SASKATOON — Over four days in June, the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism (PCE) once again presented their annual Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation in Saskatoon.
The three-year accredited program offers clergy and lay people from every Christian tradition an opportunity to increase in knowledge about the ecumenical movement. As in former years, the PCE brought in international scholars to lead participants through the inner workings of the ecumenical dialogical process.
One of those scholars, Natasha Klukach — a lay theologian of the Anglican Church of Canada and program executive of the World Council of Churches (WCC) — presented a public lecture June 20 at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on the process of building consensus through ecumenical dialogue. Specifically, she spoke about the process leading to the adoption of a unity statement in Busan, Republic of Korea, by the World Council of Churches, entitled “God’s Gift and Call to Unity and Our Commitment.”
“Our ecumenical life is informed, inspired and enriched by statements and texts that show agreement between churches on important theological doctrines and issues. These kinds of documents emerge after years, even decades of dialogue, study and writing,” Klukach said. The dialogue process must demonstrate an attitude of openness and humility and dedicate itself to really listening to the other. It means being gracious and generous where there is still disagreement, and finding ways to express it.
Each dialogue process and each text “begins with a blank page and a group of people with lots of ideas. Behind the final product are a lot of lessons,” she explained. “The best of these texts opens our eyes to what God is accomplishing in those who are different from ourselves and how openness to God’s gift of unity can bridge divisions and heal what is broken.”
Klukach identified four essential elements of consensus building — vision, process, people, and mutual accountability — as reflected in the dialogical process behind the unity statement adopted by the WCC in 2013.
Regarding vision, the statement had some fundamental objectives for its message, which were common to its predecessors, she said: “The document needed to say something about present realities, identify the resources of our common heritage as Christians and as ecumenists, and name how the call to unity is and can be manifest today. It was also important for the statement, as a kind of milestone in the ecumenical movement, to draw inspiration from the 10th assembly of the WCC’s theme — God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace — and to contribute something to that spirit of prayer.”
Klukach noted that the visioning stage requires more than just knowing the theological focus of the dialogue: “Knowing that you have come together in dialogue to ultimately say something profound demands that you identify together what other qualities should be present and what you hope to accomplish.” This is the heart of reception, she explained: anticipating how you envision your work being received by others and the kind of impact you hope to achieve.
“We wanted (the unity statement) to be read broadly and not be so complicated that its appeal would be limited to more academic settings. We wanted it to be theologically sound, scripturally based, not too long and very readable. We wanted it to be as applicable to the life of the church as to the life of an individual reader. Developing a common understanding of a vision drew the group together. It solidified our commitment to the task. It rooted us to reality and to what was feasible, but it also let us dream big and imagine what could be possible with our words.”
The members of the dialogue team had a timeline of approximately 20 months to complete the dialogical process “from blank page to floor of the assembly, where the statement would have to be adopted through consensus,” she said, explaining that “getting process right is one of the most important components in trying to find consensus on something so important as the unity of the church.”
The most difficult part of the ecumenical process is working through content disagreements in a spirit of mutual accountability, explained Klukach: “Pushing the ecumenical movement forward means difficult conversations. The question becomes, how do you cultivate the ecumenical attitude so that it can withstand disagreement and facilitate consensus?”
The conflict that emerges in the ecumenical dialogical process leads to a more sensitive and constructive effort to acknowledge our places of division and hurt, said Klukach. In reference to seeking consensus on the unity statement in Busan, she said, “We knew we could not satisfy everyone but knowing that we were accountable for our actions, we listened, we prayed, we redrafted and we asked for the trust of the assembly that we had honestly done the best we could. The moderator steered through the conflicts one by one, affirming to everyone that they had been heard, but ultimately asked if they could consent to the final text.
Finally, the assembly adopted the text by consensus. In that moment, 800 people representing 348 member churches — that’s 600 million Christians around the world from every corner of the earth — came together to speak of their passionate desire for God’s church to live in unity.
“All of us involved with this text were changed in the making of it. It is an assertive ecclesiological statement that demands much from the church in repentance for the pain of disunity and in its commitment to be a prophetic sign to the life God intends for all,” Klukach said.