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Abundance of grace to be found in ecumenism

By Kate O’Gorman


SASKATOON — Rev. Susan Durber, moderator of the Faith and Order Commission for the World Council of Churches, presented the 2018 De Margerie Lecture Jan. 25 in Saskatoon, giving a talk entitled, “Surprised by unity — finding oneness in ways we hadn’t planned.”

Part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this annual lecture sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, St. Thomas More College (STM), and the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism (PCE), is part of a reconciliation and unity series named in honour of Rev. Bernard De Margerie, founder of the PCE and a lifelong leader in ecumenical and interfaith engagement.

“The purpose of the lecture series is to bring to Saskatoon internationally recognized voices in the ecumenical movement, to motivate, inspire, and nurture our own local ecumenical activity and awareness,” according to PCE executive director Darren Dahl.

“By inviting international leaders in ecumenism to our community during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the lecture series continues to affirm our desire to participate in God’s work of global, ecclesial, theological transformation,” Dahl said. “What we do here is part of a wider movement of the Spirit, and this series keeps us in touch with the depth and scope of that wider movement.”

In the 2018 lecture presented at STM, Durber reflected on the hope she has for the work of Christian unity, in the midst of both disappointment and surprise.

“I find myself constantly surprised and delighted by the ways in which God comes to us, bringing transformation and life,” she said. “In my own life, and in the life of my church, I’ve come to know disappointment and pain, but even in the midst of such experiences, I’ve always found that God comes to surprise me. God is there, waiting for me.”

Durber said there is an abundance of grace to be found within the work of ecumenism, despite some seeming disappointments, such as a decline in ecumenical fervour, church structures struggling with numerical decline, and a lack of unity among churches.

The unity that was prayed and hoped for at the height of the ecumenical movement 40 to 50 years ago hasn’t happened as envisioned, admitted Durber. “We are left feeling bereft, facing a future we hadn’t expected.”

The publication of the milestone document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) adopted by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in 1982 brought high hopes, Durber said. “There was delight and optimism about how much the member churches (Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, and Catholic) could say together, particularly on baptism and the eucharist. We expected and hoped that with the following wind of the Holy Spirit, we would move even further toward a more visible and tangible unity — the unity to which Christ calls us. We believed we were on a pilgrimage to unity that was gathering pace,” she said.

“But the walk is slower than we once imagined. Theological conversations have proved more difficult than we thought, and we are beginning to recognize that the way we once imagined visible unity would come doesn’t match the reality.”

Often today, Durber added, “I hear little curiosity from other churches, no urgency to overcome differences, as long as we can work together. I see (churches) making alliances and working together on particular projects, but not wanting to reflect on what it is that compels them to work together.”

Durber voiced disappointment with ecumenical approaches that settle for what she referred to as “reconciled diversity.”

“Even within the heart of the ecumenical movement, I sometimes sense that the word ‘unity’ is out of favour. There is a reluctance to pray for unity without a thousand qualifications — an unspoken feeling that we were wrong once to hope for it,” she said.

However, in the midst of disappointments are positive realities that ring true both locally and abroad.

“Like a character in a fairy tale that suddenly discovers in the depths of the forest the hidden enchantment of the world, I have begun to see that while I’m mourning the loss of something, it is also being restored many times over. While I was looking for unity in one way, God was building and forming it in another, and I find myself having to reshape my hope.”

Citing an article by Will Adam and Graeme Smith titled, “Hidden Ecumenism,” Durber explained how “ecumenism is happening in all sorts of informal and unofficial, but nevertheless real ways: “We have moved from a time when Christians inhabited different worlds and different traditions to one in which many things are simply shared.”

She noted that there was a time when people from different sides of church divisions hardly ever met each other. “People were divided in ways that were literally visible and audible; they sang different hymns; had very different kinds of worship; even had different jobs or social standing. But these different worlds have largely broken down,” Durber continued.

“Christians of different traditions now meet together not only in multi- or bilateral dialogues but in the workplace, in schools, in art and culture,” she listed. “We are inheriting, exchanging, and inhabiting each other’s traditions in a way that would have seemed unthinkable not many years ago.”

In response to a document called The Church: Towards a Common Vision, published by the World Council of Churches in 2014, a successor to BEM, many have noted how a real form of unity is coming in ways that weren’t necessarily expected.

“For example,” said Durber, “it’s clear that Orthodox churches have a strong understanding of the ministry of the whole People of God, of the importance of Scripture, and the imperative to mission. It’s equally clear that Protestants value the traditions of the early church and have a growing sense of the importance of living tradition. We have come a long way in receiving the gifts of other traditions.”

Citing her personal experiences of ecumenical encounter, Durber affirmed that there is profound meaning in receiving the gifts of other traditions, and that “it is more than mere bricolage.”

Nevertheless, Durber expressed a need for continued and deeper reflection on the theological work of Christian unity.

“How can we receive each other’s gifts most fully — not as quaint customs unexplored but as practices deeply situated in theological soil and ecclesiological tradition?” she asked.

“A deeper ecumenism is still needed if we are really to receive the gifts we each bring to the table of the one church.”

This deeper ecumenism, said Durber, will only come with further sustained ecumenical engagement and intentional understanding of the tradition and spirituality underpinning church practices: “With continued thought and awareness our gifts can truly enrich each other.

“The ecumenical movement has not taken the path that we first thought that it would, and yet, despite ourselves, we are part of a church that is united in ways we could little imagine some decades ago. While we were looking for unity in one way, God was building it in another.”

For Durber, these ecumenical moves forward continue to heal that sense of disappointment around the search for Christian unity. “The church is a divine reality as well as a human one. Whatever is happening to the church in terms of its disappointments, the church is — first of all — God’s creation and its future is in God’s hands.”

This, she stressed, is a source of hope.

“The work of ecumenism is always being enchanted with God’s surprising grace. God is writing the story and the ending belongs to him,” she said.

If that is so, concluded Durber, quoting Julian of Norwich, then “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

In addition to serving as moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, Durber is a minister of the United Reformed Church in Taunton, Summerset, England. She is the former principal of Westminster College at Cambridge and has served as theological co-ordinator of the UK-based charity Christian Aid. Her books include Surprised by Grace, Preaching like a Woman, and a collection of reflections and prayers on the parables of Jesus.

As part of the De Margerie Series on Christian Reconciliation and Unity, Durber also presented two ecumenical workshops at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.

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