Symposium: A Theology of Local Interfaith and Ecumenical Relations

Article excerpt

On May 21, 2002, a one-day symposium was held in New York City on a theology of local interfaith and ecumenical relations. The Rev. A. David Bos, S.T.D., hosted it in cooperation with Auburn Theological Seminary and in connection with a research grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The focus of the meeting was on an unpublished manuscript written by Bos on the above topic. Participants in the symposium included Dale P. Andrews, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, Louisville (KY) Presbyterian Theological Seminary; Sue Culver, Executive Secretary, Bradford (England) Inner Ring Group; David Leslie, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon; Isabel Morrison, Social Action Coordinator (ret.), Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY; Margaret Thomas, Interim Coordinator for Interfaith Relations, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.C.), and consultant to this writing project.

The manuscript was written from the standpoint of one who has been engaged over the last forty years in the community-ministry movement and who has been persuaded of the need for theological reflection on the movement and within it. ("Community ministry" refers to the formation of interfaith and ecumenical clusters of congregations that support and cooperate with each other in local, social mission.) Bos posits an "embedded unity" of local congregations based on faith commitments on the one hand and the revelatory character of local community on the other. When affirmed, such embedded unity may evoke covenantal relationships that overcome relationships of rivalry, protect and encourage sustainable local community, impact positively the quality of local politics, and resist what Walter Wink has called "domination systems."

While the scenario of embedded unity was well received by the symposium participants, several significant critical points were made. Thomas asked, "To what extent is it appropriate to begin with theology done by Christians as a basis for understanding interfaith community ministry? She raised the prospect of an interfaith theological project that focused on community ministry or, at the very least, a draft theology that was allowed to come under interfaith scrutiny.

Morrison cited her experience of a 1980's alliance of local congregations in Rochester on behalf of the Sanctuary Movement. For her this moment exemplified the potential of local covenantal relationships. She noted that it was possible for each congregation to enter the relationship based on its own unique theologies. Therefore, effective covenantal relationships may not be predicated on theological agreement: "Each religion has its theology of social justice, and I believe the work can be accomplished using those theologies rather than agreeing on one theology for community ministry. …