'Unprecedented' Forum Renews Hope for Christian Unity

NAIROBI, Kenya – Christian leaders from across denominations and inter-church organizations concluded the historic Global Christian Forum last week with a renewed sense of hope in achieving unity within the worldwide body of Christ.

The four-day meeting, which ended Friday, broke new ground by bringing together the leader of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia; the international director of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe; and chair of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, Dr. James Legget; as well as leaders from other traditions including Anglican, Catholic, Baptist and Reformed.

On the final day of the meeting, leaders agreed on a joint message to all Christians around the world in which they welcomed the "unprecedented opportunity" afforded by the Forum to share reflections on the theme "Our Journey with Jesus Christ, the Reconciler," They also reiterated the GCF's mission to "create an open space" where Christians from across a wide range of Christian communities and inter-church organizations could reflect together on issues of common concern.

"Recognizing that unity is first and foremost God's gift through the work of the Holy Spirit, our intent is to go forward together promoting greater understanding and cooperation among Christians, while respecting and upholding the diversity of our identities, traditions and individual gifts (cf 1 Cor 12)," the letter states.

Evangelical leader Tunnicliffe expressed his appreciation of the message's "commitment to Trinitarian Christian truth and its clarity about the humanity and deity of Christ." He welcomed the opportunity afforded by the forum to engage in dialogue with other traditions and denominations.

"Our presence at this Forum is testimony to the long-standing commitment of Evangelicals, since the inception of the global Evangelical Alliance movement in 1846, to Christ-like cooperation with the various denominations and traditions that make up the body of Christ," the WEA head stated.

The WEA demonstrated its support of the Global Christian Forum by holding its annual international council and leadership meetings in Nairobi in conjunction with the GCF.

"This Forum was and will continue to be an opportunity to create greater understanding, dispel stereotypes and promote greater religious liberty," Tunnicliffe added.

Pentecostal leader Legget, meanwhile, particularly welcomed "the expanding of the table" to include Evangelicals and Pentecostals.

"The wonderful thing was that the Forum included the whole family," he said. "The dialogue with leadership across denominational boundaries resulted in a discovery of commonalities and differences. We learned to understand those differences and at times we came to appreciate them."

Hubert Van Beek, Continuation Committee Secretary of the Global Christian Forum, said that the broadest possible participation of the Evangelicals and Pentecostals was "absolutely essential" to its working.

Notably, the two keynote speakers, Wonsuk Ma of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and Dr. Cheryl Johns of the Church of God in the USA, were also from the Pentecostal tradition.

Ma stressed in a Forum address that Christian unity must continue to be considered within the context of mission.

"If mission has divided the church, it is entirely due to human fault. In fact, mission is to bring the church together," he asserted. "Church unity was rightly perceived within the context of mission, and this should continue … church-together is not only a dream but also a possibility."

In a separate address, Johns spoke of the need for Christians in the North and South, and East and West to overcome their prejudices and stereotypes.

"The churches of the South must appreciate the costly legacy of human rights and democracy that is found in the North and West," she said. "I would ask that the Southern churches and their leaders avoid the temptation of judgment and instead offer the gift of tears for the tarnished beauty they see in the North."

The presence of Evangelicals and Pentecostals was also welcomed as "unprecedented" by the Bishop of Barking, the Rt. Rev. David Hawkins, who was representing the head of the Anglican Communion at the forum.

"I think the very fact that there has been such a degree of trust – that they would have been given such a fair hearing, such a sympathetic hearing, and that indeed both the keynote speakers on the stage were coming from the Pentecostal tradition – would have restored a lot of mistrust that Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions have had in the past," he said.

Hawkins added that the week had been "inspiring" because delegates had been able to "experience a different quality of working ecumenically."

"The quality has come from deliberately starting the conference by sharing our testimony, our faith story, with one another as human beings, as people who have discovered Jesus, and who are traveling with Jesus in ministry and leadership. That's where we started. Every conversation thereafter was in reference to that personal relationship," he said.

"I think that's the reason why a new trust and a new relationship have begun to be developed on common ground – because we all understand that God has entered our lives through Jesus and we have been called to serve God and lead the church."

The joint message committed delegates to continue with the process within the Global Christian Forum, stating, "We will pray and work for local and regional events, as well as other possible global encounters, to deepen this journey."

The Rev. Sarah Rowland Jones, an Anglican priest and researcher and member of the GCF continuation committee, revealed that there would be a process of dialogue and consultation to reflect more deeply on the outcome of the GCF.

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