Church Unity: Claiming a Common Future: Called to Be the One Church the Future of Ecumenism a Protestant Voice

By Phiri, Isabel Apawo | The Ecumenical Review, January-April 2006 | Go to article overview

Church Unity: Claiming a Common Future: Called to Be the One Church the Future of Ecumenism a Protestant Voice


Phiri, Isabel Apawo, The Ecumenical Review


In this presentation I attempt to present only "one" perspective of the Protestant voice as a response to the text "Called to be the One Church" as an impulse for the churches' search for visible unity in faith, life, witness and action. This perspective is shaped by my own context as a Malawian Presbyterian, living in South Africa. In addition, it is informed by my work in theological education in ecumenical and multi-faith environments and my commitment to social justice issues through the work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

Unity a divine gift and calling

"Is the Holy Spirit present in these ecumenical gatherings that you attend?" I was recently asked by my minister's spouse whether the Holy Spirit is present in ecumenical gatherings, as she understood ecumenical gatherings to be simply about what she called "head knowledge." When reflecting on her question I realized that this is a view that is shared by a significant number of Christians across the denominations in Africa who think that the Holy Spirit is not present in ecumenical gatherings, let alone among ecumenical believers. What is missing in this understanding however is that church unity is indeed both a divine gift and calling. It is the Holy Spirit that guides the church, both at a global and local level, to be obedient to the command of Jesus that all Christians should be one.

As part of a Charismatic Presbyterian Church, my own congregation shows signs of visible church unity by broad acceptance of: a) a variety of different types of baptism; b) the invitation to all believers in Christ from all churches to partake in holy communion; c) ordained ministers of other denominations sharing the pulpit; and d) allowing ministers of other denominations to preside at holy communion.

Koinonia/communion through theological education and formation

The document "called to be the one church" has affirmed that we confess one, holy, catholic and apostolic church". The School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa is an example of an attempt to live out the consequences of this unity through the formation of a cluster of theological institutions who offer theological education and formation to the Roman Catholic Church, The Evangelical Churches, The Lutheran Church, The Moravian Church, The Congregational Church, The Anglican Church and soon the Methodist Church. At a time when many ecumenical institutions are closing in favour of denominational ones, Pietermaritzburg is thriving again as the hub of visible unity of the church as a witness to Christ. The school also engages in multi-faith dialogue and collaboration. This is a clear affirmation and example that ecumenism goes beyond "church unity". This is a very important angle in our witness as one Church because Africa is home to many religions.

The fact that many more churches in South Africa, the African continent and other continents are sending their students to be part of this ecumenical body of Christ is promising for the future of ecumenism in our region and strengthens the urgent need for ecumenical theology to guide the theological institutions and the church in Africa.

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