Archbishop Welby calls for ‘ecumenism of action’ at 70th anniversary of World Council of Churches

23 February 2018

Peter Williams/WCC

The Archbishop of Canterbury at the WCC in Geneva, last Friday

The Archbishop of Canterbury at the WCC in Geneva, last Friday

THE Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) 70th anniversary meeting in Switzerland, last week, called for an “ecumenism of action”.

Theological dialogue had “borne great fruit” in the past 100 years, Archbishop Welby said, but it was time to focus on working together, not simply discussing doctrinal red lines. An “ecumenical spring” was bubbling up under the surface, he suggested, driven by a “hurricane” of the Holy Spirit.

Research suggested that, in recent years, “a great deal of ecumenical activity went [on] under the radar of the ecumenical movement,” he said. “Christians simply got on with expressing their ministry of prayer, evangelism, and service, together with friends from other churches.”

This ecumenism of action was seen as “the visible solidarity of Christians in the cause of mission; of the living out of the gospel among the poor and the struggling, and evangelism”.

While Archbishop Welby hailed the progress in reconciling theological differences — including the recent General Synod vote in favour of reconciling Anglican and Methodist ministries (Synod, 16 February) — he said that conceiving of ecumenical work solely in terms of theology set up barriers between Christians.

“In doctrinal and principled dispute, the barriers come up and the territory is demarcated: you believe this, I believe that; you do this, I do that; you are wrong, I am right.” And even coming to agreement on key issues, such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, served only to shift the frontiers to another faultline.

He urged the audience in Geneva to consider, instead, an ecumenism of open borders, permitting movement, diversity, and encounter. It was far better, and more theologically accurate, to see the Church as one, but with fractures, than to see many Churches, he suggested.

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“Receptive ecumenism looks beyond those frontiers, and asks what it is that we can receive from another Church or tradition. It turns negotiated frontiers into open borders.”

This was a challenge to his own Church, Archbishop Welby said. For instance, if a C of E bishop wished to support and license a pastor from another denomination, “the paperwork is that thick, and ends with the word ‘No.’”

Things were changing, however, and the ecumenical winter was turning into spring, he said. New movements, such as Taizé, which had, from the start, an ecumenical flavour, were springing up. He also referred to Thy Kingdom Come — the annual call to prayer for evangelism between Ascension and Pentecost — which, he said, to his astonishment, had now escaped the bounds of the Anglican Church and become a global, ecumenical initiative.

“Probably, most people who are involved in the prayer will have no idea that it originated in the Church of England. I praise God for that ignorance; may it deepen. We do not want this to be Anglican.”

But it was vital not to neglect the other side of the coin — theological dialogue — while pursuing an ecumenism of action, Archbishop Welby said. Instead, Christians everywhere should launch a “pincer movement against division and enmity” in which both aspects worked together.

“It is not the case that an ecumenism of action leaves theology outside the room,” he concluded. “The action that the Churches and Christians take together is an outworking of the spiritual unity that exists between all who proclaim that Jesus is Lord.”

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