling in Eastern Europe on behalf of Eurolit and Feed the Minds required me to relate constantly to churches and Christians on a very broad spectrum, so it was encouraging to be reminded that 21st century Geneva is focusing on Unity among Christians by tackling a broad spectrum of issues to increase mutual understanding. For some it is the New Ecumenism: less 'church unity' and more 'wholeness of living'. It certainly speaks to one of the key tenets of ecumenism, which, alongside visible unity of the Church, is the vision of the whole inhabited earth as the concern of all Christians (Matthew 24:14). Three recent books from Geneva illustrate the change.

The Churches and SexualityThanks to the right wing press and the publicity afforded to divisions within the Anglican Communion we are all familiar with the stereotypes of sexuality and relationships in Africa, some of which, though perhaps less stark, are not all different from our own.

What doesn't get publicity so readily is that not all African church leaders accept those stereotypes; hence the ten academics and church leaders from seven African countries who have produced Abundant Life. The Churches and Sexuality, edited by Ezra Chitando and Njoroge Nyambiura, to tell us that those stereotypes are only part of the story and they, with others, are working hard to counter them with a different narrative.

Their motivation is their concern for young people and the impact of the New Media. They want less superficial talk about marriage, better sex, satisfying relationships and freedom, in favour of a new language and theology for handling Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, including disability, masturbation, perversion and so on. They also issue a firm call to churches to be courageous, especially when it comes to churches and sexual minorities.

Christian HinduTurning to local community relations, what with refugees, immigration and other faiths on our doorstep and the challenge to our churches to create good relationships, Mathews George Chunakara, writing from India, says step one towards peaceful living is not learning to understand them, but learning to understand ourselves, and how the way we see ourselves promotes or hinders our relationships with them.

From a country which has known at least five different major religions living side by side for hundreds of years without any insistence on 'exclusive affiliation' or the urge to convert people from one faith to another, his forthright but courteous description in Christian Self-Understanding in the Context of Hindu Religion, in which he describes how the Hindu reacted to the attitudes of the Raj (and every bit as much to Christian missionary zeal as to the Civil Service) has much to teach us about sensitivity.

Time to stop gazing out of the window from an ivory tower and try a mirror, especially a rear-view one.
MakingPeaceWhen it comes to the Environment, the problem is not so much the Environment as the inability and intractability of rival camps to deal with it, the one in denial and the other too feeble seriously to handle it. Starting from the view that 'Earth is Our Home', Grace J-Sun Kim's Making Peace with the Earth begins with the 'Climate Deniers', for whom all seems simple and straightforward until the other half of the family chimes in and upsets the applecart.

Questions abound. How to protect our home, and save all those uncles, cousins and aunts liable to be washed off their island as the oceans rise? How even to think of 'sustainable living' with far-reaching issues of poverty and deforestation? Two parties with two irreconcilable extremes trapped behind locked doors.

Then suddenly a window opens and a breath of fresh air (two in fact) blows in: a German arrival unpacks her collection of art work providing a wholly different way of looking at the world and a Korean introduces us to the Korean madang, a kind of 'open air family room where people pass through, engaging informally with each other on their way in and out. 

'New Ecumenism' is not a solution, but could be a breath of fresh air pointing us in a different direction. Come back, Pope John.


Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister

Baptist Times, 16/11/2016
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