CHALLENGE OF ECUMENISM

By Rev. Thomas Ryan, CPS

Gospel Call brings diverse congregations together

The community to which I belong, the Paulist Fathers, was founded in 1858 by a group of five converts to Catholicism. Their leader, Isaac Thomas Hecker, was raised in a Methodist family and participated in the 19th century communitarian and Transcendentalist movements with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

This religious society of priests was founded in an era where Catholics were “outsiders,” a separated minority in the midst of a dominant American culture strongly influenced by Evangelical Christianity. The early Paulists described themselves as “missionaries to main street.” Their expertise was to operate on the boundaries that separated Catholics and Protestants in North America.

Using every form of modern media, they explained the Catholic Church to the larger Protestant culture; opened campus ministries on state university campuses; created trailer missions into the rural Southern states, the heartland of Protestant America; built Catholic information centres where Protestants worked and shopped in American and Canadian cities.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council when religious communities were asked to renew their mission statements, the Paulists formally made ecumenism — the work for Christian unity — an integral part of their pastoral mission. It was an era in which the work of Paulist preaching teams began to disappear.

In the early years of my ministry, while serving as the director of the Newman Centre at McGill University in Montreal, I found myself reflecting on how we might be able to put an “ecumenical spin” on the traditional work of mission preaching and breathe a new air into it. Shortly thereafter, in accepting a full-time ministry at the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, the inspiration was given.

The associate pastor of the Anglican cathedral in Montreal, William Derby, had become a friend, and responded positively to my inquiry as to whether he would be interested in becoming my preaching partner in a new form of parish missions — ecumenical missions. These missions would be sponsored not just by one congregation, but several — from different denominations.

In the traditional four-evening model for parish missions, we would move around to a different church each evening, giving participants from the different denominations the opportunity to pray together in each other’s churches, fellowship in each other’s halls, and develop a little “family feeling” by spending some time in each other’s “rooms” within the Christian household.

We would also offer daytime events such as a breakfast session for those on their way to work, a mid-morning Bible study, an afternoon luncheon talk, or mid-afternoon faith-sharing over tea and crumpets.
I made effective use of the ecumenical centre’s nation-wide contacts with city and provincial councils of churches and clergy associations to promote this model for an ecumenical mission that would be co-sponsored by at least three or four congregations in their area.

The first to take the bait were four congregations — Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and United Church of Canada — in Sherwood Park, Alta., in 1989. And the seeds fell on fertile soil. They found it such a positive experience that they decided to do it annually, albeit with a slightly different model.

Each one of the co-sponsoring congregations would take its turn in hosting the events, and the preacher for that year would come from that denomination. They invited Rev. Derby and I back to preach their 10th anniversary mission, and this past October 5 - 8, re-employing the original model of moving the events around to a different church each day and evening, to lead their 25th anniversary mission!

Over these 25 years the number of co-sponsoring congregations has grown from four to 10. What a marvellous example of the words written by St. Paul: “Paul plants, Apollo waters, and God gives the growth.” 

This is grassroots ecumenism at its best, for it is groups of people, even more than theological propositions, that need to be reconciled. And this is a task which theologians alone cannot accomplish. It is relationship and love which set us free and enable us to overcome our estrangements.

Theology alone cannot hope to cope with the host of social, cultural, historical, political and theological factors involved in the disunity of the churches. Only people being Christ to one another can heal those wounds.

In order for the healing of these wounds to happen, we need places and events where people from different denominational backgrounds can come together to share faith and life, places where they can have an experience of Christ present in members of other churches and come to perceive them precisely as Christian, as members of the one Body of Christ.

I am now with my third preaching partner, but continue to offer these missions — now titled Gospel Call (http://www.paulist.org/ecumenism/gospel-call) — because nothing in my 34 years of ecumenical ministry has been as fulfilling as bringing Christians from different congregations together over several days to share prayer, faith and life.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.

 
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