A new generation of Christians has advanced itself into a 50-year-old ecumenical movement and is learning just how diverse faith groups are "being Christian together."
A hundred college students joined hundreds of participants from 80 Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal, Anglican, and Evangelical denominations and organizations over the past several days to discuss the progress of Christian unity and its future.
"I think it's very good to see this fresh new wave of young scholars interested in talking with each other about what they find in common and what distinctives they bring to the understanding of Christian faith," commented Wesley M. Pattilo, associate general secretary for Communication at the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) – a network of 35 various faith groups that constitute 45 million members across the nation.
The young students along with the founders of the U.S. ecumenical movement were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first gathering of NCC's Faith and Order Commission, which was established to affirm the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ. The theme of the conference was "On Being Christian Together."
Noted church historian and Lutheran pastor Dr. Martin Marty addressed the growing number of constituents in the ecumenical dialogue over the last half century. Participants highlighted the progress between Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church.
His Eminence Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., theologian and author, praised the work of bilateral dialogues since the Second Vatican Council. He said decades of conversation between Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Anglican and Orthodox, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, just to name a few, "have been of immense value for dispelling past prejudices, for identifying real but hitherto unrecognized agreements, and for enabling parties to see that they can say more together than they previously deemed possible."
Just last summer at the 19th World Methodist Conference, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Methodists signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification – a 1999 document that articulates a common understanding of justification by God's grace through faith in Christ – marking a major achievement in ecumenical dialogue.
"We are becoming Christian together," Marty suggested in his address last week at the Faith and Order conference, according to the NCC News Service.
Young students studying church doctrine have begun picking up the last 50 years of ecumenical dialogue as older pioneers look to extend the movement of oneness to the younger generation.
"The dialogue between the different churches is really important," said Bridget Bursaw, 21, senior at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. "The church should not be divided."
From last Thursday to this past Monday, conference attendees discussed points of disagreement across denominational lines on doctrine and practices that have grown out of different historical and cultural roots. The first decades of Faith and Order were aimed more toward conflict resolution, as Dr. Ann Riggs, NCC associate general secretary for Faith and Order, stated. Instead of conflict resolution, however, Riggs introduced "conflict transformation."
"When we face our conflict together we are already engaging in unity," she said, according to the NCC News Service.
Pattilo says there will always be conflicts since human beings are limited in their understanding of God's will, but that further drives the significance of the ecumenical movement, he stressed.
"It brings us all together to talk openly about how we see things without having to divide. We're already divided," he said, describing the ecumenical movement as an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. "We come together to find common ground of understanding so that we can be Christians together in helping to make the world a better place."
Although the ecumenical table has broadened considerably, the Rev. Dr. W. Douglas Mills, who serves on the ecumenical staff of the United Methodist Church, stressed the need that they "constantly have to be expanding the 'we' with whom we do this work."
"The basic purpose of the ecumenical movement today is not to create a megadenomination or a single church, but to help Christians respond to the command of Christ that we all be one in spirit and in fellowship," Pattilo explained.
"We can do that without having to compromise our beliefs because so much of what all Christian faith groups believe, they hold in common," he said, alluding to the teachings of Jesus on the poor and meeting the needs of one another. "It becomes a point of celebration that we can find this unity in Jesus Christ across all this cultural and doctrinal differences and can thus bear a clear witness that there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism."
The nearly 300 attendees had converged at Oberlin College in Ohio, where the first Faith and Order conference had opened in 1957.
Looking toward the next 50 years, the ecumenical partners were urged to spawn a new Great Awakening.
If there was a time for a new Great Awakening to happen in our nation, the time is now, said the Rev. James Forbes, who recently retired as senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City, on Monday.
"You of the Faith and Order movement are the salt of the earth."