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April 2010

NZ churches edge towards Christian unity

By Rev John Roberts

Mission and Ecumenical secretary

New Zealand church representatives continue to move ahead in their efforts to establish a national ecumenical entity that will promote the visible unity of the church. A year ago I referred in Touchstone to an ecumenical winter following the demise of the Conference of Churches in 2005. The new initiative that is now underway signals that we may be entering an ecumenical spring.

The discussions have not been without some tension. Some of those participating in what is now called the National Dialogue for Christian Unity have questioned the use of the word ‘ecumenical’ as it has negative connotations for them. For others that word has rich and meaningful associations and has long been part of their tradition.

Their have been questions about accountability of the dialogue group. Some thought it should be accountable to the National Church Leaders Meeting. Others thought it should be independent of that gathering and accountable to the churches represented in the dialogue. There was an issue around participation in the dialogue and the inclusiveness of the group. The dialogue was originally a Methodist initiative and the early meetings gathered together representatives of churches that had participated in the ecumenical movement in the past.

These issues have now been resolved. The word ‘ecumenical’ will continue to be used alongside the word ‘unity’. The word ’unity’ is preferred by the evangelical and Pentecostal representatives in the dialogue.

Representatives of the churches participating in the dialogue are responsible to their own national church structures while the dialogue group as a whole is accountable to the structures and courts of the participating churches. Other national church leaders are free to join the dialogue group at any time.

The dialogue has opted to be open and inclusive. This has resulted in Assemblies of God and the Wesleyan Methodist Church joining the dialogue. They sit alongside Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Churches NZ, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Salvation Army representatives.

The first meeting of the dialogue group was held in June 2008. Since then there have been another four meetings. At the February 2010 meeting a document Towards a Theology of Christian Unity was further discussed and some additions made. It is considered to need no further attention at this time. So there is now an agreed theological platform for the ongoing discussions.

Attention has turned to a draft document on terms of reference for an ongoing ecumenical entity. One term that has been suggested for this entity is Commission of the Churches for Christian Unity. Use of the word ‘commission’ is not yet settled. Others prefer an alternative word such as ‘forum’.

There is agreement that the basis of the new entity be "a gathering of churches that confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and commit themselves through the Holy Spirit to fulfil Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one so that the world will believe’, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Immediate and longer term goals for this new entity have been identified. There are two short term goals. The first calls the churches to deepen their fellowship with each other so as to express more visibly the unity of the church. The second calls the churches to work together towards the fulfilment of their common mission of worship, witness, proclamation and service in the world.

There are eight longer term goals that both broaden and deepen the immediate goals. They include: developing existing relationships between the churches; giving expression to koinonia (or sense of community) among the churches; sharing and receiving the gifts each church has to offer; joint initiatives; the exercise of prophetic leadership; and promoting relationships with non-member churches and people of other living faiths.

Other draft terms of reference are still to be considered by the dialogue group. There are also some suggestions on how to begin to implement the immediate goals. This could start with confessional sharing, the churches getting to know one another theologically. An intentional multilateral dialogue exploring the meaning of unity, the church visible and invisible, authority in the church, scripture and tradition, evangelisation and mission, could follow.