Ecumenical efforts on a local level and examples from the East Tennessee area were the focus of the fourth session of the Theologian-in-Residence series held Tuesday at Tusculum College.
“It is important in many ways to deal with the neighbor among us before we are equipped to go further into the world,” said Dr. Marian McClure, the featured speaker for the 2009 Theologian-in-Residence series, co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College. And to provide examples of local efforts, a panel of East Tennesseans participated in the final discussion of the series.
In the series, Dr. McClure has focused on the divide between Christians with an evangelical focus (a focus on spreading the gospel primarily through proclamation of the Word) and Christians with an ecumenical focus (a focus on sharing the gospel through living example, which includes addressing people’s material needs and social justice issues).
Dr. McClure has served as director of the worldwide ministries of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and is serving as the associate director and North America representative of “Edinburgh 2010: Witnessing to Christ Today,” the centenary celebration of a pivotal world mission conference that challenged Christians to greater ecumenical and evangelistic collaboration.
Dr. McClure began the final session with a few suggestions of starting locally, including keeping the conversation civil and seeking out existing venues beyond the congregational level that already exist and serve as bridge-builders among congregations.
Examples of these types of organizations include ministerial associations, community ministries organizations, volunteer and civic organizations and music societies. These types of organizations involve people of varying denominations and faith systems working together toward a common faith-based goal of service, said Dr. McClure.
These organizations have been very effective in bringing together diverse denominations for a common purpose and can be used as a starting point to discuss differences and similarities while growing closer through the shared experience of working together, she added.
However, while these organizations are all opportunities for someone to step forward and say something more, said Dr. McClure, “These organizations have not been sufficient to bring about major cooperation among the camps and rarely grapple head on with the reasons that divide us.”
Why has this been the case? According to Dr. McClure there are several reasons that these organizations have not been able to foster the kind of ecumenical cooperation required at the most important levels.
One major issue has been the unintentional exclusion of African-Americans in these types of organizations, said Dr. McClure. Because many African-American pastors don’t have full-time employment within the church structure, they cannot engage in these organizations when they meet during daytime hours. Also, African-Americans believe that many of the ecumenical venues do not prioritize their areas of key concern, such as racism.
Other issues that have limited the effectiveness of these local ecumenical organizations include the belief that the dialogue among denominations is not a faith value for everyone, and that there is sometimes not enough of a shared-faith language to communicate across denominations, according to Dr. McClure.
The final reason identified by Dr. McClure that these organizations have been limited in their ecumenical success is that there is a lack of educational resources adapted for use in these community venues and the materials produced at denominational levels do not communicate to all segments or demographics.
To address these issues, Dr. McClure suggested that two tactics be taken. First, work to develop a common longing to be enriched by differences, and second, develop a common language of ways to use scripture.
In the second part of the program, a panel of East Tennesseans offered their thoughts on the major challenges and opportunities they see in working ecumenically in East Tennessee. The panel included: Father William C. Casey, who has been actively involved in ecumenism for more than 40 years and served as the ecumenical officer of the Diocese of Knoxville; Dr. David A. Hendricksen, minister of music at First Presbyterian in Greeneville and former Theologian-In-Residence; Dr. Ellen A. Macek, a distinguished scholar of church history and former executive secretary of the Office of Ecumenism in the new Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, and Rev. James A. Mays, retired executive presbyter and a member of the Holston Presbytery and the Council on Church Relations.
Casey shared what he has learned through the years in working ecumenically, as well as growing up in a “mixed-faith” family. He told the group that it was a key element to overcome the desire to compare others undesirably to one’s own denomination. “There is no room for hubris and egotism in church relationships,” he said.
He added that his best advice is to “have faith and be steady in hope that God will draw us into unity when the time is right,” and he encouraged patience in all ecumenical efforts.
Dr. Hendrickson focused on worship and encouraged those seeking ecumenical connections to begin with a shared dialog on the practice of worship.
“Denominations are looking more similar in worship as we deepen our connections,” he told the group.
Through his experiences with Habitat for Humanity, Dr. Hendrickson said that despite the diversity of the group, they have “yet to find a denominational way to hit a nail.” He added that working side by side in action on behalf of Christ puts denominational differences in a larger context.
Dr. Macek shared with the group several examples of ecumenical efforts in the area that can serve as models for other efforts. One such effort is the Knoxville Week of Prayer for Christian Unity program which not only provides the opportunity for ecumenical prayer, but also provides a number of learning activities and inter-church interaction.
She also discussed urban-suburban partnerships that have arisen in many areas which bring urban and suburban churches together to work on common causes. Drawbacks to these efforts, according to Dr. Macek, include a lack of international and national leadership in the ecumenical movement and insufficient seminary training on ecumenical views.
Dr. Mays suggested to the group that they start ecumenical efforts from a position of respect and “respectfully have other people from other faith groups tell us about themselves.”
He talked about the Gideons International program, which hosts a regular dinner for pastors from all denominations and demographics. Dr. Mays said that attending this dinner each year has afforded him the opportunity to meet and interact with pastors he would otherwise not meet, despite sharing the same spirit of Christ.
Dr. Mays encouraged the development of action/prayer groups that meet inter-denominationally. “These are great opportunities to learn about differences and discover similarities by working side-by-side with common goals.”
Dr. McClure wrapped up the program by commenting on the current economic crisis. She suggested it be viewed as an opportunity to increase ecumenical activities.
“People often begin to cooperate when they have to - when they cannot afford not to,” she said. “Take the lead and stay non-anxious,” she said. “Take the lead in providing to those in need and calling for the best from our public servants.”
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