Prospects for Ecumenism in the 21st Century: Towards an Ecumenical Theology of the Wilderness

Article excerpt

The rabbi leaned back in his chair and said, "For us, Genesis is the story of a family history, growing through all of the stages--birth, discovery of self, adolescence, rebellion, adulthood, redemption." Rabbi Goldenberg and I had several conversations about the Genesis account of creation during the time of the evolution/intelligent design debate in Dover, Pennsylvania (1). I was serving a Lutheran parish that included many individuals living in the Dover Area School District, and I wanted to help them cultivate meaning in the contemporary conversation between theology and science. In order to do that, I needed to understand how Jewish faith communities understood the received text. I sought the rabbi's help to articulate a faithful perspective on reading Genesis in a way that could yield prospects for new understanding in this new age. Rabbi Goldenberg had a great deal to say about the first two chapters of Genesis in light of the current issue. But in the end, he overwhelmingly reminded me that the first book of the Torah has a holistic, single integrity, with an original intent to describe not just the ultimate questions of the natural world, but the evolution of God's people growing through the stages of life as they tried to faithfully live within the oikoumene. The rabbi reminded me that every individual, every family, every institution, every people with a purpose will grow and follow new paths diverging from our point of origin, as we discern more about the nature of our calling, and the living purpose of the one who calls us. And this is our story.

After six decades of infancy, growth and maturity, the World Council of Churches (WCC) faithfully realizes that it is entering a new phase of life in a new millennium. This new age includes a generation of Christians who experienced nothing of the post World War II crucible that gave birth to the WCC from the seminal beginnings of the ecumenical movement. Much like the book of Genesis, the latest generation of our ecumenical family has received the ecumenical texts, the structure, the witness of history that has borne so much fruit throughout the 20th century. But as we grow along the path that has led us into the 21st century, we ask, what are the prospects for ecumenism that will yield a renewed ecumenical understanding in this new age?

Moving our focus from form to function

In order to adapt to the changing global context in which we bear witness to God's reconciling work in Christ Jesus, the WCC has engaged in a task of "reconfiguration". Reconfiguration studies and mapping exercises (2) describe the relationships between different ecumenical expressions, from local/national councils, through regional councils and Christian world communions up to the World Council itself. The studies promote reconfiguring these relationships in ways that encourage efficiency, improve stewardship of resources, model visible unity and encourage local church bodies to commit to a sense of ownership and identity with the ecumenical movement. For example, the 2003 Antelias consultation on ecumenical reconfiguration recommends broadening, deepening and strengthening relationships between "ecumenical actors" to ensure a coherence and effectiveness that renews our ecumenical commitment. These studies largely focus on reconfiguring the institutional forms of the ecumenical movement.

Right away, I want to suggest that we should first give thanks, realizing that the hard work of sustaining relationships between multiple layers of God's oikos is a result of good growth. We should not be too concerned that we are asking institutional questions at this point in our growth.

These are surely the same questions that the 12 sons of Jacob asked when sustaining large households who had settled in a foreign land. They are the issues that Moses, Aaron and Miriam certainly faced when mobilizing a great people for sojourn through an unknown wilderness. Now that they had begun to realize God's gifts, they needed to discover how to faithfully administer that new life on a large scale. …