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Edinburgh, Scotland, June 7, 2010 -- A century ago, Christians of many traditions and nationalities gathered in Scotland's capital under the theme of "evangelizing the world in this generation."
The historic gathering is widely regarded as the birth of the worldwide ecumenical movement, and last week more than 300 delegates and 100 other participants gathered in Edinburgh to celebrate this marker on the road to church unity and to imagine the future. The theme of the most recent gathering was, "Witnessing to Christ Today."
This November 9-11 in the U.S., the discussions of what it means to be ecumenical in the 21st century will continue at an ecumenical gathering that is part of the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service in New Orleans.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, and Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC associate general secretary, Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations, are attending the Edinburgh gathering this week.
Kinnamon chaired the session three plenary, "Toward a Common Call; Kireopoulos addressed the second plenary session on the topic of "Mission Worldwide."
At welcoming ceremonies for Edinburgh 2010, Christian songs and hymns from around the globe mingled with the native skirl of bagpipes.
The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, welcomed delegates with an affirmation that “mission and unity belong together. To be one in Christ is to witness together to Christ.”
Discipleship, Tveit said, demands the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen for human salvation: “This means that if there is to be a witness to Christ, there must be a mission movement of the cross. This means that if there is a will to be one in Christ, there must be an ecumenical movement of the cross. Nobody needs triumphalistic movements.”
Acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of his audience, Tveit continued: “It is important to keep a healthy dialectic and creative tension between the many dimensions of our calling. To witness to Christ is both evangelism and the prophetic stand for Christ’s will for justice, peace and care of creation.”
The keynote speaker was Professor Dana L. Robert, co-director of the centre for global Christianity and mission at Boston University School of Theology. She spoke on the topic “Mission and Unity in the ‘Long View’ from 1910 to the 21st Century”.
“We must not allow difficult theological, socio-cultural and political issues, or disagreements over theologies of religion, to discourage us from sharing God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ with all the world," Robert said.
Within the lifetime of some members of her audience, she observed, “Christianity has undergone one of the biggest changes in its two thousand year history. It is now a multi-cultural faith, with believers drawn from every inhabited continent.” It has begun to reflect the vision of Revelation 7:9 in which the faithful constitute “a great multitude” of believers “from all tribes and peoples and language."
She continued: “Participants in the World Missionary Conference a century ago attempted to evangelize the world in their own generation. We who are alive in 2010 must bear witness to our own generation.”
In contrast to the diversity of delegates today, participation in the 1910 event was overwhelmed by the percentage of white, Protestant men from Europe and North America. Among more than 1,200 delegates then, only one was a black African and an estimated nineteen were Asian. Even so, there was a vision for a different future.
In the words of V.S. Azariah of India, a future bishop who was still a young man in 1910, “The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realized not by the Englishman, the American and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese and the Indians by themselves – but by all working together, worshipping together and learning together the perfect image of our Lord and Christ.”
Edinburgh 1910 raised another issue that has informed the churches’ journey over the past 100 years, an issue that Robert calls the challenge of “diversity within unity”. A report asked the question, “How is it possible to attain that unity for which our Lord prayed and yet to leave free play for the diversity which alone will give to the unity comprehension and life?”
Robert described this issue as central to the interplay between unity and mission in 20th-century theology. In 1963, discussion on this point led to a World Council of Churches statement: “We therefore affirm that this missionary movement now involves Christians in all six continents and in all lands. It must be the common witness of the whole church, bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.”
For Robert, this “marked the symbolic beginning of a postcolonial framework for mission – its liberation from captivity to western Christianity.” Evangelical mission theologians in the Lausanne Movement, too, have endorsed the formulation of “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world”.
Robert sees the churches today engaging in a global conversation, with an assumption of common witness deeply embedded in Christian consciousness. It is widely understood that proclamation and justice go hand in hand, that ministry to the “whole world” includes a concern for the preservation of God’s creation, that economic and technological globalization poses new responsibilities and that rapid change in the world sets Christians to periodically re-conceptualizing the methods of their participation in the mission to which the Triune God calls them.
She concluded: “Even as we ask, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?”, united in praise, we confidently embrace God’s mission.”
Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's member faith groups — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.
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