Asserting that “We are in danger of losing what the ecumenical spirit is all about,” historical theologian and longtime ecumenical activist Keith Clements argued May 28 at a presentation in the Ecumenical Center in Geneva that people and churches need to rediscover the essential “ecumenical dynamic” at the heart of the movement.

“There is a need … to restore the word ecumenical to proper and positive use,” he has written. “The story, past and to the present, needs to be told.”

At once critical and encouraging, Clements complained that often “an obsession with identity today,” evident in resurgent confessionalism, ethnocentrism and nationalism, leaves people less willing “to step outside their home, their tradition and inhabit another’s tradition,” meet each other’s needs and serve the larger good.

A former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, Clements is a historical theologian and Bonhoeffer scholar.

At the session, led by WCC senior editor Theodore A. Gill, Jr., Clements discussed his new book, Ecumenical Dynamic: Living in More than One Place at Once, published by World Council of Churches Publications.

Clements argued that one’s Christian identity is not a fixed thing, encapsulated by one’s tradition. “Instead, identity is a quest,” he said, and “you discover your identity as you relate to others.”

Fundamental to the ecumenical movement, he said, has been the human impulse, central also to biblical spirituality, to cross boundaries and understand each other through “an exchange of life and experience” that leads to mutuality and common witness and service.

Clements’s book illustrates its central thesis by rereading ecumenical history in that light, including events leading to Edinburgh 1910, the Life and Work movement, the Barmen Declaration and European churches at the end of the Soviet era.

Discussion of Clements’s presentation and the book raised questions about the relation of peace and justice to unity, whether the ecumenical movement is simply “a Eurocentric venture” and unable to reshape its agenda for a new religious landscape, the relative demands of interchurch and interfaith encounter, and the role of ecumenism in unmasking unauthentic religious elements in contemporary culture.

In the end, he asserted, ecumenism attempts to help us identify “with the worldwide church, a sign and embodiment of the body of Christ” in today’s world.