Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church in the U.S. Photo: Episcopal News Service
The National Council of Churches
and global humanitarian agency Church World Service
are capping a year of ecumenical anniversary celebrations with their annual general assembly, welcoming religious leaders from the United States and beyond, including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
The Nov. 9-11 "centennial gathering" is drawing more than 400 people to the Marriott New Orleans to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland — an event widely regarded as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement — and to discuss how the churches might live and work together in the future.
"Ecumenism in the next century must consider the realities of the contexts we inhabit and the changes to those contexts we can see quickly arriving," Jefferts Schori said in her response to a plenary address by the Rev. John M. Buchanan, editor and publisher of the Christian Century, that focused on the theme of the gathering: "Witnesses of These Things: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era."
"We are far more interconnected than we were for much of the last century," Jefferts Schori said. "A careful examination of our shared theology invites us to remember that the saving work of Jesus of Nazareth has implications for all that God has made. If we would enter a second century of ecumenical cooperation, it must be with an expanded view. Our common work must be concerned with all of creation, all of humanity, and all people of faith."
The full text of the presiding bishop’s response is available here.
The presiding bishop underscored how the interconnectedness of God’s creation can be seen clearly through human errors that affect the environment, such as the consequences of the Gulf oil spill on those who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
"We are beginning to understand that pumping carbon into the earth’s atmosphere is increasing the melting of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic, and the rising level of the oceans that results is beginning to submerge the homelands of Kiribati and Bangladesh," she said. "Our use of additives in food, antibiotics in commercial dairy and meat production, and the panoply of organic chemicals in our daily lives is beginning to impact the reproductive biology of human beings around the globe — as well as the fish in our backyard streams. Violence in one part of the globe is easily exported to surrounding nations as well as those at a distance. The economic storm of the last two years has had repercussions on human society far beyond its origins on the exchanges of Wall Street, London, or Hong Kong – and beyond the capacity of individual governments expected to regulate the commerce of their own nations."
The NCC membership includes Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches representing 45 million people and 100,000 congregations in the United States.
"This body of God has many, many parts, and the ancient prophetic dream of a healed world expects those parts to work together for the glory of God and the benefit of the whole," Jefferts Schori said. "Our task as Christians in the coming decades will be more challenging than ever, and the task is going to need all of our varied and unique gifts. The voices of people of faith must be a prophetic source for lasting change that moves toward healing the body of God."
Jefferts Schori underscored the current situation in Sudan — where southerners will vote for or against independence from the north in a Jan. 9 referendum and where there is an increasing danger that the country will plunge back into civil war — as an example of how ecumenical and interfaith partners can "witness and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers as part of the body of God."
The Rev. Tom Ferguson, the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical and interreligious relations officer, told ENS that the General Assembly is "an incredible gathering because of the sheer breadth and diversity of Christians present: from the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church to Quakers to African American Baptist churches."
"It’s something that is important for the life of the Episcopal Church because it speaks to things we care about: issues of peace and justice and trying to create a world which reflects God’s hopes for humanity," he added. "When we speak together we speak more effectively and more credibly to a world which is increasingly skeptical of the place and role of organized religion. This assembly is especially important as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the modern ecumenical movement: the world of 2010 is very different from 1910, and we need to open to new models of ecumenism to meet the challenges of our times."
A major piece of the assembly’s work, Ferguson said, is visioning what the ecumenical movement should do and be in its next century.
The Rev. Walter L. Parrish III, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who also delivered a response to Buchanan’s address, noted that women and ethnic minorities had not been a part of the conversation for much of the ecumenical movement after 1910, and expressed his hope that the next century would see increased participation by historically marginalized voices.
Ferguson and the presiding bishop also attended a keynote address by Lisa P. Jackson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who discussed the ongoing efforts to restore the Gulf Coast’s ecosystems more than five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.
"The effort to help communities that are overburdened by environmental and economic challenges is surely consistent with calls ‘to help the least of these,’" Jackson said. "It has become clearer and clearer over the years that environmental threats limit the economic possibilities of struggling communities. They make it harder to break free from the cycles of poverty. The NCC has done extraordinary work over the years to relieve the burdens of poverty and fight against inequality in our society. I’m happy to see that emphasis expanding into issues of environmental justice."
Jackson, a former New Orleans resident, brought greetings from President Barack Obama, who was unable to attend the gathering because of his travel to Asia.
Other speakers include Elizabeth Ferris, former member of the Church World Service staff and now co-director of the Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement; Senator Lois M. Wilson of the United Church of Canada; and the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
The theme, "Witnesses of These Things: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era," is taken from Luke 24:48, the same biblical text used for the 2010 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Presiding over the meeting is the Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, and Episcopal Bishop Johncy Itty, chair of the board of directors of Church World Service.
— Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service.