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Forum to Chart New Path for NZ Ecumenism
By Elaine Bolitho

A discussion on the future of the ecumenical movement in New Zealand will be the focus the annual forum of the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (CCANZ) in Christchurch September 26-28.

CCANZ general secretary Michael Earle hopes a new road map for the future will result, and he wants Forum delegates to be “open to the God of surprises”.

Possibilities the Forum will consider include a new body to replace CCANZ, which has lost several members churches and is under financial pressure.

New Zealand has a rich ecumenical heritage. In 1941 it was the first Commonwealth country to develop a National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC had a high profile, had links with the World Council of Churches and in 1945 initiated the Christian World Service (CWS) – today one of New Zealand's most respected aid and development agencies.

NCC's profile was heightened by church union activity from the 1950s to 1970s. This was seen as a step on the road towards fulfilling Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one" (John 17.21). Interest in a broader ecumenical network grew and after extensive consultations NCC was replaced by CCANZ in 1986. It included Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church representatives as well as Protestant denominations.

The staff and volunteers of CCANZ developed several influential programmes, the most notable being the Programme on Racism, fronted by Mitzi Nairn. CCANZ has promoted evangelism, public issues, peace and justice and the Decade to Overcome Violence (DoV).

However, questions are being asked about whether this structure is the right way to express 21st-century ecumenism. One of CCANZ’s three presidents Bishop Murray Mills says today' s churches lack a strong belief in the call to be one. "The new generation of leaders has not gone through that ecumenical journey seeking church union."

Presbyterian external relations secretary Rev Chris Nichol echoes this view. He says CCANZ's strengths include the space it has created for CWS and DoV to operate and its national and international links with other churches and councils.

But Chris sees weaknesses too – particularly with finance and representation. With the withdrawal of the Lutheran, Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches, only twelve Protestant and small Orthodox churches belong to CCANZ. It includes no Pacific or Asian churches and the more conservative, evangelical and Pentecostal churches belong to the new Vision Network.

Despite CCANZ's pared-down budget, it is an expensive organisation to fund for denominations with their own financial crises. "Money is not driving the agenda," says Chris, "how we serve the ecumenical movement is – but we have to be good stewards of the money we have."

Ahead of Forum, groups around the country have been looking afresh at ecumenical issues. Methodist Mission and Ecumenical secretary Rev John Roberts prepared a paper that argues Methodists should not turn back from their ecumenical journey. Synods have discussed it and it will go to Conference where members will be asked to renew their commitment to achieve justice and peace through ecumenical bodies.

Discussions at CCANZ Forum on new ways to be ecumenical will cover how to:

· Create an ecumenical space where more churches are represented and have greater freedom to come and go;

· Value our gifts and differences rather than distrust them;

· Continue supporting CWS and the DoV programme;

· Link national and international churches and councils;

· Celebrate resurrection and renewal rather than trying to revive dying structures.