Those people at that church

Those people at that church

February 28, 2007
Written by Daniel Hazard

Despite the fact that 'they will know us by our love,' followers of Jesus have not amassed the best track record when it comes to getting along with each other, much less those outside the Christian faith.

It turns out that 'loving your neighbor' is a little harder than earlier thought, especially when we don't agree.

Since its formation in 1957 as a 'united and uniting' church, the UCC has claimed 'ecumenism' - the ministry of repairing once-burned bridges with other Christian churches - as one of its most important preoccupations.

Fifty years later, we ask: Is ecumenism still alive and well in 2007?

"As long as there are divisions among Christians and there are people and places in the world that need to be reconciled, we will need the ecumenical movement," says the Rev. Diane Kessler, a UCC minister and member of Wellesley Congregational UCC in Massachusetts.

Kessler, who has spent 32 years working for the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the last 19 as its executive director, believes the "reconciling impulse" is the heart of the gospel.

"At least that's the theory," she jests, recognizing that other demands and agendas too often compete for churches' time, attention and resources.

"[Ecumenism] has always been a minority movement in the life of the churches because we tend to be complacent with what we know," Kessler concedes. "And we're not necessarily very curious about what we don't know."

Yet, Kessler finds that when people do encounter "the other" through ecumenical dialogue and partnership - "and get through the kind of normal anxiety that sometimes attends those encounters" - the experience can be spiritually enlivening and intellectually invigorating.

Early ecumenism

Among UCC forebears, the ecumenical vision often grew out of necessity, as much as theological conversation.

"In the early 1700s when many German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, it was common for Lutheran and Reformed congregations to share resources," says the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a UCC historian. "One pastor might serve several congregations, and Lutheran and Reformed congregations often established 'union churches.'"

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, patriotic enthusiasm surrounding U.S. political independence produced analogous movements promoting religious liberty, Zikmund adds.

"Born in frontier revivalism, these movements rejected all denominational labels - simply calling themselves 'Christians' - and proclaimed a vision of Christian unity beyond sectarian factions," she says.

In 1826, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) ? founded by Congregationalists in 1810 ? invited the United Foreign Missionary Society (a Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed body) to merge with the ABCFM, Zikmund says.

"Such ecumenical collaboration was celebrated as a 'truly national and comprehensive foreign mission society,'" Zikmund says. "Unfortunately it did not last."

Various groups, she says, pulled out of ABCFM in 1837, 1839 and 1846 as theological arguments and conflicting attitudes erupted around slavery.

"Nevertheless, the memory of 'unity in mission' remained a vision," Zikmund says. As denominational identities and loyalties became more and more entrenched, ecumenism - much like the Civil Rights Movement of decades later - found its energy among young people.

Organizations such as the Student Christian Movement, the Sunday School Association, the YMCA and YWCA, Church Women United, and various Bible societies were the early forerunners to the National Council of Churches (NCC) and World Council of Churches (WCC), says the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and professor at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Among many Protestant Christians, ecumenism began as a lay movement in the mission fields, Kinnamon says.

The concept of "movement," however, soon gave way to "structure."

And the NCC (founded in 1950) and WCC (conceived in 1937 but delayed by World War II until 1948), as well as multiple state church councils, quickly emerged as powerful symbols of church unity and shared witness, propelled by generous support from participating denominations.

The UCC, born in 1957, owes its conception and found its early nurturing in this unprecedented era of ecumenical hopefulness.

Movements 'move'

Ecumenism, however, is changing.

All ecumenical organizations endured significant financial and organizational struggles in the late 1990s, as declining local church support for denominational bodies translated into reduced contributions to national and global church-coordinating groups.

As a result, both the NCC and WCC have had to redefine and rearticulate their visions, given significantly reduced staffs, budgets, morale and influence.

"One of the things about movements is that they move," says Kinnamon, speaking in October on the "hopes and discouragements" of ecumenism.

"We may lament some of the changes," Kinnamon says, "but that doesn't necessarily mean the movement is losing steam."

Today, ecumenism's 1950s-styled approach is being challenged by changing patterns of giving within denominations as well as the rise of independent megachurches.

"One of the realities of ecumenical work is that we are at the end of the funding chain," says the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a UCC/Disciples minister who is executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches. "We are the last to be funded and the first to be cut."

Kemper says once-thriving mainline churches dreamed of a common witness, joint planning and mutual support.

"Now everybody is going it alone, in order to carve out some kind of identity that will stand out in a consumerist religious marketplace," she says.

Even the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, made note of the UCC's declining financial support for ecumenical organizations at a recent meeting of the UCC's 90-member Executive Council.

Thomas, who served as the UCC's ecumenical officer before becoming GMP in 1999, pointed out that UCC contributions to the WCC, NCC, Churches Uniting in Christ and World Alliance of Reformed Churches were nearly half the amounts contributed just 10 years ago.

The decrease is not based on declining interest, he insists, but on declining support for Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM), of which a set percentage is earmarked for ecumenical bodies. Still, he laments the numerical drop.

"There's never been anyone saying 'let's give less,'" Thomas says. "There's never been a shrinking of commitment, but there's just less money in the pot."

Kemper identifies with former United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who says the U.N. has been weakened organizationally by the refusal of nations, such as the United States, to pay their full dues.

"She could just as easily be talking about our churches, who are abandoning all the structures they created," Kemper says.

Ironically, she says, while ecumenism - in theory - emphasizes that Christians should be more committed to the wider church and not just its individual parts, the decline of denominational loyalty - in practice - has crippled cooperative organizations, since funding comes from denominational sources.

"What congregations are in danger of losing as they become less and less loyal to their denominations is the larger network that will provide the resources, the curriculums, the certification of clergy, and the maximized use of time, energy and money in its mission work," Kemper says.

Cooperating globally, locally

The Rev. Lydia Veliko, the UCC's ecumenical officer, concedes that ecumenism is changing, but not necessarily for the worst.

"I've seen a marked upswing in ecumenical understanding, which is very heartening, especially in local communities," Veliko says. "So many [UCC] people, when talking about ecumenism, just say, 'This is who we are.'"

The UCC has been party to several landmark agreements in recent years. Since 1989, an historic partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has led to multiple shared ministries, including the mutual recognition of ministerial credentials and a common board for Global Ministries. In 1999, the UCC and Disciples approved partnership talks with the Alliance of Baptists.

The 1997 Formula of Agreement among the UCC, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Reformed Church in America was 32 years in the making and declared "doctrinal consensus" between Lutheran-Reformed bodies in the United States, helping bridge a theological divide that reached back to the mid-1500s.

The UCC and Roman Catholic Church are expected to soon announce a shared recognition of baptism, another major step, Veliko says.

While some at the local level may think "we've been doing that for years," formal ecumenical agreements encourage local conversations.

"Despite the number of other disagreements we might have, formal agreements give permission for [personal] relationships to flourish," Veliko says. "Cooperation is not just a bizarre anomaly."

Adds Thomas, "Formal ecumenical agreements really matter, but personal relationships really matter more. But formal ecumenical relations can enhance those personal relationships."

Infusing younger voices

Veliko has been working with about 30 UCC members under age 30 who are engaged in ecumenical dialogue. That's significant, she says, because the presence of younger voices within ecumenical circles is not common.

That's why Veliko and Thomas were proud the UCC sponsored a contingent of 15 youth and young adults to attend the WCC's 9th international assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February 2006.

"These were not just people interested in an exotic trip," Thomas says, "but they have a real commitment to living out the full unity of the church."

Sara Critchfield, now 26, who works for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries in Washington, D.C., attended the global assembly.

As a young adult, she says ecumenical meetings in the U.S. are a bit easier for her to maneuver but, at the WCC, she found it especially difficult to have voice, due to cultural differences toward younger people. She and others formed an affinity group to caucus about their concerns and how best to voice them.

"There was a lot of pageantry around 'all the young people here' but the power structures were dismissive of youth participation, especially from young women," she says.

Critchfield believes the WCC, especially, needs to embrace the contributions of young people for the sake of its own organizational future.

"If they shrivel up and die, it's because their structure is caving in on them," Critchfield says. "When I've been a young person showing up at these meetings, people sort of look at you saying, 'You're young, so what do we do.' But the key decision-making is held by people who are not going to give up power."

Still, she felt empowered by Veliko and other UCC/Disciples delegates who encouraged their younger counterparts to speak up and not back down.

"Here, in the UCC, I do feel very empowered," Critchfield says. "The UCC is really dedicated to engaging young people. We put a lot of money into that and are definitely leading in that way."

Critchfield hopes the ecumenical movement will be infused with new momentum by returning to the days when it was student led and young-people powered.

Encouraging the commitment of a new generation of ecumenical leaders is the reason why Thomas and Veliko, along with Professor Mark Burrows, regularly co-teach a course on "pastoral ecumenics" at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.

"There's a real heart-felt commitment [among these students] to help deal with the church-dividing issues that divide families, as well as churches," Thomas says.

Continued vigilance

Kessler says the need for ecumenical dialogue isn't always that apparent to the average Christian. But, at some of life's most-stressful moments, divisions become apparent.

"Where Christians in the U.S. are most inclined to encounter problems are in ecumenical or interfaith family situations, in time of marriage, baptism, funeral services," Kessler says. "Then they bump up with the still-unresolved issues facing the churches. . Interfaith families can't afford to be so complacent."

"Some say we are living through an 'ecumenical winter,'" says Kessler. "But I say that depends on where you live as to what the weather looks like."

For Christians in the Middle East, for example, ecumenism is necessity.

"Where [Christians] are a minority in a majority of people of other faiths, they are very aware of how much they need each other in a way that Americans in a culture that is predominately Christian are not," she says. "They know how much they need the care, support and concern of other Christians."

And, in the United States, the church must continue to be vigilant on issues of race and class, Kessler says.

"If we are talking about what it means to be the whole church for the whole world, then the racial and economic divides in our society are often most visible in our worship," she says.

Thomas, too, says racism - like the generations-old church fights over baptism and eucharist - remains the church's most-pressing and divisive issues. On Martin Luther King Day, Thomas joined leaders from Churches Uniting in Christ, calling for refocused attention on racial justice.

A new ecumenism?

Even across the much-discussed liberal-conservative divide - which has emerged as the new, great challenge to ecumenical dialogue - the Rev. Mike Castle, pastor of Cross Creek Community UCC in Dayton, Ohio, still sees possibilities for conversation.

Castle, who represents the UCC on the Alliance of Baptists board, believes the church not only spans the Left-Right continuum, but is also torn between "conventional" and "intentional" methods.

"Conventional" churches are best described as those that approach church in old, tired ways. "Conventional churches have the same order of worship and the same unchallenged assumptions about life and faith, whether or not they are considered liberal or conservative," he says.

But, "intentional" congregations - be they on the Left or Right - are looking for newer models of worship, service and outreach.

"Whether or not we're conservative or liberal, we're all moving toward the conventional side or moving toward the intentional side," says Castle. "It's not the old Left and Right fight anymore, and I find there's a willingness, on both sides, to listen to very conservative and very liberal people."

Castle calls it the "new ecumenism" - reaching across theological differences to discuss church vitality and discover how best to engage the culture and reach new people.

"It's the post-modern way, not to be afraid to wonder and see where it might lead," he says, "and not be afraid that we might change our minds."

Learn more

A timeline of UCC-related ecumenical milestones, compiled by the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, is available at

Relationship Rules
Tips for talking across the great religious divide

When it comes to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, there are some rules to remember. So, should you find yourself 'talking turkey' with birds of another feather, UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas and UCC Ecumenical Officer Lydia Veliko offer these helpful suggestions to keep neither of you from crying 'fowl.'

1. Never speak for others in dialogue. "Come to the table as who you are," Veliko says, "and allow them to do the same."

2. Don't compare the best of who you are with the worst of who they are. "We get nowhere if we only live with caricatures of one another," Thomas says.

3. Speak as honestly as possible about your faith tradition. "Reflect on your tradition as it is, not as you wish it to be," Veliko advises.

4. Recognize what your partner needs in order to be in dialogue with you. For example, a Southern Baptist might approach the conversation seeking a particular emphasis on Scripture, while a Roman Catholic might enter with a greater lens on church tradition.

5. Enter each dialogue with 'bold humility.' "Remember you have significant gifts to offer - and receive," Thomas says. "Don't enter in with a sense that 'I have no where to grow.'"

6. Yet, never acquiesce from truth. "There are times when you have to set your corporate ego aside, but one never sets aside a commitment to truth," Thomas says. "People [with whom you may disagree] respond better to clarity of conviction than a lack of clarity."

7. Allow yourself permission to listen. "You may change," Veliko says. "Just 'saying your piece' - that's not ecumenical dialogue."

8. Expect to be surprised. "Some in the ecumenical community ? which have had sharp differences [on some issues] - have taken on other issues, such as poverty and the environment, and there has been a readiness to partner on these concerns," Thomas says.

9. Don't go looking to dialogue with those most like you. Are you talking to liberal Episcopalians or conservative Presbyterians only? Are you getting a skewed perspective of the other's tradition, heritage and polity? "There is a tendency to go hunting around for comfortable partners," Thomas acknowledges.

10. Approach ecumenism as a spiritual discipline. "Any spiritual discipline calls for an inner strength," Veliko says. "You may feel like bolting from the conversation, but remember, it's not a 'program' or a 'project.' For the church, it's a spiritual vocation."


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