Ecumenism lives at local level: journal

By on November 1, 2004

Rev. Laverne Jacobs tells of a First Nations community where divisions that followed the arrival of a Pentecostal church eventually began to ease. Members of “historic” churches began to attend the occasional revival meeting at the Pentecostal church.

But Mr. Jacobs, an Anglican priest from Walpole Island, Ont., currently on the national staff of the United Church of Canada, also tells of a First Nations community where members of one of the “mainstream” churches began to hold annual powwows to raise funds. Local Pentecostals regarded such activity, including native dances, as “of the devil,” he reports.

Rev. Wendy Fletcher-Marsh, dean of the Vancouver School of Theology, recalls the time her family was heading for the country club reception that followed the bat mitzvah of a Jewish friend of her daughter’s. They stopped at a Tim Horton’s to ask for directions.

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“Oh yes,” the employee advised them, “your turn is just down the street from the Buddhist temple. Turn left at the mosque and if you hit the Sikh temple you know that you have gone too far.”

Those vignettes are from a recent issue of Ecumenism, the journal of the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, which asked correspondents from across the country to comment on the state of ecumenism. The issue marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of the centre in 1974, in what was a heady era for ecumenism.

The over-all impression of the report is that the current state of traditional ecumenism — the quest for closer relations among Canada’s historic or “mainstream” churches — is rather lacklustre by comparison.

But contributors also report vitality in ad-hoc local efforts, in relations with and among evangelical churches, in inter-faith relations between Christian churches and other world religions, and in pragmatic responses to an increasingly secular society.

Among reports:

  • Canon Ralph Billard, an Anglican priest in St. John’s, reports that the end of the denominational school system in Newfoundland and Labrador has led to “a much more healthy atmosphere” among denominations.
  • Helmut Harder, emeritus professor of theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, and a former general secretary of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, notes that so-called ecumenical dialogue and co-operation in that province includes less than half of its practising Christians, with evangelical churches notably absent. He asks whether a change in terminology “to something like ‘inter-church'” might be more inviting to churches that shy away from the term “ecumenical.”
  • Anna Tremblay, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Roman Catholic diocese of Calgary, does not think ecumenism is dead but points to what seems to be “a rising tendency of retrenchment and… fundamentalism in all denominations.” In her view, “the onus is on those willing to risk a wider world view to continue to move forward.”
  • Gilles Bourdeau, a Franciscan who was director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism when the magazine was put together, and David Fines, editor-in-chief of Aujourd’hui Credo, the French-language magazine of the United Church of Canada, report that ecumenism faces special problems in Quebec, compounded by such trends as declining membership and leadership burnout.

Nevertheless, the two authors fill close to half of their five-page article with a list of dozens of inter-church and inter-faith endeavours in Quebec.

They argue that this is no longer an era of dualism, either Catholic-Protestant or English-French, “but of living together in a social and ecumenical unit where the partners in dialogue have entered into a ‘triangular reality.'”

(The centre seems to be practising what it preaches. Mr. Bourdeau’s successor as director, Stuart E. Brown, the Anglican Church of Canada’s former regional mission co-ordinator for Africa and the Middle East, started work in late September. Mr. Brown, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, is the first non-Roman Catholic director of the centre.)

Harvey Shepherd is a Montreal writer.

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