Whither Ecumenism

Aruna Gnanadason (DMin, San Francisco Theological Seminary) served till recently in a senior staff position of the World Council of Churches.  She was responsible for the Women’s Programme of the World Council of Churches during the second half of the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988- 1998), and was coordinator of the WCC’s team on Justice, Peace and Creation. She continues to contribute to the ecumenical movement at the international, national and local level. She is a member of the Church of South India and presently lives in Chennai. In this opening piece she explores ecumenism and the possible directions it could take…

Where it first grew…..

The setting was Europe late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.  With the bitter after effects of divisions caused by the reformation and then two world wars and many civil wars, the churches yearned for another way – a way which would lead to reconciliation, peace and unity.  Cooperation was nurtured between the churches on matters of mission, witness and service and in their search for justice and peace.  Unity of Christians or “full and visible church unity” was placed within the commitment to reconciliation, justice and peace and a passion for mission and evangelism – so as to share the good news with all people all over the world. These were not seen as rival obligations but as interrelated aspects of ecumenical discipline. As the churches in the Southern hemisphere became a part of the ecumenical movement this complex agenda of the movement was further inspired by the concerns of the global south – subaltern voices and perspectives that challenged long held theological and missiological assumptions of the then predominantly west dominated ecumenical movement.

It is a fact that the agenda needs to be sharpened and constantly renewed in the search for the unity we seek as well as the works that are needed to contribute to the creation of a just and peaceful world for all of humanity and for all of creation.  The title “whither ecumenism?” gives us a challenge, a sense that something new has to constantly energise the ecumenical vision so as to keep the movement character alive.  There is danger in referring to some nostalgic past.  For some in the ecumenical movement that “golden” phase of the movement is dead.   They would look to the past when great people and great events drove the ecumenical engine.  Such people would also claim that the new trends have diluted the movement.  This is not possible because the movement has always stood for hope and for life and continues to do so, whichever form and structure it takes.


In India

We recognise the many achievements of this movement while we look to its future with confidence.  There have been success stories in visible unity, such as the formation of the Church of South India, and the Church of North India.  Then, there are the successful bilateral church agreements and the formation of the National Council of Churches in India, (NCCI) and Regional Councils of Churches.   Then of course, there is the whole range of social issues in which the visible hand of the ecumenical movement can be discerned.   But it has to be acknowledged that the success stories need to be tempered with the acknowledgement that the ecumenical movement has not always been successful, as vested interests in the churches and outside, have intervened to thwart ecumenical progress.  Also once too often what are considered as “church-dividing” ethical issues emerge to challenge the ecumenical commitment of the churches.  What I would also like to avoid and therefore state very clearly is the assumption that there is something “old” in the ecumenical movement which needs transformation or perhaps even replacement so as to make it a valid and credible movement.


Some trends explored:

1.         Increasing institutionalism over against the movement character of ecumenism:

Sometimes critics of the ecumenical movement, in fact refer only to it in its institutional forms and yes, here there are problems. Too often there is a reluctance to act outside institutional interests.  A recent survey conducted by the NCCI in preparation for their strategic planning process, underlined for me just this dilemma.  It focused on the institutional life of the NCCI – it is easier to assess whether the general secretariat, staff and governing structures function well rather than to assess the impact of the work on the daily lives of the churches.  For example, in my evaluation I noted that in the commitments to eradicate casteism from the churches, strong and bold statements of intent have been made by the NCCI and by Dalit networks and other groups of concerned people.  Bible Studies, Lenten meditations, sermon notes, as also campaigns, actions of political resistance have all been initiated – but then for me, the bigger question is how this has influenced the day to day life, ministry and structures of the churches?

Konrad Raiser, a former General Secretary of the WCC, has reflected extensively on the ecumenical challenges ahead of us.  For example, he once said:

We may have to move out of the institutional framework in which ecumenism has increasingly been caught.  We may have to give the ecumenical impulse back to the people, to the people of God on the way.  It was a decisive step to draw the churches and their appointed leaders into full responsibility and, obviously, we will not achieve visible unity unless the churches, as structured bodies reach formal agreements through their appointed organs of decision making.  However, this inevitable institutional dynamic has become the major stumbling block on the ecumenical way. The people are prepared to follow the call of the Spirit but those who have been entrusted with the responsibility of spiritual leadership very often shy away from interpreting the signs of the time and from the task of spiritual discernment.[1]

As early as 1948, the churches asserted together that, “Our deepest need is not new organisation, but the renewal, or rather the rebirth, of the actual churches.”[2]  While the point here is not to create a tension between the institutional and movement character of ecumenism, because both faces of the ecumenical movement have their value and both contribute to the role the ecumenical movement can play in the world.  But “there is legitimate concern that in the present situation of the ecumenical movement the institutional constraints have become too dominant, thus marginalising the innovative and creative voices and initiatives of the churches.”[3] Another way of terming this dilemma would be to see it as the challenge between strictly “ecclesial” ecumenism and “wider” ecumenism.

Almost as if he realises that creative initiatives go beyond the churches, in the same paper cited above, Dr. Raiser writes these rather bold and challenging words, “The time has come to recognise that the ecumenical movement and the ecumenical agenda have outgrown the institutionalised churches.  In fact, the ecumenical movement is too precious to be left to the churches and their leaders alone! The ecumenical movement is an affair of the whole people of God and it must regain its original vocation of being a renewal movement of and in the churches.  The heavy institutionalisation of church life corresponds less and less to the actual needs of Christian people.”[4]  This continues to be the challenge.

The churches do need to have strong ecumenical spaces to strengthen their mutual responsibility for each other and for the world.  It is only ecumenically that the churches can respond with intentionality and vigour to the work of social movements for renewal and justice.  We just need to continue to search for the most creative and flexible ways to achieve this dual role – to bring the churches together for joint action and at the same time to ensure that ecumenism is not strangulated by the power and ecclesial interests of the churches.

The search for viable ecumenical formations should not be led by “pragmatic ecumenism”, driven by political or financial needs or by the expediency of the moment.  Regretfully, it is these that have become the pivotal and dominating questions today.  This would be “thin ecumenism” or a diluted form of ecumenism.  How do we see this present search for a viable formation as the discernment of a “strong ecumenism” i.e. a vibrant and relevant ecumenism that will respond to the struggles for life all over our country?

  1. Conciliarity vs. Denominationalism

Another trend to be explored is the increasing denominationalism as over conciliar ecumenism and this is undermining ecumenical action.  This insistence on each clinging on to one’s own identity was described by Richard Niebuhr as the “moral failure” of the church.  This largely “Western” church phenomenon was transferred to the Southern hemisphere, when the mission boards which belonged to denominations in Europe and North America spread not just their own specific theology and doctrines but also their forms of ministry and church order.  Tracing the history of denominationalism to the 17th Century, Russell E. Richey writes that: “Each group cherished its order as God’s own, planted it wherever it went and viewed other ecclesiological expressions as a betrayal of God’s will.”[5]  What makes it particularly tragic is that such attitudes have bred intolerance and exclusive attitudes and the churches have been hesitant to engage with other churches in their own places.

The need for doing together, what we should not do separately has not always been a popular adage.  A competition for funds, personnel and regretfully difference of entry points, theological stances and even ideologies has fragmented the contributions churches can make.  We are particularly divided as the main line churches and the smaller, independent churches or what is often loosely defined as “para-church groups”; we are divided as the more ecumenically minded churches and the “evangelical/pentecostal” churches.  Additionally, within each church tradition we are also divided by caste, gender and sexual orientation, among other things. The lack of our united voices is sometimes keenly observed by those outside the Christian faith – who cannot understand our denominational differences, or our inability to speak and act with one voice.

Some challenges that influence the question “wither ecumenism?”

1.         The ecumenical challenge of economic globalisation, justice and power: 

Prof. Ninan Koshy says:  “The concept of justice is alien to globalisation.  Globalisation therefore poses a fundamental challenge to the very basis of unity.”[6]  If the ecumenical movement has at its heart the unity of humankind then globalisation poses a direct challenge to it.  Prof. Bert Hoedemaker  too claims that, “Globalisation is a deceptive form of “unity”; it suggests universal salvation while hiding and disguising division and fragmentation.”[7]  As a nation we have opted for the neo-liberal market economy and the churches have hesitated to engage the economic and political consequences of this, as such a world view has penetrated into the life of the churches and ecumenical institutions themselves.

From early times poverty has moved the churches to engage in diaconal ministries as a mission imperative. It is a fact that it was the church’s engagements through the missionary movement that inspired the Indian government, to set in place the infrastructure for educational and medical services.   So a spirit of service to the people was a foundational value of the Indian churches.

At the global level, in 1949, at the first meeting of the WCC’s Central Committee it was underscored that inter-church aid was a permanent obligation of the churches.  It was seen as a spiritual rather than material task.  Even then it was emphasised that the most effective diakonia is that which is rendered ecumenically rather than bilaterally.[8] Some twenty years later in 1966, at the Geneva Conference on Church and Society of the WCC, the churches first argued for systemic political and cultural transformation for the sake of development over against the traditional mission/charity approach.  The strong presence and contributions of Third World churches in these early discussions was felt for the first time in the ecumenical movement.  Konrad Raiser, speaks of how the “unorthodox” Indian economist Samuel Parmar, “won the upper hand.”[9]  Parmar had questioned the traditional welfare approach and had argued that development had to be placed within the framework of social justice.  In Parmar’s words: “a radical restructuring of society is an essential prerequisite for achieving social justice.”[10]  But even then, some churches were of the opinion that their role was restricted to charity and relief.  They asserted that the churches should not involve themselves in political engagement even if it was to challenge the economic roots of poverty.  So right from this time two streams of thinking could be discerned within the ecumenical movement – one which spoke of reforms within the existing systems and the other that demanded more radical structural changes.[11]

In the 1970’s the WCC spoke with uncompromising conviction about “God’s preferential option for the poor” – this was the basis for the demands for restructuring of society and for the elimination of injustice.  The 8th Assembly of the WCC in 1998 in Harare, referred to globalization as a “new form of domination”, whose driving forces are economic powers “as insidious as political colonizers”.   Harare pointed to the unequal distribution of power and to the increasing levels of poverty and exclusion.  It criticized the role of global communication in fostering a “consumerist monoculture”.   The Harare Assembly also noted, that the “global economic system is blind to its destructive social and ecological consequences.”  As it stated:

We acknowledge that in the context of globalization we have compromised our own convictions. We repent for the ways the power of new technologies, the lure of having things, the temptations to superiority and power have diverted our attention from our neighbour who suffers. We acknowledge the temptation we have to strive for our own inclusion in a world which has space for a privileged few. Lest our confession and repentance be hollow, we are called to discover and restore our solidarity with the excluded ones.[12]

II.         Religious diversity – unity beyond plurality:

While we still have far to go in our intra-Christian dialogue between various denominations we are being challenged to reflect on ecumenism as transcending Christian denominations to other faith traditions.  Of course, in spite of all these years of dialogue with other living faiths we will need to engage this dialogue with a degree of uncertainty as to where it will lead us. Mathai Zachariah former General Secretary of the NCCI writes:  “we will have to live with contradictions and unsolved questions, for the time being at least…. The world today is seeking for new forms of spirituality that is less dogmatic about the boundaries of being a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian etc.”[13]

We have also to deal with the growth and strengthening of the Hindutva movement.  Violence, incited by the Hindutva forces[14] has been happening on and off for the past 50 years. The strengthening of the Hindutva forces has two major implications for the churches.  It could lead to an erosion of the freedoms provided by law for every religious group to proclaim its own faith and welcome others into its fold.  Freedom of religion laws could be promulgated by different states restricting the rights enjoyed by religious minorities – this could include the imposition of barriers to their educational and other institutions and ministries.  It could also lead to more violence against the minorities, Muslims and Christians a lot of which is always directed at Dalit, Adivasi and Tribal Christians.

We need to find a way forward.   Sathianathan Clarke suggests that: “Minorities, such as Dalit and Adivasi communities who experience and assert their cardinal differences from the Hindutva ideology, are particularly equipped and obliged to project and promote worldviews that are more amiable to plurality and thus less hostile to difference.  Such models are extant in the lives of local Dalit and Adivasi communities. They merely need to be recognized and lifted up as worthwhile, serviceable, and satisfactory paradigms for collective human living.”[15] I thus truly believe that the hope to counteract Hindu fundamentalism lies in the Dalit and Adivasi movements – we need to draw on this and provide a new framework for the churches, so that they can shed some of their colonial past that is sometimes hindering their service to a bleeding world.

Additionally, dialogue of Christians with people of other faiths has not been without controversy.   This is largely driven by the tensions regarding concepts of Christian mission with its preoccupation with proselytism and conversions.   There is also the worry that inter-faith relations will lead to Christians having to make compromises in their understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.  Indian voices in the ecumenical movement have always defended dialogue as a necessary prerequisite for Christian existence as most Christians in India live as minority communities among people of other faiths.   Additionally, Dalit and Tribal Christians in India have asserted that religious conversion is a liberation strategy – a breaking out of the pernicious system of caste.

Religion affects relations between peoples as has been seen evident in recent political events in India.  The “use” and “abuse” of religion is on the increase. The violent language of present day Christian evangelists and the aggressive tactics used by those who go to “evangelise” the world continues to be problematic and calls for transformation.  Branding of people of other faiths as lost and sinful is an attitude that needs to be condemned.    The language of crusades for Christ, soldiers for God reflects a militancy that makes no sense in a world already so filled with violence.  How can we live together teaching tolerance and a sense of community to our children?  We cannot be pitting one religion against another, putting them in a hierarchy of which religion speaks the truth – this is particularly not the moment for Christian triumphalism and arrogance.  We are in a moment when we need greater coalitions, when all religions are challenged to discover their potential for creating harmony and for being agents of reconciliation and peace.

III.       Ecumenical social ethics and the unity of the churches

Ethics remains a touchstone for ecumenicity and at different moments in its history, issues of ethical and moral importance have tended to challenge the unity of the churches. Whether it relates to women’s sexuality and hence the continuing controversies around the question of the ordination of women or the issue of reproductive rights and abortion; or in more recent times the issue of homosexuality – these are all dangerously close to being church dividing issues.  The church faces the risk of placing itself in a position of not being able to offer pastoral care to those in its constituency for whom these are life and death issues. It will also not have the credentials to raise this as a human rights concern. And there are other newly emerging ethical challenges being posed by bio-ethics and the potential it offers for the manipulation of life and in the threats to food security.  Here comes my concern – many of these issues are discussed when we come together in council, or by separate interest groups  – but then have they spread into the heart of the churches, as issues that require further reflection, prayer and response?


Whither ecumenism?  This is the question in this context.  How can we revive an ecumenical fervour at the grassroots?  How do we ensure that the spiritual, theological, missiological and institutional resources of the churches and ecumenical movement are directed towards the common good of all people and of our nation?  Can we assert with the famous German ecumenist Ernst Lange (1927-1974), that ecumenism is “the test case of faith”.  He had said, “today, there is only one way for the church to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and that is the ecumenical way.”[16]  How can we contribute to making this happen?

Dr. Aruna Gnanadason served the National Council of Churches (All India Council of Christian Women) and then she served the World Council of Churches in various capacities, particularly in directing the programme on Women in Church and Society; and in the Justice, Peace and Creation work.  She now lives in Chennai, India and offers her services to the churches and the ecumenical movement in India and globally in speaking, writing and reflecting on the role, the challenge and the alternative visions offered by the gospel in addressing the impact of patriarchy and global capitalism on the people and the earth.

[1] Konrad Raiser, Quels sont les signes d’un printemps pour l’oecumenisme aujourd’hui?   A speech delivered in the University of Lyon, 22 March 2003. Mss. Emphasis added.

[2] From the Call to the churches sent out in 1947 inviting them to assemble in Amsterdam in 1948.  And so set up signs: The World Council of Churches’ first 40 years”. (Geneva: WCC Publication, 1988) 10

[3] Raiser, Reflections on Reconfiguring the Ecumenical Movement,  Presentation at the WCC Round Table Meeting, 9 April 2003.

[4] ibid

[5]  Russell E. Richey, “Denominationalism” in the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ed. Nicholas Lossky et al. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002) 295

[6]  Ninan Koshy, Challenges to the Ecumenical Movement: Reflections in the context of Globalisation and the War on Terror, Paper presented at a Justice, Peace and Creation, WCC meeting on Ecumenism in the 21st Century in a Globalised World. February 2003, mss

[7] Bert Hoedemaker, “The Unity of Humankind: Problems and Promises of an Indispensable Ecumenical Theme”, The Ecumenical Review (Geneva: WCC Publications, Vol 50 No.3, July 1998). 310

[8]  Teresa Joan White, Diakonia, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. Nicholas Lossky, José Miguez Bonino et al, World Council of Churches Publication, Geneva 2002. Second Edition. 307

[9]   Konrad Raiser, “Holding different perspectives together – forty years of ecumenical engagement for social and economic justice”, paper presented at a Seminar to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Geneva Conference on Church and Society in 1966, September 2006.

[10]    ibid.

[11]  For this section I have drawn from the historical record by Richard D.N. Dickinson on Development, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement op cit. 298-303

[12] Resisting Domination, Affirming Life, Statement on Globalization, VIII Assembly of the WCC, Harare, Zimbabwe, Official Report ed. Diane Kessler, WCC Publication, 1998.  258.

[13] Mathai Zachariah, Beyond Ecumenism: A Journey into Light, (Tiruvalla, India: Christava Sahitya Samithy, 2002) 53

[14] The Bharatiya Janata Party/the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak/the Vishwa Hindu Parishad/the Bajrang Dal/the Shiv Sena party.

[15] Rev. Dr. Sathianathan Clarke, a penetrating online article entitled Hindutva, Religious and Ethnocultural Minorities, and Indian-Christian Theologyhttp://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2449. Accessed 9, September, 2011.

[16] Ernst Lange, And Yet it Moves , quoted by Konrad Raiser in Challenges and Hopes for a New Millennium: To be the Church, RISK Book Series  (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997) xvi.  Emphasis added.

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2 Responses to Whither Ecumenism

  1. Rini Ralte says:

    thanks for this paper as it contains a critical reflection of the past and the hope of the future

  2. Rini Ralte says:

    thanks for this paper

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