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NCC ecumenists told they are 'salt of the earth'

Oberlin slide show by Kathleen Cameron

Oberlin, Ohio, July 23, 2007 "You of the Faith and Order movement are the salt of the earth," said the Rev. James Forbes, preaching at the final prayer service of the 50 anniversary conference of the first Oberlin ecumenical gathering.

"Faith and Order has nourished a consciousness" of a larger church, said Forbes who recently retired after 18 years as senior minister at The Riverside Church, New York City.  If there ever was a time for a new Great Awakening to happen in our nation the time is now, he said.

"Who would've thought that the new Great Awakening could breakout at a Faith and Order conference," Forbes said, urging nearly 300 attendees to return to their 80 Christian denominations and organizations to be "truth and light at a time of darkness."

For five days participants examined several questions including what might Christian unity in the United States look like.

A Friday afternoon panel on "Visions of Christian Unity" offered some personal reflections, observations and individual suggestions for moving forward in the work of Christian unity.  Participants then broke into small discussion groups to engage what they had heard from the perspectives of what resonated with them, what they found difficult and what they did not understand.
His Eminence Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., theologian and author, praised the work of bilateral dialogues since the Second Vatican Council.  The Fordham University professor said the decades of conversation between Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Anglican and Orthodox, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, just to name a few, "have been of immense value for dispelling past prejudices, for identifying real but hitherto unrecognized agreements, and for enabling parties to see that they can say more together than they previously deemed possible."

However, said Dulles, there is a limit to what the ecumenical methods of the past make possible. It is time now for a method of dialogue in which each Christian community bears witness to the others of those gifts that their community has received from the Lord and holds precious, he said.

Dr. David Daniels III, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, offered his personal observations of Christian unity through the working of the Holy Spirit.  He laid the groundwork for his audience with a brief background on Pentecostal theology as expressed by the Church of God in Christ.  His lens of unity is seen through what he calls apostolic faith, apostolic power, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Daniels suggested that Christian unity could be something that "transcends North American denominationalism...transcends racism and strives for racial justice."

Dr. Ann Riggs, NCC associate general secretary for Faith and Order, drew upon her peace church background (Religious Society of Friends) and the work of Mennonite practitioner John Paul Lederach to introduce "conflict transformation" instead of conflict resolution as way to Christian unity.

While new relationships have in fact been developed, the first decades of Faith and Order were typified more by an aim toward conflict resolution than transformed levels for new relationship, she said.

"When we face our conflicts together we are already engaging in unity," Riggs said.

The Rev. Dr. W. Douglas Mills, on the ecumenical staff of the United Methodist Church (UMC), responded to the panel observing, "we constantly have to be expanding the 'we' with whom we do this work."  The associate general secretary for dialogue and interfaith relations at the UMC General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns noted the ecumenical table had broadened considerably since Oberlin I, as the 1957 conference had come to be known here.

"And I think, as Cardinal Dulles pointed out, the churches are becoming more dialogical," said Mills.
In one discussion group that followed, Dr. David Cole, president, Eugene Bible College, found Cardinal Dulles' words particularly encouraging.  Cole, a member of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, has been part of the Roman Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue for ten years. 

Mary Holland, a recent seminary graduate from Philadelphia, is one of the nearly 100 students, seminarians and doctoral candidates attending the conference.  She was in the same discussion group with Dr. Cole.  What resonated for her was Dr. Riggs' description of coming at the dialogue with the underpinning of "conflict transformation."  Holland said she is drawn to ecumenical work by her experiences with an inter-seminary dialogue.
The discussion groups were held in two of the oldest buildings here.  First Church of Oberlin, United Church of Christ, was built in 1842.  Peters Hall is a 19th century grey stone structure with pinnacles and archways reminiscent of its era.

Earlier Friday Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, past president of Hartford Seminary, and Dr. Donald W. Dayton, author and seminary professor, discussed the significance of Oberlin to the ecumenical movement.  Zikmund told the conference why NCC's Faith and Order chose to return here for this gathering. 

Early Oberlin was a place with ongoing commitments to racial justice, financially accessible education, healthy lifestyle, co-education for women and men together, moral reform and civic integrity, a curriculum relevant to real life, openness to religious diversity, and a willingness to explore unconventional ideas, said Zikmund.
That resonated with Mary Veeneman, 25, a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University, New York City.  She described herself as an Episcopalian with evangelical roots studying at a Roman Catholic university living with other students from Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds.

"Oberlin's history was similar to Wheaton College (Ill.) where I did my undergrad," Veeneman said.  "Wheaton was founded by an abolitionist and social justice was very much a part of its early history," she said.  After receiving her Ph.D., Veeneman hopes to teach theology at a religious university or college on the undergraduate level.

Of Oberlin Zikmund said, "It is a fitting that a place with this history hosted the Faith and Order meeting in 1957 and it is fitting that we are gathered here today."

More information on this conference may be found online at


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