Christian unity workshop explores difficult issues

May 6, 2009

Financial struggles and slowdowns in major religious dialogues characterized the conversation at the 42nd annual National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU), held April 27-30 in Phoenix.

"All of us are struggling with financial difficulties," said Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Episcopal Church, in a telephone interview. "When churches catch cold, ecumenism catches pneumonia."

Workshop attendees also discussed breakdowns in ecumenical dialogue, and the implications of divisions in their own denominational ranks.

"Complex issues of human sexuality have created rifts within the churches themselves; when churches face their own internal struggles, it's difficult to be in dialogue (with others)," Epting said. A number of denominations, including the Episcopal Church, are coping with internal tensions over such issues as homosexuality and biblical interpretation.

The workshop is one of the largest, most comprehensive annual ecumenical gatherings of clergy, laity, theologians and ecumenical officers, said Epting. About 270 people, including 70 Episcopalians, attended.

Formed in 1963 by a group of Roman Catholics in the context of the groundbreaking Vatican II conference and to train priests for ecumenical ministry, the NWCU in 1969 invited other Christian leaders to join. The workshop is sponsored by the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers.

After World War II, Christian denominations entered into dialogue, which in some cases led to full-communion partnerships. In the 1970s, Protestants and Roman Catholics felt close to reconciliation, but more than 35 years later, women’s ordination, long-standing disagreements concerning the papacy and issues of human sexuality have slowed the process. Keeping the ecumenical conversation going requires staying at the table, Epting said.

"If you can’t take the long view, you shouldn’t be in the ecumenical movement," he said. "For a thousand years we were one church, then for another thousand years we were many, it may take three thousand years to move back to one church."

Most ecumenical work doesn’t make headlines and happens behind the scenes; it can be hard to keep the attention on ecumenism, especially now, said the Rev. Thomas Prinz, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Leesburg, Virginia, and NWCU's treasurer, in a telephone interview.

"The churches along with everyone else are focused on economic issues, so church unity issues take something of a back seat. It's not a bad thing, but people working ecumenically have to work hard to keep attention," Prinz said, adding that implementing existing agreements also presents a challenge.

The Episcopal Church is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Philippine Independent Church, among others. Churches in full communion partnership can share clergy and celebrate the sacraments in each other's churches.

"Episcopalians and Lutherans have entered into a full communion agreement because both find this important and we’ve accomplished joint worship at any number of levels. But there are other areas: social ministry, Christian education and youth ministry that we could capitalize on at the local level, but it's hard for leaders to reach out and do planning outside the parish itself," Prinz said. "Making ecumenical agreements accessible to those in the pew and to see their relevance in the ordinary things they do in an ecumenical life is a challenge."

The workshop's seminars, speakers and discussion groups provided practical training for people working on ecumenical issues locally, as well as networking opportunities, Prinz said.

In addition to the Episcopal Church, the NWCU's partners include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) the United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches USA and the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.