Faith and Order conference to celebrate ecumenical movement, plan for future

July 9, 2007

Nearly 400 Christians will meet July 19-23 at Oberlin College in Ohio to take stock of the Christian ecumenical movement in North America. The Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) will celebrate its 50th anniversary by returning to the place where it was founded for a conference titled, "On Being Christian Together: The Faith and Order Experience in the United States." Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Anglican, and many others will gather for the conference. Theologians and religious leaders will assess the previous 50 years of the ecumenical movement in the United States as they think strategically about ecumenism in the 21st century, according to an NCC news release. Participating in the discussion will be nearly 100 theology students. "We are extremely excited about this event and will be participating in it fully," Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, told Episcopal News Service. "Ever since Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent attended the World Missionary Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh in 1910 and then presided over the first World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927 held in Lausanne, Switzerland, we have been committed to this ecumenical endeavor. One of my own predecessors as ecumenical officer, the Rev. William Norgren, attended the 1957 Oberlin Conference on Faith and Order in North America. He will be joining us at this 50th 'birthday party' as well." In the 19th century, many now-estranged streams of U.S. Protestantism lived together in a vibrant faith community at Oberlin, according to a news release about the gathering. Issues of concern in the life and theology of 19th century Oberlin included racial justice, women's roles, and peace -- all issues that became central for the ecumenical movement in the 20th century. This years' celebration will consider where Faith and Order has been, its current gifts, and its future life, the release said. "We are looking forward with great interest to the realization of this important conference," NCC president-elect, Bishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Church of America, said. "It is important not only for our past, but will also be a mirror for the future of the church in the United States." Participants including Faith and Order commissioners, theologians and church leaders from an even broader range of communions, and selected graduate and seminary students will be invited to engage the theme by responding to papers from senior ecumenists. According to the news release, the theological differences that continue to divide communions and traditions will be approached through the categories of "resonance," "dissonance," and "non-sonance" created by the Rev. John T. Ford, CSC for the commission's new book "Ancient Faith and American-Born Churches." These categories have made it possible for churches with very different self-understandings, histories and theologies to engage one another productively in a dialogue of mutual discovery and discussion, the release said. "The Episcopal Church has always encouraged Faith and Order to be more balanced within both the World Council and National Council so it's very exciting to us that this gathering is taking place," Epting said. The meeting will both celebrate the achievements of the Faith and Order Commission in the United States and explore the ecumenical significance of Oberlin as a place. It aims to combine repentance for continuing disunity with joyful worship in response to the unity the churches already experience in Jesus Christ, the release said. The gathering will highlight those who have fostered a capacity for serious theological and ecclesiological dialogue in the midst of the culture wars through new methods and respectful conversation. The NCC release said that the gathering will seek to produce the kind of holistic approach embodied by Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr. who during his recent term as NCC president worked to ensure that issues of unity were never separated from ethical issues such as poverty and racism. "At a world level, Faith and Order discussions have tended to be basically eurocentric and presuppose the structures of Europe, " Dr. Donald W. Dayton, a commissioner from the Wesleyan Theological Society, noted in the release. "The simple division into mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox and the way the questions are asked cannot function in North America. Right now, the models of American-born churches are at least as influential as those of European churches." Dr. R. Keelan Downton, the Faith and Order postdoctoral fellow, said in the release that the gathering "is a real opportunity to move beyond the ecumenical-evangelical divide to express the ancient-future reality of the Church in a way that is both generous and orthodox." Roman Catholic commissioner, the Rev. Ernest Falardeau, SSS noted that the first Oberlin conference, while broad did not include representatives of all U.S. denominations. "Catholics, in particular, will be pleased to have a number of official delegates in place of the two 'observers' present in 1957," he said in the release. A full program is available here. The NCC describes itself as the ecumenical voice of 35 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches. The NCC member communions have 44 million faithful members in 105,000 congregations in all 50 states.