Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland - Conference on Ecumenism and Inter Religious Dialogue

The Churches together in Britain and Ireland organised a conference on the 12th September on Ecumenism and Inter Religious Dialogue. The conference was entitled: “In Our Time” – An Exploration of the Dynamic Relationship between Christian Ecumenism and Inter Religious Dialogue, its opportunities and challenges in the 21st Century.
The Ecumenical Movement “Oikumene” refers both to the unity of all Christians and also of the reconciliation of the whole created order. Christians are called to pray for unity, and work so that the prayer of Jesus might be fulfilled “that they may be one”. However, with some of the enthusiasm for Christian unity dimmed and with some theologians speaking of “an ecumenical winter”, there has been some suggestion that the ecumenical endeavour has moved on and inter religious dialogue has become the fresh urgency. This thinking, however, may be misplaced. Inter religious dialogue, far from replacing ecumenism, is in fact a dynamic expression of the ecumenical movement that seeks not only the unity of all Christians but the reconciliation of all creation of God. The conference consisted of three papers, by Revd Dr Keith Clements, Dr Anthony O’Mahony and Professor Peter Riddell.


Revd Dr Keith Clements (former General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches), gave a paper on “What is Distinctive about Christian Ecumenism?” He explained that ecumenism began when the Western Church began missionary work in the world. He highlighted the fact that the Ecumenical Movement today is like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. Revd Keith identified that Christian unity is a non-negotiable reality. We need to strive towards achieving what Jesus said, i.e. ‘that they may be one’; God wants and works towards a united Oecumeni. The Ecumenical Movement is a type of community, where all believe in Christ. The speaker claimed that Christian Ecumenism derives from Christian Ecclesiology. However, we have ended up with the current ‘Committee Ecumenism’. Nevertheless, a change in language is evident, since the churches are currently not anathematizing each other; the word ‘heresy’ is not used. Revd Keith during his speech, he gave a brief history of ecumenism, emphasising the fact that there are big differences between East-West, with geopolitical implications. In 1925, in Jerusalem, it was stated that the biggest threat to Christianity is not Islam, but secularism. This is a fight fought by all religions. Nevertheless, during his paper he did point the political issues, relating to the Ecumenical Movement, giving modern examples, such as Syria and the Middle East in general. He did not analyse why Ecumenism is important for theological reasons. Nonetheless, he did point out highlight the fact that we can’t continue with the current format forever; time is running out. There will be no energy left in the churches and the participants. The divisive church is too week to deal with division.


Dr Anthony O’Mahony (Reader in Theology and the History of Christianity and Director of the Centre for Eastern Christianity, Heythrop College), gave a paper on “Inter Religious Encounter in the Context of Christianity in the Middle East: Some Ecumenical Perspectives”. The speaker explained how Christianity in the Middle East is complex. We talk about the ‘two lungs’ in Christianity; what about the Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians…? Therefore, we can identify that there are multiple lungs within the Christian World. Ecclesiology is a point of question. European divisions have become global divisions. The Chaldean Church and the Church of the East (in Iraq) are the only two churches which emerged outside of the Roman Environment (by this he meant the Roman, Byzantine and Western environment). Dr O’Mahony claimed that the Middle East is facing a crisis in the relationship between politics and religion. Due to this, and the current global political situation, since 2003, half of the Christians in Iraq have left the country, changing this ancient church. However, the catholic church has done nothing about this new reality. A real question of crisis for Christianity in the Middle East is presence. Less than 1% of global Christianity lives in the Middle East, a place where it was born. The speaker highlighted that we still use polemical Christological terms for Christians in the Middle East. 99% of Christians believe in Chalcedon (4th Ecumenical Council), it’s the basis of Christianity. Rarely do we reflect on Christianity in the Middle East, because we believe and know about the Islamic and Jewish character of the Middle East. The churches in the Middle East do not accept that they are a minority; they are indigenous communities. However, it is obvious that the Middle East will be very different without the Christian Community. The differences between the churches in Middle East have been focalised due to Islam. An interesting point the speaker addressed was the fact that when Ecumenism began for the Roman Catholics (after Vatican II), they believed that relations would flourish between themselves and he Orthodox; however, in reality, relations were formed between the Romans and the Orthodox churches. Ecumenism has been a gift for the churches in the Middle East. Numerous theological issues have been analysed due to ecumenism. Ecumenical Relations have highlighted the Christological question on a high level. Dr O’Mahony also claimed that the Western church has made the global church in its own image. The speaker ended his talk stating that there is a lack of knowledge within the churches, where we still talk about Nestorianism and monophysite churches, which is not the case. (A good example of this is the Coptic Church, which is claiming its belief in the two natures of Jesus Christ).


Professor Peter Riddell (Vice Principal and Director, Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths Melbourne School of Theology) gave a paper on “Christian Ecumenism and Inter Religious Dialogue: Case Studies from Southeast Asia and Australasia”. The speaker primarily looked into Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. He claimed that secularism is currently growing in Australia; nevertheless, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism (in that sequence) are increasing in Australia and New Zealand. The speaker believes that the church has to play a cross-cultural relationship, in order to break down stereotypes. This is where ecumenism and interfaith relations step in. Australia viewed a push to ecumenism, forming the Uniting Church in Australia, forming thus new denominations. On the other hand, the National Council of Churches in Australia consists of Protestants, Orthodox and Roman Catholics. There is a move towards togetherness. By 2006, 86 interfaith organisations existed within Australia. New Zealand follows the example of Australia, in a smaller scale. Malaysia, on the other hand, has had a renewed interest in religion since 1970. The government has enforced the Official Government Islamisation program; however, the opposition pushes for the enforcement of Sharia Law. Therefore, we have Sharia Law (opposition) and the Islamic Values (enforced by the Government). There is a struggle for the soul of Malaysia, in regards to what Islam is. Ecumenism is also present in Malaysia, where non-Muslims have come together to support each other in order to resist marginalisation from the impact of Islamisation. The vision for Malaysia is ‘Many Faiths, One Nation’.


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