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Symposium sees a future for the ecumenical movement,
October 24, New York – The Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church joined with other church leaders in a special symposium Saturday (Oct. 22) to predict a vital future for the ecumenical movement, although not necessarily in the form of councils and commissions.
“Being church means being ecumenical,” said His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Great House of Cilicia) and two-term moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee. “Being ecumenical means being part of that ecclesial body represented by the Lord Jesus Christ.”
But “the ecumenical movement is facing many challenges,” Aram said, among them the search for “a new identity, a new self understanding.”
Institutional ecumenism, Aram said candidly, “is in stagnation. The challenge is, how can we go beyond institutional ecumenism and make it a healing reality.”
The ecumenical movement is no longer “a private club for conference-goers and church hierarchs,” he said. “Laity are asking where we are in ecumenism.”
The Symposium on the Ecumenical Movement in the 21st century, sponsored by the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the U.S. Office of the WCC and the National Council of Churches USA, was held in honor of Aram’s pastoral visit to the U.S.
Other church leaders sounded similar views of the ecumenical future.
Ecumenists have formed councils and other structures “to meet the needs of a particular moment,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the WCC. “Yet none of these institutions – not even the World Council of Churches – is eternal.”
Councils of churches “may become too clerical, too dependant on leaders ordained by member churches” and “lose the energy provided by active laity including students, youth and women’s fellowships,” Kobia said in the symposium’s keynote address.
As tensions arise between peoples of different religions, Kobia said, the ecumenical vision must change. “It is precisely on the question of how Christians relate to people of other faiths that that we currently require a new round of multilateral theological engagement,” he said. “As Christians, as churches, we should be inquiring together as to God’s purpose for us in a multi-cultural world characterized by a diversity of faiths.”
The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, said the institutionalized ecumenical movement has rarely made room for Pentecostals, evangelicals and Roman Catholics. “The churches around the world that are growing the fastest, with the most vitality, are not connected to the … fabric of the ecumenical movement,” he said.
“Look at it another way,” Granberg-Michaelson said. “As ecumenical institutions continue operating in present patterns, they become increasingly more marginal in the global community.”
He cited the “Micah Challenge” – little known among mainline ecumenists – as “a prime example” of the changing global ecumenical community.
“Comprised now of 260 such community development organizations, (Micah Challenge’s) purpose is to provide a means of multi-country, international advocacy around the issues of global poverty,” Granberg-Michaelson said.
“My conviction is that (the) future must be shaped by a creative and inclusive ecumenism, rather than a protective institutionalism, by compelling spiritual vision rather than predictable organizational momentum, and by deep change rather than incremental change.”
The Rt. Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, moderator of the U.S. Office of the WCC and ecumenical officer of the Orthodox Church in America, led a panel discussion on challenges facing the ecumenical movement. The panel included the Rev. Dr. Diane Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and the Rev. Francis Tiso, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops secretariat for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs.
Kessler reminded the group that ecumenism is no longer highlighted in most seminaries, yet “when people encounter the ecumenical movement, they get excited.”
She called for “renewed attention to simple acts of ecumenical hospitality with an eye toward that significance. We till the soil where ecumenical ministry can grow and flourish. Neglect can leave negativity which is hard to dispel.”
Tiso stressed the pastoral aspects of ecumenism. “I invite you to notice how central to Diane’s response is pastoral ministry,” he said.
The symposium was presided over by the Rev. Deborah DeWinter, Program Executive for the United States, WCC.
The symposium opened with morning prayers in the tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Rev. Professor Robert Wright of General Theological Seminary in New York led the group in a meditation.
Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Eastern USA, brought greetings to the assembled hierarchs, clergy, laypersons and other church leaders. The Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, general Secretary of the NCC, also brought greetings.
In concluding remarks, Aram I reflected on the pluralistic world in which the ecumenical movement functions. “Our theology, our education, our methodology, our Christian ways of life must be developed to respond” to pluralism, he said. “This is a great challenge. We can no longer live in isolation.”
But the Patriarch concluded with a note of confidence.
“The ecumenical movement should be a sign of hope in a world of hopelessness,” he said. “We are on the way toward visible unity.”
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