Approximately seventy Episcopalians joined several hundred other Christians who gathered for the 2004 National Worship on Christian Unity, May 10-13, in Omaha, Nebraska. Under the theme "My Peace I Give To You" from the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, participants engaged in joint worship, interacted with presenters in numerous workshops, and were challenged by keynote addresses from leading ecumenists.
The opening worship took place at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha, and was presided over by Bishop Joseph Burnett, diocesan of Nebraska. Lutheran bishop Steven Ullestad, of the Northeast Iowa Synod, brought the opening message as hundreds of worshippers renewed their baptismal vows and came forward to touch the waters of baptism in Trinity's large font. The opening plenary and keynote address occurred the next morning, May 11.
Dr. Martin Marty--historian, journalist, and longtime commentator on the ecumenical scene--asked participants to look seriously at where the "real" differences are between churches today. The gap between rich and poor, the global South and North, issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality head the list. Other differences, Marty suggested, include those churches which view spirituality communally and those which view it more individualistically, and how churches view the "secular" world--should we be committed to the environment, for example, or are secular concerns always hostile to faith? In answer to the question "interfaith or evangelization," Marty insisted that the choice is not between proselytism on the one hand and the kind of dialogue which means giving up parts of our own faith. It is possible to enter into interfaith dialogue and remain deeply committed to one's own tradition.
In conclusion, Marty pointed out that some of the deepest divisions today are those within the churches themselves, not between the churches. "Maybe we should never vote," he suggested. "Aggression, like charity, begins at home! Conventions and synods are like family reunions. They start with loving greetings, as the days wear on tensions arise, and then we leave mad at each other and the only thing we know is that we'll be back next year!" Knowing laughter rippled through the hall as the truth of Marty's wry caricature resonated with many.
Workshops alternated between those offered by the NWCU itself and those offered by the various ecumenical networks present, such as the Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, the Roman Catholic National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, and the Lutheran Ecumenical Representatives Network. Examples of the former included "Hunger for Communion at the Lord's Table" offered by the Rev. Dr. Dierdra-Kriewald and Brother Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C.; "Ecumenical Challenges in Global Christianity" offered by the Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Ph.D., and "With Friends Like These..." presented by Dr. Michael Kinnamon, from his new book 'The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How It Has Been Impoverished By Its Friends.'
Seminars sponsored by the networks included "Christian Churches in the Holy Land" presented by the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel of the Presbyterian Church, USA; "Interreligious Relations" by Sonia Omulepu of the Episcopal Church and the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana of the National Council of Churches; and "Native American Catholic Identity" presented by Sister Marie Therese Archambeault. Plenary Bible studies were led by the Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee who clearly and compellingly explored the fascinating theme "A Synthesis of the Role of Tradition and Hermeneutics in the Study of the Sacred Text," complete with slides of such early church sites as Ephesus, Rome, and Lyons.
Full communion relationships and ongoing ecumenical dialogues were celebrated at the National Workshop by such events as the Lutheran-Episcopal Eucharist at the Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church and the "Churches Uniting In Christ" Eucharist celebrated at the First Central United Church of Christ. The Rev. Dr. Bertrice Wood, Executive Director of CUIC, was the preacher at this service.
"It is my feeling that this was one of our finest workshops in recent years," said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical Relations. "It is a pleasure to serve on the National Planning Committee for this event and I would invite Episcopalians everywhere to consider joining us next year, April 3-7, 2005, in New Orleans."