The Catholic archbishop of New Orleans welcomed hundreds of National Council of Churches (NCC)/Church World Service (CWS) Centennial Gathering delegates to opening worship in Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis Tuesday night (Nov. 9), and said the ecumenical movement has made significant progress in the past century.
“In 1928 Pope Pius XI was critical of the ecumenical movement and would not participate in it,” said Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond in a homily before a richly diverse group of Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans and Catholics. “But in 1964 Vatican II challenged all Christians to unity.”
Vatican II acknowledged that God wants Christians to be a united people, Aymond said. Looking around the crowded Cathedral, he said, “At one time we would have called each other strangers.”
One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina five years ago is that many social barriers had to be discarded in New Orleans. “It was strangers who came to give help after Katrina and these strangers became the face and the hands and the heart of Christ,” Aymond said. “We need not wait for a national tragedy to work toward unity.”
The opening service at the nation’s oldest Catholic cathedral included participants from the wide array of traditions that make up the NCC and CWS. Participants in the service included Bishop Johncy Itty, chair of the CWS board of directors and the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the NCC.
The service followed a fully packed schedule as Itty and Chemberlin called the Centennial Gathering to order several hours earlier at the New Orleans Marriott on Convention Center Boulevard here.
More than 400 people of faith are gathering here this week to celebrate a century of ecumenical engagement and to discuss how the churches might live and work together in an uncertain future.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson returned to her hometown of New Orleans to welcome the delegates.
“This is the place where my environmentalism was born,” Jackson said. “Since Hurricane Katrina, you and many members of your congregations have traveled here and spent countless hours working with our people — you have played an important role in rebuilding, re-visioning this region.”
Jackson added that her family had felt the support of the people of faith who came to New Orleans. “My mother lost her house in the storm, as so many others did,” she said.
Chemberlin presented Jackson with an appropriate gift: the “green” edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
The delegates received greetings from 15 national and international ecumenical organizations that are participating in the Centennial Gathering.
At an interfaith luncheon presided over by Diana L. Eck, chair of the NCC’s Interfaith Relations Commission and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, a Jewish and Muslim leader talked about paths to dialogue.
Both Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America and Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs acknowledged that understanding among different faiths was not always easy, but dialogue was possible and necessary.
“From the very beginning it was recognized that the roots of Islam were in Judaism and Christianity,” Syeed said. “In the rise of conflicting Muslim and Christian empires, Christians and Muslims lost their inclusiveness. Even now the remnants of colonial existence continue to effect Muslims.”
Gutow said personal relationships among Christians, Muslims and Jews could be more important than dialogue. He noted that he could not always agree with his Christian and Muslim friends, including issues of the security of Israel on the Gaza border.
“Sayyid and (NCC general secretary) Michael Kinnamon and I disagreed,” Gutow said. “We wrote a poem, we said to God, we have not always agreed but we do agree that you are on the sides of those who suffer and that peacemaking is our calling. Even in our disagreement we found a common ground. Interfaith relations are at its best when we merge our sense of justice with our friendship.”
The Ecumenical Christian Century
The Tuesday afternoon plenary was adjusted because the main speaker, Christian Century editor and Presbyterian minister John M. Buchanan, was unable to attend the meeting due to an illness in his family. But Buchanan had sent an advance copy of his speech, and it was read to the delegates by the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)
Among the points Buchanan intended to make: “The unity of the church, the ecumenical vision — which you here this afternoon embody — is not a liberal add on to the gospel — it is at the heart of the gospel. It is an evangelical imperative — ‘that they may be one so that the world may believe.’ In a radically global, pluralistic world, we have no credibility at all without unity.”
Three church leaders offered their commentary on the speech: the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; Metropolitan Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, patriarchal vicar of the Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church for the eastern U.S.; and the Rev. Walter L. Parrish III, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.
“We are far more interconnected than we were for much of the last century — and we know it,” said Jefferts Schori. “The image born of chaos science, that a butterfly’s wingbeats in China may affect the course of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, is daily reality if we will only notice. Those who are gathered here preach and teach frequently about the many and interconnected parts of the body of Christ — and that understanding is foundational to our presence in this place. There is an even deeper and more pervasive understanding of our interconnectedness — the whole of God’s creation.”
Jefferts Schori said, “The role of bodies like this one is to be a witness to Jesus Christ’s saving work on behalf of all creation. It is only as God’s body, reaching across not only Christian difference, but into the hearts and hands of our interfaith partners, that we have any possibility of joining Jesus’ witness on behalf of the least of these. The situation on our own Gulf Coast following Katrina required a similar urgent clamor by people of faith, as has the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. Our future as ecumenists requires our active and urgent response.”
Metropolitan Karim said unity is an imperative given the harsh realities of divisions. “The despicable acts of terror on those peaceful Christians in Baghdad clearly shows to what extent people go to silence those who do not share their faith or traditions,” he said. “We as representatives of Christian communions in the U.S. are called to solidarity with sisters and brothers in Christ who suffer elsewhere in the world.”
Karim said, “The unity of the church is both a gift of god and an obligation and responsibility of Christians to fulfill the Lord’s commandment and all be one. For the church fathers, unity was a sign of faithfulness to our Lord. Their understanding of church unity continued to be a light for generations to come. With the Edinburgh conference the churches opened a new chapter of unity which did not mean giving up the particularities of churches but means a united Christian witness for the whole world and a voice for the voiceless.”
Parrish noted that 1910 was “a profoundly different religious landscape for people of color, Many of us were not at the table. Women were excluded for positions of leadership and people’s unwillingness to disavow either their sexual orientation or their faith in Christ has challenged all of us.”
Parrish asked: “What do we say in response to all of this. I believe the Apostle is still instructive: if God is for us, then who can be against us. God is in fact still on our side. As we struggle with financial resources, as communions struggle to define ourselves and redefine ourselves, with people who have a disturbing preoccupation with self-serving agendas, God is still there.”
“Our ancestors helped birth this movement in days of similar strife and narrowness,” Parrish said. “They decided to walk together not always in agreement but faithful to the majority. They chose to place a higher value on unity than on being unanimous.
“We are being called in new ways to work for peace locally and globally, to be with those who have been denied justice regardless of their location or orientation. I don’t believe it will be any easier to do this in 2010 than it was in 1910. We have come to be witnesses to the Christian century we hope will still come.”
The Centennial Gathering of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service marks the one hundredth anniversary of the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, an event many church historians regard as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.
The theme for the Centennial Gathering is “Witnesses of These Things: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era.” The theme is taken from Luke 24:48 which is the scriptural theme text for the 2010 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — an additional reminder that there is one, multi-faceted ecumenical movement.