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Equipping ecumenical leaders


By Darren Dahl


We are giving shape to “artisans of reconciliation.” This beloved phrase of Archbishop Donald Bolen speaks well to the goals of the Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation offered by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism in Saskatoon.

While it is often acknowledged that we now live in an ecumenical church, it is equally true that this presents a new set of challenges. For the most part, the days of deep denominational divisions are behind us, at least at the daily level. Within our circles of friends and family it is common to have numerous denominational identities unspokenly present and, in many cases, we do not even know to which religious community our neighbours and coworkers belong.

As more and more congregations and their leaders share programs across neighbourhoods and within cities, ecumenical friendships flourish. There is much in this ecumenical church for which we ought to give thanks. There are also some new challenges.

Perhaps the most significant and yet insidious challenge posed by our new ecumenical sensibilities is ecumenical indifference. Such indifference operates on many levels and can produce hurtful outcomes in several ways.

For example, at the heart of such indifference is a basic misunderstanding about the concrete identities of Christian communities. This can quickly evacuate all depth from what it means to be Christian. For example, I have too frequently heard it said that all Christians should and can “get along” because, after all, “we're all the same.” Not only does such an idea remove all that is rich and important in the actual experience of Christian diversity, it can quickly become offensive.

As an Anglican or a Catholic, I do not want to hear that my hymnody, liturgy or creedal beliefs are mere ornaments to be sloughed off with appeals to a lowest common denominator that makes me “the same” as my neighbour.

On the contrary, I want to know that what I love about my tradition and what my neighbour loves about hers makes us both richer when we can be together as Christians in that difference. That kind of life together, however, is not reducible to “sameness” and certainly requires more than a passive ecumenical friendship.

Ecumenical indifference can also become hurtful when we move from casual friendships to experiences of worshipping together, particularly in those cases where worship is bound up with a significant life event such as a wedding or a funeral. Examples of such hurtful situations frequently arise around the practice of the eucharist or Lord's Supper.

Sadly it is not that uncommon to see families, for whom denominational identity is not the kind of divisive issue it might have been two generations ago, gather at a funeral or wedding only to find ecumenical boundaries become occasions for misunderstanding and resentment. If I think that “we're all the same,” those boundaries are going to hurt all the more. Into this experience the idea that we as Christians are still on the way to reconciliation still in need of recognizing places where divisions must be overcome will be a foreign one. And yet this ecumenical church is a church where great fellowship is lived in the midst of real boundaries that must be acknowledged and addressed with sensitivity, theological sophistication, and pastoral skill.

The Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation offered every June in Saskatoon is designed to equip leaders and persons in the pew with that much-needed ecumenical sensitivity, theological sophistication, and pastoral skill.

With a dual emphasis on “study” and “formation,” the program seeks to educate Christians in ways of thinking and acting that have emerged thanks to the dedicated efforts of the ecumenical movement, placing them within an ecumenical community throughout this process. Participants learn about ecumenism while they practice it.

The first year of the program introduces students to the questions and concerns at the heart of an ecumenical church: what does it mean to be “church” when my Christian sisters and brothers with whom I gather think differently, not only about the sacraments, but about “church” itself? How do we read the Bible together from our different histories, theologies, and traditions? What is at the core of our spiritual lives that draws us together in unity? How did we get to this place — not only in terms of our denominational divisions, but also in respect to the ecumenical movement itself? Finally, and even more basically, what kinds of language do ecumenists use and how can this language help us to live well in an ecumenical church?

When participants return for their second and third sessions in the two subsequent summers, their exploration of the ecumenical church is deepened. These years are dedicated to a study of ecumenical dialogues — not only the results of actual dialogues on the topics of baptism, eucharist, ministry, and authority but, more importantly, on the way theology is done dialogically in the ecumenical church.

For these sessions the program brings in two nationally and internationally recognized visiting scholars. Since launching the program in 2014, the calibre of our visiting scholars has been enviably high: Dr. Catherine Clifford in 2014, Rev. Dr. Timothy George and Sister Dr. Donna Geernaert in 2015, Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan and Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon in 2016. This year the visiting scholars are Rev. Tom Ryan and Natasha Klukach.

Rev. Tom Ryan is author or co-author of 14 books, former Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, and currently the Director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston. (Ryan has also been a longtime columnist for the Prairie Messenger.)

Natasha Klukach is a former Ecumenical Officer for the Anglican Church of Canada and is now a Program Executive with responsibility for Church and Ecumenical Relations with the World Council of Churches.

As well as learning from the expertise and experiences of our visiting scholars, participants have the opportunity to interact with them around table discussions, during meals, and at breaks. This is an excellent opportunity to be introduced to the study of ecumenism with some of the most prominent ecumenical leaders today.

The Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation is forming “artisans of reconciliation.” As program participants and instructors gather for one week at the end of June over three years there takes place, the opportunity for ecumenical learning and formation. A community is created, friendships are established, and the work of giving shape to an ecumenical church occurs.

We give thanks that God is working great healing in a church divided and we respond to that healing with an ever-firmer resolve to equip leaders to serve well and truly in an ecumenical church.

For more information about the Prairie Centre's Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation please see our website at or contact or 306-653-1633.

Dahl is the executive director for the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.