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Ecumenism in NZ

Birds of a feather seek new flight path

New Zealand churches are to find a new way to organise their ecumenical life. Delegates to the September annual forum of the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (CCANZ) decided that it is no longer the appropriate body for the country’s ecumenical movement.

Delegates acknowledged the strengths of CCANZ: it has brought New Zealand’s mainstream Protestant and Orthodox churches together in conference each year, it has addressed race, peace and gender issues.

But they also noted that CCANZ’s current structure faces the problems of rising denominationalism, dropping financial contributions, the inability to communicate with congregations, and a lack of space for individuals to participate.

The key decisions of the forum were 1) to seek a new expression within the ecumenical movement in this country different from CCANZ; 2) to begin an unconditional dialogue with others to determine its the shape; and 3) to carry out this process in two stages over two years.

CCANZ general secretary Michael Earle says delegates said a number of things at forum.

“We heard in a clear voice that ecumenism in Aotearoa New Zealand is here to stay. There is healthy ecumenism at the local level. The question is how we harness it in ways that are life giving to churches.”

Michael says churches are voting with their feet. The Roman Catholic Church has left CCANZ and there are 50 national fellowships in the evangelical Vision Network. Ecumenical movements in the USA and the UK are more inclusive.

“We still need the liberal prophetic voice speaking out. But the churches want something that is lighter on its feet, closer to the ground, and has smaller pockets.

“The challenge is to rethink the model of ecumenism in a way that is less institutional and more flexible. We need to find something that is new and fresh and will work in the post-modern 21st century. Maybe we have to find a model that is a network of networks rather than a structured institution.”

Forum delegates decided the CCANZ executive is the best body to initiate the process of finding a new body. They imagined a process whereby the executive will begin the discussion, then step back to allow the new ecumenical expression to take shape.

Debate highlighted the challenges ahead and the problems that have besieged CCANZ. Who is to pay for the consultation and any ecumenical body? How will the voices of youth, women and grassroots congregations be heard? Will the churches provide the drive? Will those who remain ecumenically inspired and committed be able to share that passion with those within the churches who embrace yet stronger denominationalism?

The forum decided that the CCANZ executive will now dialogue with its Maori counterpart (Te Runanga Whakawhanaunga I Nga Haahi o Aotearoa), set up a group to work through options for a new organisation, and begin a year-long dialogue to determine the shape of the future body.

Michael’s term as general secretary ends early next year. In his parting words to delegates he urged them to remember their Christian surnames.

“We do not come together as Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and so on. We come together as Anglican Christians, Methodist Christians and Presbyterian Christians. The commitment of New Zealand churches to that spirit of Christian unity will be the decisive factor in the ecumenical movement’s future.”