A new step forward in ecumenism was taken this week as leading international theologians gathered to launch the Ecclesiologial Investigations International Research Network in historic St Deiniol's Library in Wales. Scholars from four different continents and denominations running well into double figures joined their British counterparts in wide-ranging discussions, where cultural and denominational diversity was experienced as a richness in exploring new ways of being church. The network began as the initiative of four Anglican, Catholic and Methodist theologians. Its aim is to celebrate and be open to the pluralistic reality in which today's churches live. From the standpoint of different Christian denominations and from differing international and cultural perspectives the network focuses on naming and exploring the challenges facing churches in contemporary society. In 2005 Liverpool Hope University established a new research Centre for the Study of Contemporary Ecclesiology. Making links with other international institutions it supported the establishment of an Ecclesiology Program Unit in the American Academy of Religion, the major worldwide annual gathering of academic theologians. This unit immediately attracted enormous interest and provided opportunities for dialogue across the entire field of ecclesiology and ecumenism, hosting its first two sessions in Washington DC in November 2006. The need for such a network and its possibilities was shown in a previous high-profile conference hosted by Durham University's Department of Theology and Religion in January 2006 on the theme of 'Receptive Ecumenism and Catholic Learning'. The conference marked the university's award of an honorary doctorate to Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The network's aim is to establish a series of conferences and to promote international research collaboration in the publication of a series of volumes entitled Ecclesiological Investigations. These will focus on such themes as ecumenism, religious plurality, church structures, authority and accountability, the future of denominations, contemporary ministry and practice and the developing Christian tradition. Future international conferences will be held in Kerala, Southern India, in 2008, on Religious Pluralism, and Durham University in 2009 on 'Receptive Ecumenism and Ecclesial Learning: Learning to be Church Together'. The network has been supported in England by a series of study days in Ripon Theological College Oxford, Liverpool Hope and Chichester Universities. Tom Best, director of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission wrote of his delight at the establishment of the new AAR program unit and his desire for future co-operation between the World Council of Churches and academic theologians. Rev. Dr. Kenneth Wilson, one of the founding members of the network says, 'The church can and should seek to play a unifying role in any given society. In a global economy the church has to find new ways of proclaiming its vision of peace, justice and equality. There is a basic need for a new approach to understanding the nature of the church, its theological nature, its living reality and its future role. The church is certainly not going to disappear, so we should make efforts towards dialogue and closer unity with people of all faiths and of none. Ecclesiology is the science which can help build bridges across our diverse communities'.
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