Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Unity and Mission One Hundred Years On

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Unity and Mission One Hundred Years On

Article excerpt

Like many of you, I am a teacher. It is within the context of my course on the church that I attempt to introduce students to both the rich diversity of ecclesial traditions represented by various Christian churches, and to sensitize them to the need to work and pray for the full, visible unity of the divided churches. As each new academic year begins, I wonder again whether my course continues to correspond to the lived experience of my students, many of whom no longer identify with the traditional boundaries of denominational communities. Although I teach in a small Roman Catholic university, my students come from a wide variety of churches, including Latin and Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian, the United Church of Canada, Methodist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist, and students from new emergent-church movements. In many ways, they are already committed to a vision of "unity in mission." That is to say, they are deeply convinced of the necessity for churches to engage in common witness and service within contemporary society. Because the Christian churches no longer enjoy privileged access to the centers of power in Canadian society, they do not need to be convinced of the need to work together with other Christians in common causes of justice, peace, and protecting the integrity of God's creation. They are, for all intents and purposes, "pragmatic ecumenists," with little understanding and no little impatience for the deep doctrinal conflicts that continue to vitiate the unity of Christ's body, and that ultimately undermine the ability of Christians to proclaim a gospel of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the world.

As I listen to students, colleagues, and many other voices from the churches, I am more and more convinced of the need to take stock of how radically and rapidly the face of world Christianity has changed in the last century and to recognize that many of our paradigms of the church, its mission, and unity no longer "fit" the face of global Christianity. In theological terms, many of our categories are no longer adequate to express the living faith of the church in all of its dimensions. In the twenty-first century Christian theology is confronted, perhaps as never before, with the challenge of doing theology against the horizon of a truly global Christianity, with all of the diversity this implies, and to confront squarely the context of a religiously plural world community. Religious diversity is no longer experienced from one continent or country to the next, but in our neighborhood, as the city on every continent has become a veritable cosmopolis.

In order to identify some key features of unity and mission in our present context and some of the challenges before us, it is instructive to look back at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. Engaging in such an exercise may also help us to appreciate the distance we have travelled in the span of the last hundred years. What was the vision of mission that inspired the participants of that meeting a century ago, and how did they conceive of the relationship between mission and ecclesial unity? How has the face of world Christianity changed since that historic turning point, and how are we challenged to rethink mission and unity in the present context? I propose in the first part of this essay to consider the context of Edinburgh 1910, and then, in the second part, to consider broadly how the face of world Christianity, and thus of the ecumenical movement, has changed in the past century. Against this background, I will suggest some of the defining features of mission and unity as we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Mission and Unity: Edinburgh 1910

Any ecumenist reflecting on unity and mission today is likely to take the passage of Jn. 17:21, long the banner of the modern ecumenical movement, as their starting point. Jesus prayed "that all may be one . …

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