Why Ecumenism Matters

March 2, 2017

This is not intended to be a scholarly article. Rather, it is an invitation to consider ecumenism through the lens that has altered how I view God, the world, and the church. Through my personal ecumenical journey, my vision has been enlarged exponentially, and my few words here are intended to begin a conversation about why ecumenism matters in our time.

Although I had previous ecumenical encounters, my journey into the global ecumenical world began in 2011. As vice president of General Synod, I represented the RCA in ecumenical gatherings around the world: the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Caribbean and North American Area Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Subsequently, I regularly became the RCA representative to bodies equivalent to the RCA’s General Synod within the CRC, the ELCA, and the PC(USA). Through these encounters, I began to see that, although we may be part of different branches of the Christian tree, at our roots we sought one thing: to faithfully live out our Christian witness in worship, service, and justice throughout the world.

By 2011 the ecumenical project had been active for several decades. The CRC and the RCA had been active in national and global entities such as the WCC, the Reformed Evangelical Council (REC), the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the National Council of Churches (NCC), and the Council for World Mission (CWM)—to name a few.  Newer alliances formed, such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together, both of which encompassed churches from outside the Reformed family. In 2010 a Uniting General Council united the REC and the WARC into the World Communion of Reformed Churches, or WCRC, with this simple focus: “Called to Communion, Committed to Justice.”

It is with the WCRC that I have become most active. The defining document of this communion is the Accra Confession, which was born in 2004 in Accra, Ghana, and which argues from Scripture that God desires all of creation to flourish and thrive. Yet, as one looks at the world, it is clear that there are many who do not have the opportunity to flourish because of economic, ecological, and social inequality. This has led the WCRC to a number of consultations and programs to promote justice in these areas.

However, despite its long and varied history and current breadth, it seems that the ecumenical project is in the process of unraveling. There are many reasons evident for its decline: shrinking denominational resources, concentration upon internal mission, perceived irreconcilable theological differences, and competing visions for what ecumenical engagement should accomplish. All of these are both obvious and ubiquitous.

But there are more insidious reasons for the recent decline of the ecumenical vision. One of them is on display in virtually every world communion: the degree to which issues define us and either separate us or hold us together. Human sexuality, for example, is straining the ability of individual denominations such as the RCA and the CRC to stay together, let alone to be in fellowship with other denominations more accommodating to alternative beliefs and practices.

This leads to important questions which must be answered if ecumenism is to live and thrive. To what degree must we be in agreement in order to stay in fellowship and mission together? When Jesus prayed in John 17 that his disciples may be one so that the world may know and believe in him, how wide was that circle of one-ness meant to be? When 2 Corinthians 5 calls us to be reconciled to Christ, does that mean that we must also be reconciled with everyone else who is reconciled to Christ? Conversely, in what matters is it acceptable for us to disagree, yet still remain in communion and dialogue? Can we be united in common mission for justice in our society and world (as has been true for the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together), while still remaining theologically distinct?

More recently, there is a second, darker reason for the demise of the ecumenical project. This is because of the political environment which has befallen our nation and our world.

Following the turmoil of the US presidential election and its aftermath, I traveled to Hannover, Germany, for a meeting of regional leaders and officers of the WCRC. I was truthfully looking forward to a respite from the drama that has enveloped US news outlets.  To my dismay, the political drama and social disarray of current days in the US followed me into this meeting which featured church leaders from every continent.  These leaders were intensely concerned with the nationalism, isolationism, and the push toward the right that have been evident in Great Britain with Brexit and in the US with the election of Donald Trump.

To be clear, what concerned these leaders was the effect that such isolationism is having on church and society in virtually every place around the globe. What is the fear of the “other” doing not only to residents and groups within the US, but also to the rest of the world? If we will only associate with like-minded people, where is the impetus for justice for the “other”? If we close our borders to those who believe differently from us, where is the place of refuge that the Bible calls us to afford to those who suffer, regardless of whether they are aliens and strangers?

Here, there is also a clarion call to the church. Where is the church’s witness if we turn in on ourselves and close our eyes to the injustices of racism, gender inequality, economic and ecological instability? Where does the witness and hospitality of the gospel fit into this picture of isolationism and antagonism? How do we mirror God if we close in on ourselves, shutting out voices other than our own? Do we in effect close off relationships that have the potential to stretch us to consider the mission of God from a different angle in a context relevant to our own?

These are questions with which we must wrestle if we are to continue the ecumenical vision. There is much work to be done for the church to be a transforming influence in our world. It’s not a task we can tackle on our own; we need each other, both those with whom we agree and those with whom we don’t.

My prayer is that we will care enough for the world God loves that we will risk the conversation.

About the Author
  • Lisa Vander Wal is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church in Colonie, NY. She is Moderator of the RCA’s Commission on Christian Unity, Moderator of the Steering Committee of the Caribbean and North American Area Council (CANAAC) of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and serves on the Executive Committee of the WCRC. Additionally, she is Chair of the Planning Committee for the 26th General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, to be held in Leipzig, Germany in June-July, 2017. Vander Wal received her Master of Divinity from Calvin Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, with a dissertation titled “Hospitality: Building Bridges for Comprehensive Flourishing.” Vander Wal has been active in the ecumenical associations of the RCA and frequently represents the RCA in national and global settings. The RCA is currently working to facilitate inter-religious dialogue, and Vander Wal is part of this facilitation process. Vander Wal is married to David, a civil engineer who works in New York City. They have two adult children and two grandchildren.

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