Catholicos Aram I Hosts Ecumenical Conference in Antelias

His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia recently hosted a meeting with 30 veteran ecumenists, church leaders who have had long and deep commitment to the ecumenical cause, in Antelias, Lebanon. Participants came from Burundi, Finland, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United States, and the Vatican. The discussions at the consultation were informed by participant presentations that assessed the challenges facing the ecumenical movement from regional and confessional perspectives. The meeting, which was titled “Towards a More Responsive and Inclusive Ecumenical Vision,” took place from January 31 to February 2.

Participants of the consultation included His Holiness Catholicos Aram I (Armenian Church), Rev. Dr. Wesley Ariarajah (Methodist Church of Sri Lanka), Dr. Nora Bayrakdarian (Armenian Church), Dr. Souraya Bechealany (Middle East Council of Churches), Rev. Dr. Bridget Ben-Naimah (Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana), Bishop Brian Farrell (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Vatican), Rev. Serge Fornerod (The Reformed Church in Switzerland), Fr. Dr. K M George (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, India), Dr. Mathews George (Mar Thoma Church, India), Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Reformed Church in America), Rev. Dr. Paul Haidostian (Armenian Evangelical Church, Lebanon), Father Heikki Huttunen (Orthodox Church of Finland), Bishop Dr. Jonas Jonson (Church of Sweden), Rev. Najla Kassab (Reformed Church, Lebanon), Seta Khedeshian (Armenian Church), Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon (Disciples of Christ, USA), Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick (Presbyterian Church, USA), Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia (Methodist Church in Kenya), Archbishop Paul Matar (Maronite Church, Lebanon), Dr. Tarek Mitri (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch), Bishop Dr. Soritua Nababan (Protestant Christian Batak Church, Indonesia), Bishop Bernard Ntahoturi (Province of the Anglican Church of Burundi), Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega (Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Cuba), Teny Pirri-Simonian (Armenian Church), Dr. Audeh Butros Quawas (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem), Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser (Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)), Bishop Dr. Harald Rein (Old Catholic Church, Switzerland), Fr. Dr. Ioan Sauca (Romanian Orthodox Church), Archbishop Paul Sayah (Maronite Church, Lebanon), Father Hrant Tahanian (Armenian Church), Archimandrite Philippe Vassiltsev (Russian Orthodox Church), Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith (National Baptist Convention, USA), Dr. Kim Yong-Bock (Presbyterian Church, South Korea).

Below is a report generated as a result of the meeting between the high-ranking church officials.

“Toward a More Responsive and Inclusive Ecumenical Vision”

We, the participants in the meeting, express our appreciation for the extraordinary hospitality of His Holiness and the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia. The venue included sacred memorials of the Armenian Genocide, reminders of how the Armenian Church and people have been sustained, through nearly-unimaginable trauma, by God’s grace and the power of hope. It is also important to mention that the meeting was held against the backdrop of social unrest in Lebanon, a reminder that consideration of the future course of ecumenism can never be separated from issues troubling the world.

We begin, most importantly, by giving thanks to God, whose calling to the churches to make visible the unity they have in Jesus Christ is the foundation of the ecumenical movement. During the course of its more than 100-year history, this movement has faced several moments of significant transition, often connected with times of major societal upheaval. We believe that the ecumenical movement is again in such a moment. We may even say it is in a time of crisis, remembering that crisis need not be an indication of impending decline, but an opportunity for critical and realistic assessment and necessary transformation.

Since we believe that God is the One who guides and empowers this movement, any consideration of its future is a matter of spiritual discernment. We gathered in Antelias seeking to understand where the Holy Spirit is leading the churches in the present historical situation. We offer this report of our deliberations – fully aware that our group was, by no means, representative of the whole body of Christ – to all who care about the unity, service, and witness of the church, including planners for the World Council of Churches Eleventh Assembly, which will be held September 8 to 16, 2021 in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Those of us participating in the Antelias meeting have devoted much of our lives to the ecumenical movement, because we have found in it a compelling vision of the church as a global community characterized by inclusiveness and reconciliation, a community that shares in the dynamic communion of the Trinity, a community that knows itself to be an instrument of God’s healing mission and a sign of the promised wholeness of God’s entire creation. This vision has been expressed in numerous ways and places over the past century. One that we find still relevant and credible as a point of reference is the document, Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches, which was received with gratitude by the WCC’s Eighth Assembly (Harare, 1998). The following affirmations, based on the CUV document, come from a prayer litany, composed for the celebration in Harare of the WCC’s fiftieth anniversary.

We are drawn by the vision of a church that brings all people into communion with God; a church that is visibly one, sharing one baptism, celebrating one Eucharist, and enjoying the service of a reconciled common ministry.

We are compelled by the vision of a church whose unity is expressed in bonds of conciliar communion, which enables us to take decisions together and to interpret and teach the apostolic faith together, with mutual accountability and in love.

We are inspired by the vision of a church that engages in dialogue and cooperation in service with people of other faiths.

We are challenged by the vision of a church that is fully inclusive, mindful of the marginalized, overcoming divisions based on race, gender, age, and culture, promoting justice and peace, and respecting the integrity of God’s creation.

We aspire to the vision of a church that reaches out to everyone through a life of sharing, proclaiming the good news of God’s redemption, being both sign and servant, drawing all ever more deeply into the fellowship of God’s own life.

Such is the nature of God’s church; it is a gift already given to us.

This passage makes clear the centrality of the church in any understanding of ecumenism. CUV also emphasizes, however, that “the object of God’s reconciling purpose is not only the church but the whole of humanity – indeed, the whole of creation.” The ecumenical movement has sought to “hold together an absolute commitment to the unity and renewal of the church and an absolute commitment to the reconciliation of God’s world.”

CUV was written and affirmed during a time of monumental historical developments, including the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reordering of global systems of economic and political power. A generation later, we find ourselves again at a point of critical historical change that calls for a reassessment of the course of the ecumenical movement. We agree with the report on “Ecumenism in the Twenty-First Century,” prepared for the WCC’s Tenth Assembly (Busan, 2013), that “it would be misleading to call for a new vision for the ecumenical movement…the main emphasis of the vision of the unity of the church and the unity of humankind is firmly rooted in the Bible and is, indeed, a gospel imperative.” The vision, however, surely needs to be reformulated for this era, and, in the words of our conference theme, expanded to become more “inclusive” and “responsive” – words we will return to shortly. We agree with His Holiness Aram and former WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser who, in their presentations at our meeting, underscored the weakness and fragility of ecumenical organizations – globally, regionally, and locally. The movement, they suggested, must broaden its agenda, expand its range of participants, rethink its methodologies, and reclaim its vision in terms that speak in a compelling way to a new generation.

In short, while we see signs of the Spirit’s reconciling work in our regions and confessions, we also acknowledge that, in many places, the ecumenical impulse is stagnating. In the words of His Holiness, we need a “wake-up call” if this movement is to continue to move.

A compelling ecumenical vision is needed now more than ever given the environmental, social, and religious challenges of our era. Numerous issues were raised in the course of our discussions, with six receiving particular attention.

  • We live at a time when climate change, largely the result of human activity, is threatening creation itself. It is not overly dramatic to say that there will be catastrophic consequences for life on this planet if the assault on the natural environment is not quickly curtailed.

  • We live in an era of globalization when the economic power of richer nations and their corporations is exacerbating the disparity of wealth and income, both within and between countries. Forced migration, driven by the effects of environmental degradation and economic deprivation, is a major and growing reality.

  • We live at a time when xenophobic nationalism is increasing, when politicians in various countries are feeding populist resentment against those who are “other.” (It is painful to acknowledge that this “politics of identity” is capturing the allegiance of some churches in our own regions.) In the name of security, nations are becoming more militarized at the expense of other priorities.

  • We live in a digital age, which, paradoxically, both facilitates communication and runs the risk of undermining genuine community.

  • We live in an age when it no longer makes sense to speak of a geographical and cultural “center” of Christianity. The Christian faith, manifest in a variety of ecclesial forms, is now – thanks to God – rooted throughout the world and growing most rapidly outside of Europe and North America. This shift rightly poses significant challenges to the Euro-centric ecumenism of earlier generations, a narrowness that lingers even today.

  • We live at a time when religious pluralism is the reality even in parts of the world previously dominated by Christianity. Along with this is a growing ecclesial and spiritual pluralism within Christianity itself that challenges and impacts traditional forms of Christian community.

Dr. Raiser succinctly named several of these challenges in his paper. The ecumenical movement, he noted, has in recent years “entered into a transformative learning process,” in large measure because it has been confronted with “the challenges of the process of globalization and its consequences, of climate change and the fundamental risks for the natural life-cycles, of the global encounter with religious traditions and their significance for social cohesion, and of the changing profile of World Christianity with the spread and impact of Pentecostal and charismatic communities world-wide.”

Such challenges cry out for an ecumenical response! In fact, the scope of the challenges facing humanity makes a mockery of the response of any single church. The world needs an ecumenical movement that offers an alternative vision of world order based on cooperation and solidarity, a vision of God’s promised Reign marked by justice, peace, the dignity of all humanity and the integrity of creation. This makes it all the more tragic that churches in this era are so often focused on their own institutional survival or display a sense of self-sufficiency that undercuts their willingness and capacity to engage ecumenically. Instruments of communion are also weakening within church families, making it increasingly difficult to resolve internal divisions that frequently stem from social/ethical issues, including those pertaining to sexual orientation.

The ecumenical movement was once seen as a setting within which churches might be renewed through the sharing of spiritual gifts – what some call “receptive ecumenism” – in order that together they might be signs and agents of renewal in the wider society. Does this vision still have power? Is there a way of refreshing the vision that will capture the attention of persons in this era?

It is not possible or appropriate for a short consultation of thirty “seasoned” ecumenists to propose the way forward ecumenically! We do want to suggest, however, several marks of a more responsive and inclusive movement.

Such a movement will seek to foster engagement, even more than in the past, with Christian communities not historically identified as ecumenical, many of which are among the fastest-growing parts of the body of Christ. Churches associated with the ecumenical movement do not want to back off hard-won commitments or weaken long-established relationships in an effort to accommodate new partners; but they surely must be willing to rethink old structures and explore new issues. A movement that does not include a large portion of those who claim the name of Christ hardly deserves to be called “ecumenical.” A movement that says others are welcome to join what we have created, and on our terms, can hardly be called welcoming.

Such a movement will listen carefully to the stories of people often ignored or demeaned by our societies – and even our churches. Responsive, inclusive ecumenism will focus on the “margins” where the struggle for life is most intensely taking place and where the power of the gospel can inspire new forms of spirituality and witness.

Such a movement will value the contributions and leadership of youth. Ecumenical formation needs to be a priority in our churches, seminaries, and ecumenical bodies, because there is merit in learning from the past. But there is also merit in listening to the voices of those who are not constrained by the language of old documents or past methods.

Such a movement will develop deeper sensitivity to the spiritual wealth arising from the lived experience of the faithful in different cultures and confessions. We are grateful for the ecumenical gains achieved through common service and mission and through multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues. What we do and say together are surely important. Beneath them, however, is what we are together: a Spirit-led people that gives prayerful thanks for God’s forgiving grace, made flesh in Jesus Christ, and does so in a wondrous variety of ways. A renewed focus on spiritual ecumenism – on praying with and for one another, on recognizing the Spirit’s presence in and through all creation – may open us to truths too deep for words. It may help renew the movement from within and provide a common source of inspiration and hope. It may also strengthen the bonds we have with Christians who worship and pray in a manner unfamiliar to us.

Such a movement, while valuing inherited tradition, will also not be reluctant to take account of the rapidly-changing character of society, including what is for some a new experience of religious pluralism. Ecumenical leaders have long known that a movement concerned with the oikoumene (the whole earth) must be attentive to the challenges facing neighbors of other faiths. But doesn’t the reality of this era compel us to go further? If our participation in God’s mission includes such global tasks as protecting the environment, being in solidarity with the poor, and standing up to systems of exploitation, then aren’t we compelled to collaborate with interfaith neighbors? Aren’t they, in some sense, essential partners in our ecumenical work?

Such a movement will need to move beyond the centers of institutional power and authority, both in the churches and in the ecumenical movement itself. We give thanks that, at one time, ecumenism became a movement of the churches, not simply committed individuals. We give thanks for the work of councils of churches and for the way conciliar structures have sought to become “fellowships” marked by mutual accountability. We give thanks that such accountability is also evident in the many theological dialogues that are an indispensable part of the churches’ efforts to resolve divergences underlying their separation. Today, however, it is necessary to think beyond institutional ecumenism, paying more attention than in the past to informal networks and more-temporary coalitions.

In the same way, we give thanks for the work of professional ecumenists, which some of us have been, who have organized dialogues and helped implement common service, advocacy, and mission. Today, however, ecumenism is widely regarded as another program or denominational office, rather than a way of understanding the faith and the church that must take deeper root in congregations and parishes. We agree with another seasoned ecumenist, Julio de Santa Ana, when he says that one of the challenges of our times is “to make ecumenism appealing once again for the educated and activist-minded laity.”

His Holiness Aram spoke to us of the need for a “people’s ecumenism” that can already be found primarily outside the historic structures of the movement, if we have eyes to see. Whenever Christians, to paraphrase CUV, are confronting divisions of race, gender, age, or culture, are living beyond old ecclesial divisions in their efforts to realize justice and peace, then we glimpse the church to which we are called and give thanks to God. Identifying and encouraging people’s ecumenism – which may well entail a change in language, culture, and methodology – should be part of the future agenda and vision of the ecumenical movement.

We found that the WCC’s recent emphasis on the ecumenism as a “pilgrimage” of justice and peace, under the guidance of God’s life-giving Spirit, is useful in summarizing our concerns and convictions. The idea of pilgrimage shifts the ecumenical focus away from structures toward life together on the way. It also shifts the focus away from static completion (Are we united yet? Have we achieved our social/ethical goals?) toward movement with one another in the direction God is leading. Emphasis is placed on the vision before us, but also on the transformation that may take place as we travel. Indeed, pilgrimage is, almost by definition, an outward journey that entails an inward change – and, thus, reinforces the claim of the Second Vatican Council that “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion.”

So much of life today, in church and society, is focused on the present. Pilgrimage demands that we think in terms of the past – the holy and unholy places from which we come – and the future – the place toward which we move. Pilgrimage implies, as well, careful attention to God’s will, and, therefore, lifts up the importance of prayerful discernment. A pilgrimage of justice and peace does not diminish ecumenism’s prophetic edge, but it does suggest that the movement can also speak on occasion with a more meditative voice, open to the fresh winds of the Spirit.

At its best, a pilgrimage is approached with humility, with a recognition of our need for others, no matter where they come from. Pilgrimage also invites acknowledgment that others may not be at the same stage on the journey as we are. We may walk closely together at times, less closely at others, but always moving in the same direction, propelled by a vision of God’s inclusive, reconciling grace that is often at odds with human society.

Our final word is one of hope, which may be ecumenism’s distinctive trait. Those who are optimistic speak of what they can accomplish. Those who live in hope give thanks for what God can and will accomplish, regardless of how difficult the present may seem. The fact that ecumenically-minded Christians can no longer revel in institutional success might just drive us back to the revitalizing realization that if the movement moves it is because of the power of God.

Some Christians now speak of an ecumenical winter. We do not. We trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding this pilgrimage, even when – especially when – it undergoes needed transformation.

Some Christians, including some church leaders, have given up on the idea of Christian unity. We have not. We give thanks for the biblically-grounded vision and gift of oneness in Jesus Christ, even as we recognize the ongoing responsibility to clarify what this means and how it finds at least partial expression along the journey.

Some ecumenically-engaged Christians despair of ever integrating the concerns for the unity of the church and the unity of the human family. We do not, even as we recognize that greater integration is needed.

Some Christians fail to recognize other Christian communities as endowed by the Holy Spirit with a multitude of spiritual gifts and, therefore, as sources of wisdom and grace given for the renewal of all the churches and the whole Christian people. We do not. Rather, we commit ourselves to a humility that is always ready to recognize the need for reform in the life of our own church communities and always prepared to learn from others.

Some churches have downplayed Christian ecumenism in favor of a focus on interfaith relations. We have not. We give thanks for those places where relations among people of religious faith are improving, even as we affirm that Christian ecumenism has its own integrity and necessity–its own theological foundation and distinctive vision.

At the same time, some Christians involved in ecumenical ministry seem content to proceed with business as usual. We are not. While we have hope in God’s future for the church and the world, we also recognize that the ecumenical boat is now in stormy seas.

Our final word is one of thanksgiving for new generations of Christian leaders. May they continue the struggle to express a more responsive, inclusive vision for the ecumenical movement. May they strive in their era to articulate a vision of a transformed church working with God for a transformed world, even as we have attempted to do so in ours. May God give us the strength and wisdom to support them in this effort.