Wounded world needs unity between faiths, global churches told

October 13, 2009

Churches should promote unity between different faiths, a Cuban Anglican has told a global gathering in Crete of Christian theologians.

"Our world, so wounded and divided, does not need religious trenches, but bridges," the Rev. Marianela de la Paz Cot said in a presentation to the October 7-13 meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. "We cannot achieve unity only as an internal Christian matter. The call to unity has to become a reality between the various religions."

"The Church is called to be one, but we cannot understand that call from an exclusive or excluding perspective," said Paz Cot, an ordained minister in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church of Cuba.

More than 150 participants are taking part in the meeting at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolympari, Greece. The WCC's 349 member churches come mainly from Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a WCC member but has official representatives on the Faith and Order Commission, as do Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.

In her presentation on October 9, Paz Cot spoke of how the work of the Episcopal Church in Cuba had been challenged by its encounter with followers of Afro-Cuban religions. "Being a Christian community means much more than living an honest life and experiencing salvation, because they can exist outside the church, since God is much greater than the church," she stated.

"We are the people of God, called to journey together, not to demonize and leave behind others because we consider them 'not one of us,'" she said.

Minna Hietamäki, a Lutheran theologian who teaches religion, noted that for her students the issue of the "unity of the church" rarely has any significance. "This is all very fine, but why should we be concerned about unity?" her students ask when they hear about the purpose of the ecumenical movement.

"Unity, for them, means coerced uniformity, the loss of individual identity and the necessity to conform to something alien," she said. "The question in my mind is not so much, how much diversity can the church's unity tolerate, but how much diversity does the church's unity need."

It is easy to consider diversity to be "a kind of decoration," Hietamäki noted. "Yet the essential diversity of the church's unity challenges us to reach beyond our comfort zones."

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian theologian who takes over from the Rev. Samuel Kobia as WCC general secretary in January 2010, described the work of Faith and Order as the "foundation of the WCC" and its strength for the future.

The appeal of Jesus for unity offers a "vision for our different visions." This is something to be expressed not only in theological documents but in the whole of life, he stated at the opening of the meeting.

The Faith and Order Commission has a mandate to express the faith that unites the churches and reflect on how their organization or "order" can serve the Christian Gospel. But what is important in this encounter "is the kind of attitude we have with each other," said Tveit.

"Relations are a fundamental dimension for our ecumenical work," he said. "We could add a third term to the name of the commission: Faith, Order and Relations."

In an opening sermon, Kobia said that individual churches express mutual accountability "when they pray for one another, share resources, assist one another in times of need, make decisions together, work together for justice, reconciliation, and peace, hold one another accountable to the discipleship inherent in baptism, and maintain dialogue in the face of difference."

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