WCC: ecumenism alive and well on eve of Pope's visit

On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, three stalwarts of Scottish ecumenism and the 'churches together' movement met on Tuesday evening to assess church relations today. The three church leaders were Archbishop Mario Conti (Roman Catholic archbishop of Glasgow), Christine Davis (Religious Society of Friends / Quakers) and the Rev  Dr Sheilagh Kesting (ecumenical officer of the Church of Scotland and former moderator of its General Assembly). They shared reflections about the successes, disappointments and hopes of churches working together in the nation.

The last time a pope visited Edinburgh, Scotland, was in 1982 when the popular Pope John Paul II was welcomed into the heart of Scottish Protestantism and made a visit to New College and the theological faculty at the University of Edinburgh.

At the time there was nervousness in the air, particularly among the leadership of the Church of Scotland who, according to Archbishop Conti, were to meet with John Paul II “on their home turf”.

While the meeting with the pope went perfectly well, the church and ecumenical landscape of Scotland was in for a sea-change over the next three decades. This change has marked an improvement in relations according to these three pioneers of the modern ecumenical movement.

The formal state visit of Pope Benedict XVI will begin when he is received by Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh on Thursday, 16 September. There will be a wide variety of church leaders attending the reception, including the Rev John Cairns Christie, moderator of General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The three were part of an evening event sponsored by the 20-year-old organization Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), the national ecumenical instrument. The event was held in conjunction with this week’s meeting of the WCC Executive Committee at Carberry Tower, near Edinburgh.

The presence in Edinburgh of a governing body of the WCC, which represents more than 550 million Christians around the world including Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic, independent and many Protestant groups, and its meeting being held at the same time as the Pope’s visit there, is sheer coincidence.

Still, the circumstance could not go unnoticed as the current pope arrives against an ecclesiastical backdrop that reflects growing cooperation between churches. The WCC Executive Committee’s visit to the city in 2010 honours the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference which historians of Christianity identify as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.

When the “churches together” model was adopted in 1990 with the formation of ACTS, there “were vociferous and in some places quite unpleasant protests”, said Christine Davis, one of the early participants in the churches together movement. Archbishop Conti was the first convener of ACTS.

Since then the major denominational groups have been working together on a variety of social and ecclesial initiatives. Davis, while not guaranteeing the behaviour of everyone in relation to the pope’s visit this week, feels certain there will not be a repeat of the sorts of protests that occurred in 1990.

She pointed out that today “at one level, the fact we are working together is taken for granted”. In 2009, “we had a very valuable joint conference of everyone involved in the churches in Scotland on Calvin: Catholic and Reformed”, she said. The theme was inspired by the 500th anniversary of Protestant reformer John Calvin’s birth. “Now, that is the kind of event which allowed us to be learning together about a part of church history people don’t normally see as having in common.”

Conti for his part views the work of ACTS as becoming the “title for the engagement of the ecumenical movement”. The role of ACTS is all about “engagement, respect and listening”, he said.

Sheilagh Kesting, who was also involved in the formation of ACTS, talked about landmark developments that grew out of the Swanwick consultation in 1992, with “people reporting afterwards about the moment when Cardinal Hume of England came forward and said the Roman Catholic Church was ready to come into a new ecumenical structure, the churches together, that we now call ACTS”.

The momentum this created, along with the subsequent leadership and grassroots work of the churches together, has led “the Roman Catholic church into the ecumenical movement, and this is not something we wanted to go back on”, Kesting said.

Still, ACTS and the churches together movement have not led to unity in all things; there remain stark differences between churches. But what has happened, according to Conti, is that the churches resist criticizing each other in public and work at respecting their differences and discussing them together.

Today it is more likely churches will consult with each other before they move forward on important matters, according to Kesting. Some of the disappointments the group felt about the churches together movement is that it may not be challenging the churches enough, Kesting added.

Conti said that there remain challenges in regard to issues of morality and ethics, such as family values and homosexuality.

Even with these sort of “mismatches” among churches in the same communities, particularly around ecclesial issues, this sometimes “baffles people” Davis said, “but it doesn’t stop them from getting on”.

Despite these challenges, all three ecumenical stalwarts saw hope in the movement of churches together, with ACTS and agencies like the WCC at the forefront. There was strong participation of the churches in addressing social issues such as poverty, Conti observed.

In conclusion, Davis said that churches have to share their resources better, deal with their own internal divisions, look at broader inter-religious and secular issues and in the end live out the good news of Jesus Christ, “which is to be extended to everyone we meet”.

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