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August 2010

Reinventing ecumenism for the 21st century
Can we move from conference table to dinner table?

By John Bluck

I want to talk about reinventing ecumenism because I’m concerned about the future of the movement that defined so much of our lives as Christians through the 20th century.

Many of us lived and breathed ecumenism and saw it as the only way ahead for the church. We became post denominational Christians because we thought our denominations had seen the writing on their walls. But not everyone wanted to read what was written. For generations after mine in Aotearoa New Zealand it’s as though the ecumenical movement never happened.

Maybe ecumenism continues on, only less obviously and visibly? Churches work together at local, individual, informal levels; Protestant parents don’t have heart attacks any more at the prospect of their children marrying Roman Catholics, or Bahais. Muslims pose more of a challenge but most parents are pleased that their children get married at all.

And the obvious wisdom of inter faith dialogue and mutual respect is not the scandal it was 50 years ago. Whether religions can find a way of getting on with each other is no longer just a theological challenge. It’s an issue for the survival of the planet.

And the broader meaning of ecumenism beyond any church walls – the search for shalom among all God’s people, across the whole inhabited earth – that sort of ecumenism has never been more fashionable, more welcome, more urgent.

We could identify many things that stopped the ecumenical movement. Lack of nerve. Lack of courage, commitment, clarity. Shortcuts in consultation and preparation. Our monocultural orthodoxy that wasn’t resilient and robust enough to prepare us for the turmoil of the 1990s and the new millennium.

Recently I’ve wondered whether the paralysis hasn’t got to do with a failure to find the right trigger or tipping point. The volatility of ecumenical energy and the inspirational breadth of the ecumenical vision hasn’t gone away. It’s rather that we so often fail to find the catalyst to catch the vision.

What made the modern ecumenical movement so powerful was the immediacy and urgency of the issues it focused on. Time and again throughout the 20th century it was the ecumenical movement that had its finger on the issues of life or death, war or peace.

If it’s true that the ecumenical movement is an authentic expression of God’s global generosity and shalom, and waiting to be seen and engaged again in the life of our churches and communities, what might the new trigger points be for our time and place?

It won’t be a corporate style restructuring of our existing ecclesial shapes and styles, merging and rationalizing what we’ve got to make it more cost efficient and market shareable.

It could be the new fascination with ecology and ecotheology.

Alternatively, there must be a new trigger point for ecumenism buried somewhere in the faith-science debate. Today the trigger will more likely astronomers and astro physicists as they get more mystical and theologian-scientists like Teilhard de Chardin move from the eccentric fringe to the mainstream.

The interface of world religions is another hot centre of a new ecumenism as Christian-Muslim and Muslim-Jewish dialogue becomes a life and death survival skill in the Middle East and Asia.

My money is on the art of hospitality. You don’t have to look far to see how essential it is to the Gospel and the very nature of God.

The essence of ecumenism is the capacity to offer and receive hospitality – to be generous and gracious in the way you care for your neighbour, especially if that neighbour is unlike you, in order that we may better reflect and reveal the Christ in us.

Consider the number of New Testament parables that are about eating and drinking, including those about people who usually don’t get a seat at the table.

Many scholars argue that the most revolutionary thing Jesus did was his practice of open table fellowship. It was his brand of hospitality that caused the greatest outrage of all.

Theologically, I don’t think there is much of an argument about the fundamental importance of hospitality. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread in a prayer that make it clear you don’t go asking for food or forgiveness or love or anything else unless you’re prepared to give back what you have received and share it around. There are few if any other activities closer to the heart of God.

But is hospitality a trigger point? Does it ignite energy and excitement, new life and hope? I argue that it does, with great timeliness for our day and age.

Hospitality is an action not an idea. You know it by doing it, physically, by hand. There is no such thing as an air guitar equivalent of cooking. Food and drink is made out of animal, vegetable and mineral material. To prepare food and serve it, to eat it and share it, that is something we all can do, and need to do, and love doing, in order to be human.

On a good day such hospitality is central to the life of every Christian community. Eucharist in church, a cup of tea and good food afterwards.

The tragedy and the scandal is that the sacramental meal that symbolizes all that unites us still divides us ecumenically. That’s the contradiction that paralyses all ecumenical hospitality – the meal that Catholics and Protestants still can’t share.

It could well be that the hardest lock to break to get the ecumenical movement moving is in fact access to eucharist which depends on an open table as much as it does on bread and wine.

It may well take a campaign of ecclesial disobedience from the ground up to crack that obstacle, in the same way that local congregations have called and encouraged gay people into leadership roles, despite the cautions of their hierarchy.

But my deeper confidence in hospitality as an ecumenical trigger point is its cross cultural relevance and power.

There has been an attempt to globalize and corporatise the food industry, to make food a fast commodity, governed by profit and appearance rather than nutritional value and the authenticity of its origins. But for all the success of McDonalds and KFC, there is a huge counter movement to make food healthier, safer, and shared more justly and socially. Christians have been part of this resistance movement in a modest way with pot luck dinners and food banks, sales tables and liturgically framed meals.

We need to be bolder and more confident in the way we serve and share food and drink. It may be the most effective way we tune into the wavelength of our so called secular communities, where people increasingly don’t gather to eat, don’t know how to cook or entertain around a dinner table.

We still know how to eat with people like us, in clubs and family and like minded groups but we’ve lost the art of inviting strangers to join us and making them feel welcome.

To share food with people unlike you, as eucharist requires, even with the unworthy, the unreliable, even the traitors like Judas, requires a very robust faith. It can be uncomfortable, messy, awkward, even dangerous. If you don’t believe that Jesus is really present when you break bread in his name you are taking a big risk by opening up your table.

But when you do, exciting things happen. Lonely people make some friends. Withdrawn people break their isolation. Troubled and grieving people find support. People on the edge are drawn into the centre. Broken people find healing.

The power of hospitality to cross lines of generation and culture is what makes it so potent for rebuilding an ecumenical movement. We failed last time round by never managing to break the eurocentricity of the movement. I believe that the Achilles heel of our efforts to restructure the national council of churches into a broader conference was a misreading of the bicultural and multicultural issues at the time. The history of a colonial church wrapped us still too tightly.

If we had invested more time in eating together and sitting on marae as often we did in church halls and conference centres, if we had remembered that our settler forebears depended heavily on the hospitality of Maori to build their first houses and churches, then ecumenism might have moved very differently in Aotearoa in the 1980s and 1990s.

My plea is really a simple one. To look again at the ordinary business of feeding and entertaining each other around the table as a way of kickstarting the movement that has stalled on us. Assembling our guests lists from unlike people, even including our enemies, ignoring the conventions of having to impress the diners with expensive or elaborate fare, daring to ask all sorts of people, even those suspicious of us, to contribute, and always beginning with a prayer, even a silent prayer, that the Christ who promised to be present when we break bread in his name, will be present again.

If we do that, it doesn’t matter too much what we eat and who we eat with. Because as we eat we will be reconnected with the gift of life itself. God’s free gift, Given unconditionally. Waiting to be enjoyed by all God’s people, across the whole inhabited earth. An ecumenical blessing, waiting to be rediscovered again.

John Bluck recently retired as Anglican bishop of Waiapu. He was the editor of the New Zealand Methodist (later called New Citizen) from 1972 -77 and is the author of the forthcoming book Hidden Country – Having faith in Aotearoa NZ. It is published by Epworth Books, Wellington.