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Faith and Order conference explores history of ecumenical movement, looks to future


“You of the Faith and Order movement are the salt of the earth,” said the Rev. James Forbes, preaching at the final prayer service of a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ecumenical Conference on Faith and Order.

Some 300 persons gathered on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio, where the first meeting took place, for the National Council of Churches USA (NCC)-sponsored conference to take stock of the Christian ecumenical movement in North America. For five days participants examined several questions including what Christian unity in the United States might look like.

The movement known as “Faith and Order” actually traces its history in the United States to 1910 when Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent and Disciples of Christ leader Peter Ainsley, among others, began to articulate the need for a setting where churches could together engage their differences in understanding the Christian faith and God’s intention for the right-ordering of the Church.

Brent would have been pleased with the 2007 conference, Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church’s deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, told Episcopal News Service.

“This was not a clone of the 1957 conference, but perhaps a bridge to the next generation of Faith and Order scholars,” he said. “The number of younger participants was impressive as was the breadth of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical participation.”

Forbes who recently retired after 18 years as senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City told the prayer service that if there ever was a time for a new Great Awakening to happen in the United States, the time is now.

"Who would’ve thought that the new Great Awakening could breakout at a Faith
and Order conference,“ Forbes said, urging nearly 300 attendees to return to their 80 Christian denominations and organizations to be ”truth and light at a time of darkness"

Earlier in the conference, church historian and Lutheran pastor Dr. Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, summarized the many ecumenical accomplishments of the Faith and Order movement in the last 50 years. He cited advances such as mergers of denominational variations into united churches; the development of various state, national and world councils of churches; the number of full-communion agreements; and theological breakthroughs such as the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

At the same time, Marty counseled against minimizing the difficulties the movement still faces. These difficulties are not so much in the area of faith, he observed, which operates in the area of mystery, depth and amplitude but is hard to define. Rather, the “sticking points” have to do with sexual issues and authority issues, he said. These still remain communion-dividing issues within and among the churches and keep Christians from sharing the common Eucharist.

Nonetheless, Marty concluded, Christians are not to “whine or weep, for none of that changes hearts.” Rather they should engage in the real repentance and action that does change things.

Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, past president of Hartford Seminary, and Dr. Donald Dayton of the Wesleyan Theological Society gave the conference an overview of the legacy and ecumenical significance of Oberlin College and the reasons it was chosen as the site of the first North American Conference on Faith and Order.

Early Oberlin was a place with ongoing commitments to racial justice, financially accessible education, healthy lifestyle, co-education for women and men together, moral reform and civic integrity, a curriculum relevant to real life, openness to religious diversity, and a willingness to explore unconventional ideas, said Zikmund.

That resonated with Mary Veeneman, 25, a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University, New York City. She described herself as an Episcopalian with evangelical roots studying at a Roman Catholic university living with other students from Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic backgrounds.

“Oberlin’s history was similar to Wheaton College ( where I did my undergrad,” Veeneman said. “Wheaton was founded by an abolitionist and social justice was very much a part of its early history.”

After receiving her Ph.D., Veeneman hopes to teach theology at a religious university or college on the undergraduate level.

Veeneman was one of the nearly 100 younger ecumenists, theologians, seminarians and undergraduates who attended the “Oberlin II” conference.

After the conclusion of the conference, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ferguson, associate deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church, said he wonders whether venerable institutions like the NCC and the Faith and Order Movement can be flexible enough to make room for the new voices and perspectives of the younger ecumenists present in such numbers at this gathering.

A number of visions of Christian unity were presented during the conference. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., theologian and author, praised the work of bilateral dialogues since the Second Vatican Council. The Fordham University professor said the decades of conversation between Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Anglican and Orthodox, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, just to name a few, “have been of immense value for dispelling past prejudices, for identifying real but hitherto unrecognized agreements, and for enabling parties to see that they can say more together than they previously deemed possible.”

However, said Dulles, there is a limit to what the ecumenical methods of the past make possible. It is time now for dialogue in which each Christian community bears witness to the others of those gifts that their community has received from the Lord and holds precious, Dulles said. He urged “an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of mutual testimony.”

Dr. David Daniels III, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary, called for an ecumenism which would “reach out beyond American denominationalism, link apostolic faith with apostolic power, and combat racism at every level.”

Quaker Ann Riggs, NCC associate general secretary for Faith and Order, called for the ecumenical movement to move beyond “conflict resolution to conflict transformation.”

“When we face our conflicts together we are already engaging in unity,” Riggs said.

The Rev. Dr. W. Douglas Mills, on the ecumenical staff of the United Methodist Church (UMC), responded to the panel observing, “we constantly have to be expanding the ’we’ with whom we do this work.” Mills noted the ecumenical table had broadened considerably since Oberlin I, as the 1957 conference had come to be known.

During another part of the conference, Epting joined Methodist theologian Sarah Lancaster, Evangelical leader Dr. Kevin Mannoia, and Monsignor John A. Radano from the Vatican to identify continuing issues facing ecumenism today. Balancing new demands of the many ecumenical “success” stories already achieved with work yet to be done, facing new issues such as human sexuality, welcoming the entry of evangelicals and Pentecostals into the movement, and managing divisions within and among the churches were some of the issues mentioned.

Epting told the gathering that how the Anglican Communion uses scripture, tradition, and reason -- the sources from which Anglicans have attempted to discern God’s truth -- and how it deals with those who discern different understandings using those sources, “will eventually determine the future of our ... Anglican experiment and also the future of the ecumenical enterprise.”


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