TC Verbum No 10 January 2008

by David Parker, Executive Director
WEA Theological Commission

Transforming Ecumenism? The Global Christian Forum.

Transforming Ecumenism is the subtitle of a book edited by Richard Howell, General Secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of India and member of the WEA International Council, to document the ‘Global Christian Forum’ which is claimed to be an historic development in the quest for Christian unity. This movement, which began in the 1990s, marked a significant milestone on Nov 6–9, 2007 at Limuru, Kenya where a gathering was held, with 250 people from more than 70 countries in attendance. This issue is important because the mission of WEA is ‘to foster Christian unity’ Indeed, Evangelicals have been very prominent in the GCF up to this point. Pentecostals are also well to the fore.

The GCF began because it was realised that a large number of the world’s Christians were not involved in the existing ecumenical movement, a fact accentuated by the decline of western Christianity and the startling growth in the Global South. Various reasons account for this including geography, doctrinal convictions, and inherited indifference and hostility. Yet although fragmented and fissiparous, evangelicals and Pentecostals do have their own convictions about unity— usually of a spiritual and pragmatic kind, and organisations like WEA, the Micah Network and the Lausanne movement express unity and provide practical means for cooperation in mission and social responsibility.

So in a bold move, it was decided that, to ‘reconfigure ecumenism’, new steps were required to ‘create an open space wherein representatives from a broad range of Christian churches and interchurch organizations, which confess the triune God and Jesus Christ as perfect in His divinity and humanity, can gather to foster mutual respect, to explore and address together common challenges’ (to quote the official GCF purpose statement).

Hence GCF was born in a series of regional forums where its principles were developed. It would have no membership, only participants on first name terms without regard to status, and only a basic infrastructure. The first item on the agenda of every conference would be attendees sharing their ‘journey with Jesus’. This process provided an extraordinary level of trust as people came to recognize authentic faith and discipleship in each other, despite large differences in background and language.

The purpose of the Limuru event was to assemble a truly global group (building on the previous regional efforts) and create bonds of fellowship across as large a range as possible. It would assess whether there was a future for such a movement as an adjunct to other expressions of Christian unity. As the official statement indicates, the Forum succeeded in attracting what is arguably the most diverse group of Christians ever assembled, and providing them with a process to relate effectively to each other.

So, is GCF the breakthrough that is claimed for it, and will it succeed in ‘transforming ecumenism’? So far it looks promising, bringing together the two most important trends in modern Christendom—Ecumenism, the ‘great new fact of our time’ (Temple) and Pentecostalism, ‘the third force’ of Christianity (van Dusen). It emphasises the stories (testimonies) of participants and also personal networking—both key characteristics of today’s culture. In so doing it puts the important but difficult issues for existing ecumenism, doctrinal and organisation unity, into a new context. At the same time, respecting diversity, it envisages a flexible network suited for mission rather than a rigidly ordered structure.

According to theologian Sarah Rowland Jones, it does this by focusing on God and our engagement with him in Jesus Christ rather than on propositions about God and human structures. By emphasising the ‘Servant King’ and our discipleship, this ‘renewed theology’ undermines power, privilege and professionalism. It allows us to more easily learn with and from others, thus leading to a more dynamic and holistic approach to doctrine and faith which embraces emotional, spiritual, physical and social aspects of life as well as intellectual. This will restore prayer and worship to centre stage and so provide a means of enriching theological reflection.

So it seems that the Global Christian Forum offers a process with theological characteristics and practical procedures which invite serious consideration by the Evangelical Alliance movement committed as it is to ‘Christian unity’. The crucial test will be if it can strengthen the many ad hoc expressions of cooperation in witness and mission that exist already at the local level.

Further Reading: