Ecumenical dance hits stride at Yale Divinity School

By Timothy Sommer ’13  M.Div.

Among the characteristics that distinguish Yale Divinity School from many other seminaries and divinity schools is the school’s inter-denominational nature. Despite its Congregationalist origins dating back over 300 years, YDS is now an impartial home to many different Christian faith traditions, from mainline Protestant, to Roman Catholic, to evangelical, to Pentecostal and Unitarian Universalist

Colon-EmericAnyone who has attended the daily worship services at Marquand Chapel can testify to the Christian diversity celebrated throughout the YDS community. In this light, Berkeley Divinity School Dean Joseph Britton noted that YDS was the ideal environment to host the ecumenical conference, entitled “Gathering Together: A Celebration of Full Communion,” which took place March 25-26.

Since the conference was organized by YDS Lutherans, it featured prominent representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the four denominations at YDS that share full communion with the ELCA: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC).

Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, began the conference by describing ‘full communion” as a relationship between churches that acknowledge a common confession of the Christian faith, baptism, and Eucharist; common commitment to evangelism, witness and service; a mutual recognition and availability of ordained ministers to be of service to all members; common decision-making on critical questions of faith and life; and a mutual lifting of any inter-denominational condemnations made in the past. “In short,” Hanson explained, “full communion is a description of a relationship between churches seeking the greater unity of Christ.”

HoffmanAs Jane Fisler-Hoffman, ecumenical representative of the UCC, aptly put it, “We all swing our partners differently and mix it up ecumenically in a variety of ways.” Representatives present described their denomination’s history and currents steps in the expanding ecumenical dance. A measure of humility was a common theme, as evidenced when Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), stressed, “We fully recognize that we’re not the whole church. We’re just a temporal expression of the church.” If the reality described in the Nicene Creed as “one holy catholic and apostolic church” is indeed to be believed, Parsons observed, an ideal communion of united Christians would result in the end of denominational barriers. “But saying that and doing that are two different things,” he noted.

J. Robert Wright, professor at the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary and one of the architects of the Episcopal Church’s official communion with the ELCA, reads ecumenism through the lens of “perfectly united mind and thought” as described by Paul in I Corinthians 1:10. According to Wright, “The overall movement of ecumenism is against divisions but in favor of diversity, against uniformity but in favor of unity.”

In a panel discussion dedicated to the impact of ecumenism on missions and ministry, Edgardo Colón-Emeric, professor at Duke Divinity School and United Methodist co-chair of the UMC-ELCA Joint Commission on Full Communion, insisted that denominations in full communion must work together in starting new churches and ministries.

WrightThat prompted a YDS student in attendance to ask, “If I’m interested in church-planting, are you encouraging me to start a joint church—like an ELCA-UMC or ELCA-UCC church?” Bishop Hanson replied that it is all the more likely and hopeful that “we would not plant a congregation, ever, without having this conversation first.” Furthermore, he said his ecumenical vision would involve “strategically mapping where in the country we’re going to plant new churches, and that this would happen first in a collective, cooperative way.” Ecumenical ministry, the PCUSA’s Parsons added, seriously needs to acknowledge the trends showing that many people no longer just attend one church. In short, denominations must recognize that many churchgoers are more comfortable with ecumenical practice and interface than with denominational institutions.

Parsons also stressed that ecumenical missions and ministry in America must set theological intricacies aside and give primacy to ‘practical things’ related to loving one’s neighbor for the sake of Jesus Christ. In contrast to the rest of the world, where Christians work with one another across traditions because basic needs and economic strain demand it, Europeans and Americans, said Parsons, carry on “white, privileged arguments,” which he labeled a “luxury” that “comes at the expense of the rest of the world.”

Race and the mainline denominations was also a topic of discussion.  United Methodist Edgardo Colón-Emeric pointed out that, in contrast to national demographics, the UMC is 92% white. Similar disproportionate statistics apply to each of the other four represented denominations, and few African Americans were in attendance at the conference, perhaps reflecting this reality. There was complete agreement that mainline churches need to make more direct efforts toward reconciling differences and reaching out to people of all races, such as publicly repenting for the oftentimes alienating behavior exhibited by mainline churches in the past.  Panelists stressed that ecumenism must not be limited to North America and Europe but also must be addressed on a global scale—particularly when Christianity is growing most rapidly outside the Western world.

HansonParsonsIn terms of the future of ecumenism, panelists recommended that we look for role models in figures of faith who transcended their denominations, figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. Like the causes these individuals devoted their ministries to, issues most likely to strengthen ecumenism are those related to justice and poverty, panelists suggested.

At the conference itself, ecumenical ties were bolstered through three ecumenical services held at Marquand Chapel. The conference ended with a Eucharist service, during which Christians across mainline denominations affirmed their “full communion” in the body of Christ.

If there is one thing in particular that might be remembered about the conference, it may  well be a poignant quote that J. Robert Wright recalled from former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie: “We need the council and the stimulus of other churches because we are deeply aware that by ourselves we shall get it wrong.”

Posted: 04/04/2011