Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Conversion and Identity, the United Churches: Origins, Progress, Relationships

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Conversion and Identity, the United Churches: Origins, Progress, Relationships

Article excerpt

I have accepted the assignment for this lecture only after overcoming some hesitations. First of all, I retired nearly a year ago and am no longer actively involved in unity discussions. Second, I come from the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU), a union between Lutheran and Reformed traditions of early last century; it was not always clear whether this was really a transconfessional union. Finally, I come from a country where today we have a serious problem with the term "identity" and where "conversion" seems to be far away. The reason why Faith and Order has asked me is obvious and definitely not to my own merit: I am the only person who, either as a Geneva staff member or as an ecumenical officer of the EKU, has participated in all of the five previous consultations of united and uniting churches.

Let me start with my strongest impression about them. Here is where I have found the "fully committed fellowship" (New Delhi, 1961), a foretaste of the unity to be discovered, a group of Christians and delegates from churches "built together" - the theme of this sixth consultation. The question raised in Santiago de Compostela,(1) "Is it possible for us to serve the table of the world when we are divided at the table of the Lord?", found here a clear answer. In these consultations it was possible under the grace of God to celebrate holy communion together - without the slightest doubt whether this was "permitted". We experienced koinonia.

But certainly it is not sufficient to limit ourselves to a repetition of this experience. I am sure we all brought other hopes and expectations to Ocho Rios. What then is the purpose - or what are the purposes - of our meeting? As an introduction I have put together a list of ten possible meanings - and in doing so I discovered that it is easier to state the aim in a negative way: "We are not here for this..." I would like to invite you to a kind of multiple-choice procedure; perhaps one or two will strike you as relevant.

1. The first catch-word is orphanage. This term does not appear in the minutes of the first meeting in Bossey in 1967, but the issue was raised in the very beginning. Was it to be a conference of churches which, by their very unions, had lost the connection to their parent bodies, the Christian World Communions (CWCs), and felt somewhat lost and lonely? In Bossey this approach was immediately rejected.

2. A second catch-word: travelling circus or merry-go-round. This might be a description of many United Nations - and probably also ecumenical - conferences, meant for people who like to travel, who then write a report and request another meeting in some years. Unfriendly critics may ask, "Do you really need this, from here to eternity, in order to prove that you are still alive?" Needless to say, this criticism comes mostly from those who were not invited.

3. Another attempt: briefing. Are we a group like the Roman Catholic bishops who once in a while are called to Rome for the so-called ad limina visits? Are we here to receive orders from Faith and Order? Well, sometimes I wished for more directive or non-directive counselling, but the by-laws of Faith and Order make it clear that this is not possible. And you are certainly not willing to act on orders.

4. Let us try another option: family reunion. After all, aren't we a family with many similarities? In Toronto the "deep affinity among united churches" was mentioned. But again I have my suspicions. Not all the relatives like those reunions, not all attend, and those who come may have their internal power struggles. Thus not every family reunion is a happy event.

5. Could we then be a self-awareness group, gathered for taking our own pulse (and discovering whether our pulse-rate is too high or too low)? Do we need a therapist for our doubts, pains and frustrations, our defeats and despair? After all, between 1961 and 1968 twenty-two new united churches came into life, but, as you know, we have been less "successful" since then. …

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