Global Forum Hailed as 'Unprecedented' Step Toward Christian Unity

NAIROBI, Kenya – Christians from across a broad range of denominations and traditions met in Nairobi, Kenya, this week to discuss the challenges and opportunities for Christian unity.

The Global Christian Forum (GCF), which concluded Friday, was heralded by the more than 200 delegates as an "unprecedented" meeting of Christians, bringing together a number of denominations and traditions, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals and their Evangelical members.

A number of discussions and addresses took place throughout the Nov. 6-9 forum around the theme of "Our Journey with Jesus Christ, the Reconciler."

Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance, welcomed the Global Christian Forum as a new opportunity for the various Christian traditions to overcome their differences.

"As I look at the global landscape and we look at the way the Christian family connects, it seems to me that we have some wonderful constructs but we need some new bridges," he told delegates at the forum. "The richness and the growth of the church in the Global South make for a new day and we need some new bridges."

Tunnicliffe also welcomed the forum as an opportunity to break down stereotypes and to promote greater religious liberty around the world," particularly in countries where Christianity is a minority religion.

The Rev. Peter Sleebos of the Assemblies of God in the Netherlands welcomed the participation of Pentecostals at the GCF, saying, "We can learn a lot from each other."

He acknowledged, however, the tensions that remain between Pentecostals and the ecumenical movement. "Almost all of our constituencies are very allergic to that word ecumenism," he said.

Sleebos also called for further dialogue on a number issues, particularly the need to more clearly define certain Christian terms, such as "church" and "disciple."

He concluded with a positive outlook on the role of the GCF in fostering greater unity. "We discover in you brothers and sisters that you are as special as we are for God and the things of God. We can learn from your passion for the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ," he said.

Hubert Van Beek, Continuation Committee Secretary of the Global Christian Forum, told U.K.-based Christian Today that the presence of Pentecostals and Evangelicals was one of the achievements of the forum.

"Evangelicals and Pentecostals, while they are contemporary in terms of the time line of the church, have in the last century taken different directions and moved in isolation from one another. The forum is an attempt to bridge that gap," he said.

"There is a need to build new bridges because the rivers have changed their flow and the pattern of Christianity has changed in the last century and we have to deal with a new reality that wasn't there when the ecumenical movement began at the beginning of the 20th century."

The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America and President of Christian Churches Together, meanwhile, spoke honestly of the remaining obstacles to Christian unity.

"Our Christian task is to participate with Christ in reconciling the world to God. The fact is that we also have much to do in finding reconciliation among ourselves. We have a challenge towards reconciliation at least to the extent of seeing one another as Christians," he said.

Kishkovsky echoed the desire of Evangelicals and Pentecostals for further dialogue to more clearly define the meaning of certain Christian terms among the various denominations and traditions.

"Evangelism, mission, witness – we have heard much about these words. We need to do much to discover what each of our traditions means by them," he told delegates. "There are certainly sources of conflict and friction around those concepts and those realities. The realities of evangelism, mission and witness eventually will need to be discussed in an open but honest way."

He affirmed the commitment of Orthodox Christians to the process towards unity, however, saying, "You and I are living between the first and the second coming of Christ. We are on that road. And in a way that I hope and pray will bring us to reconciliation."

The Rev. Dr. Robina Winbush of the World Council of Churches and Presbyterian Church of the USA reminded GCF participants of the prayer of Christ that believers may be one in order that the world may believe and stressed the need for the body of Christ to stay as one.

"We live in a world that compels our churches to find ways to live out a visible unity in Christ and to offer a common witness to this world," she said. "Though our analysis of the world we live in often differs, we must not allow this to divide us or to make us fight one another in terms of responding together as Christians."

There was a general consensus among delegates that the Global Christian Forum was one step in the long-term journey towards Christian unity.

"This gathering here in Nairobi is clearly not an ending. It is rather a beginning," said Robert Welsh of the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council. "It is the beginning of a new day filled with the promise of brothers and sisters, of siblings, in the one family of God's love who have been estranged from one another for far too long."

On Friday, the last day of the forum, delegates affirmed the "value of the forum as an open space for developing new relationships and conversations" as well as the need to "broaden and deepen the circle of participation," particularly of women and indigenous peoples."

In an address earlier in the week, Wonsuk Ma of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies stressed in a forum address that Christian unity must continue being 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."

Salvation Army Commissioner Linda Bond, who welcomed the GCF as a "truly sacred space" for "warm Christian fellowship and dialogue," also appealed for mission to remain a priority.

"I do think mission needs to be at the forefront of our thinking. We need to talk about how to introduce people to Jesus Christ. We need to talk about that in the face of other initiatives. We need to talk about that in the face of the people who don't know Him," she said.

In a separate address, Dr. Cheryl Johns of the Church of God in the USA addressed the GCF on 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/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 Global Christian Forum brought together a number of other leaders including the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia; Chair of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, Dr. James Legget; the President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick; and the recently-elected General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Dr. Neville Callam.

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