Difference or indifference: the challenges of ecumenism

by Ross Bay
Several weeks ago a couple of dozen people gathered in the St John’s College chapel for a memorial
service for Philip Potter, who was general secretary of the World Council of Churches from 1972-1984.
Many who were there had either worked with him on staff at the council or remembered him from a student youth gathering in Wellington in the 1960s.
He delivered a set of Bible studies so powerful that those who were there still remembered it some 50 years on.
The presence of so few for someone who had been such a force in the ecumenical movement internationally in his time was, I thought, telling. One might expect that someone not personally
known by many would not attract a large crowd at a memorial service on the other side of the world from where they had lived. But for me something about the fact that this very small group with only two of us under 70 who had come to celebrate a big contribution to ecumenism, symbolised the state of the Church’s indifference to the ecumenical movement today.
Certainly the 60s and 70s were the heyday of the ecumenical movement, with hopes of church union, and when that failed, a conscious and committed determination to working more together. Cooperating parishes opened and flourished in new housing areas, representing a wise sharing of material resources and a willingness to worship and work together across church traditions.
People became no longer afraid to walk through the doors of a church that didn’t have their own denominational label on the sign in front of it.
But indifference largely greets the subject of ecumenism today. Not because people have again retreated into denominationalism, but because they can’t quite see the point. It’s the downside to our freedom to move largely seamlessly between churches in worship. We can all go wherever we
want, so any sense of needing to move structurally towards one another from our places of difference as churches has been dulled.
Indeed, it is possibly true to say that people now find themselves at home within the same theological stream within any denomination, and so move seamlessly in that way.
“I don’t mind what the denominational sign says outside the church door so long as the style of worship and the preaching that I find inside is to my liking. The other denominational points of
difference are less significant for me.”
Yet at a deeper level we cannot avoid our differences if we are to truly strive to be together in a way that reflects the high priestly prayer of Jesus that disciples might all be one that the world may believe. Move easily between traditions to participate in worship we might easily do, but live and minister together easily is more difficult.
It is the courage to face difference together and to grow through our encounter with one another across our differences that is the key. And my comments here could apply as equally within our churches, and between faiths, as they do between Christian denominations. So we are offered this
passage from John’s Gospel to consider in this respect.
I don’t know if any of you have travelled in European countries at the height of summer and had the experience of arriving in a small town at lunchtime and expecting to find somewhere open
to eat. Well, Jesus arrived in a Samaritan town at lunchtime, and there was no one around. No one, that is, except this woman, who perhaps comes out to draw water when no one else is around, perhaps because she is somewhat socially ostracised due to her many previous husbands and her present de facto state.
Jesus crossed a number of social religious boundaries to talk to her. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jew. She is a woman, and one in a dubious relationship; he is a rabbi. Jesus is not afraid to take
the risk of crossing those divides, and characteristically sets aside the power differentials to engage with her as an equal in theological debate.
There is a transformation, certainly in the woman, who rushes to gather her neighbours who she has probably previously avoided. But I wonder to what extent there is a transformation in Jesus as well (setting aside John’susual high Christology, and remembering that Jesus was a male Jew). The
woman is able to offer another view and stand firm in her own identity, but be open to the idea of something new and good beyond both their religious traditions.
Of course, the disciples behave characteristically as well, and so are suspicious and concerned, and distracted by what they are going to be able to find for lunch. And that’s a well-honed Christian tactic of course — when the questions get a bit hard, a good shared lunch is a safe place to which to retreat together.
So a simple point or two in summary. How easy it is for us to come together. How much harder it is for us to be together.
We need courage to walk towards one another from our points of difference, not denying our identity, but willing to embrace what the other brings, and in that encounter to find a vision of
something new and the good within the kingdom of God to which we all desire to give ourselves.
Anglican Bishop Ross Bay of Auckland preached on May 18 at a service in St John’s Catholic Church, Parnell, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The reading was John 4:1-42. The above is his homily.

Posted in

Michael Otto

Reader Interactions


  1. Leo says

    The usual codswhallop from some-one who thinks any Christian belief system is as good as another.
    Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room – the Catholic Church ain’t gonna change its teachings, ecumenism will work only when all other denominations turn to Catholicism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *