Emergence Ecumenism: It’s a New Day Thanks be to God!

What follows is an article produced by Robert K. Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity.  Dr. Welsh wrote this article in response to a presentation by Emergent scholar, Phyllis Tickle.  He suggests that the modern ecumenical movement shares some important insights with Emergence Christianity about the direction of the church in the coming years.  It strikes me that he has raised some important issues, in particular the relational, missional, and inclusive nature of the gospel we are called upon to embody as followers of Jesus.  Dr. Welsh has invited response, believing that a conversation is necessary.  You may submit comments via [D]mergent, or via his email: rwelsh@ccu.disciples.org.

~Derek Penwell

President’s Report

Council on Christian Unity Board

November 2, 2012


Four weeks ago I attended the Disciples Pastors’ Conference in St. Louis where Dr. Phyllis Tickle was the keynote presenter.  It was an excellent event – and Dr. Tickle helped me to put into perspective several things I have been thinking, and writing, and saying about the ecumenical movement over the past couple of years.  Her thesis (and her book, The Great Emergence, that follows the same thinking) is that every 500 years a major shift takes place in our world that impacts (and changes) everything about our current life as we know it – not all at once, but a shift that takes something like 100 years to become fully developed.  She calls these shifts “Great Whoopies,” and her presenting argument is that we are well into one of these “whoopies” in our present time.  (She marks the beginning of the current change with 9/11, and the very different kind of world that all of us now live in – e.g., where terrorism and terrorists are the nebulous and threatening “enemy,” and warfare is no longer nation vs nation or one army against another.) And, in this time of change, everything (everything!) is impacted and changed: not just church life or religious life, but all life in our society and world.  

Dr Tickle focused much of her presentations on the shift in church life, which she identifies as the “Great Emergence,” in which the role of the church as we had known and experienced it has changed and shifted:  

  • From the center of our society (here in North America) to the margins
  • From the global north to the global south
  • From strong denominational identity to a post-denominational generation
  • From fear and/or ignorance of other world religions to a growing interest in and appeal of these religions and their different spiritualities
  • From a concern about institutions and organizations and buildings to a focus on relevance and mission and relationships
  • The list goes on and on . . .

Church life as we have known it has changed!  

And here’s the insight that I connected with in that conference:  What Dr. Tickle was describing as “The Great Emergence” and the development of what she calls “Emergence Christianity,” has also impacted and changed the life, vision and priorities of the ecumenical movement.  Indeed, I am working on writing an article that I want to call “Emergence Ecumenism” – because I think this is not simply getting on a band-wagon of the popularity of the “emergence/emergent church,” but is the reality that I (and the Council on Christian Unity, and most churches that are engaged in the ecumenical movement today) experience daily, and where I see the excitement and growing edges of our work for Christian unity in this second decade of the 21st century.  

In this “President’s Report” I want to lift up some thoughts and quotes and beginning insights that I would identify as this “Emergence Ecumenism” for your response, discussion, and input, even if you say, “Robert, this may not be helpful to anyone, and you should get back to the agendas, involvements and issues that were there (and in some places, continue to be there) when you came to serve as President of the CCU in January 1999.”     

1. A couple of random quotes that point to what I am beginning to understand as “emergence ecumenism”: 

  • Most of us don’t really need to be told we are living in strange and strained times, nor do we really need much cataloging of the strangenesses that assault us on a daily basis in order to accept the fact that they are there. (Phyllis Tickle,The Great Emergence, preface.)
  • Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in counseling his flock worldwide, has said repeatedly over the last few years that we are not to read and study and discuss Emergence Christianity in order that we might save the Anglican Church or any other such institution.  Rather, he says, we are called to read and study and discuss Emergence Christianity in order that we may discern how best to serve the kingdom of God in whatever form God is presenting it. (Phyllis Tickle, ibid.)
  • "Ecumenism will happen not so much as a result of doctrinal discussions, but through real-life activities on behalf of a suffering world."  (Joe Nangle, O.F.M., All Economics Is Local in Sojourners, May-June 1997)

2. New themes that are giving focus to the “ecumenical agenda” for our time and for the future:

  • The theme of the 2013 Assembly of the World council of Churches is “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.”  The potential of this theme is centered upon the three, interrelated concepts that are being understood and interpreted in radically new ways -- not only by Christians, but also by all persons in most societies and cultures of our world that see these as “life or death issues” that have implications and impact in relation to the marketplace (global economics), to peoples of different faiths and religions, and to the environment (eco-justice and the control of drinkable water).
  • In a new “Unity Statement” by the WCC – expressed not in highly theological or technical (or typical) “ecumenical” language – affirms that “what we have learned on our journey together within the ecumenical movement is that Christian unity, the unity of the human community and the unity of the whole of creation belong together.  In God’s plan they are inseparable. The church is: foretaste of new creation; called to be sign to the whole world of the life God intends for all; and instrument spreading the good news of God’s reign of justice, peace and love.”  The church . . . our church (the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ) is called to be these things (foretaste, sign and instrument) if we are to truly be a witness to God’s gift of unity in Christ.  It is visible unity, unity in action and unity in deed (indeed!). 

3. Some ideas I have expressed about the changing face of ecumenism for Disciples, outlined in my “report” to the 2012 General Board this past March (language that I now sense to be an initial attempt to give expression to “emergence ecumenism”):

  • During the last half of the 20th century (from the 1950s up to the late 1990s), the vision of unity was defined by the merger of denominations, in forming united churches. When we prayed and worked for Christian unity the picture we had in mind was founded upon bringing together of denominational institutions and structures.  But as time passed, that model (that vision) proved to be an insufficient and inadequate goal as hard lines between church traditions began to soften, and as people began finding a vision of unity of another sort -- less concrete, but no less real.  
  • In recent decades the earlier vision of organizational oneness began to be replaced by a much more dynamic, flexible and fluid understanding of unity that is based upon (and built upon) personal and institutional relationships that give expression to our unity in Christ through our witness, service, mission, ministry and worship. 
  • The biblical vision of unity, pointed to in Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers (John 17), was not that there would be one structure, or organization, or institution – it wasn’t a prayer about being one in theological agreement or having uniformity of practice. Rather, Jesus prayed that they might be one in their life together through deep relationships as a father and a son are one.  It is a vision of oneness in Christ (intimate and grounded in love for one another as members of one family), expressed in coming together at a common Table in celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where all are welcomed as God has first welcomed us -- not for the sake of the church, but for the sake and salvation, the reconciliation and redemption of the world. 
  • At the end of the day, it is a vision of Christian unity that is more dynamic, more challenging, and much more difficult to achieve than a preoccupation with sorting out institutional issues or bringing together organizational structures because today’s unity agenda is focused upon addressing the major and pervasive issues that divide Christians and persons in our society: issues of racism and white privilege; of prejudice and exclusion; of war and violence on both international and personal level; of unjust and unfair economic systems that are increasing the gap between rich and poor; and issues that threaten our life in relation to caring for the earth and the stewardship of creation. Simply bringing together church structures that remain as racist and sexist and homophobic and exclusive and upper-class is not, and does not, reflect the unity for which Christ prayed, and for which we should be offering our prayers, and committing our lives and ministries.
  • The bottom-line vision of unity (of this “emergence ecumenism”) is one that embraces difference and invites the full participation of all: 
  • - It seeks to build a community that is multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and inclusive – welcoming diverse gifts of experience, and styles of worship, and different spiritualities.  
  • - It is a unity that understands we must learn to live in an interfaith world with persons of different religions, where all affirm the love of God and the love of neighbor as starting points in their life of faith and faithfulness.
  • - It is to seek a oneness that understands we must be committed to seeking God’s peace and justice in our world - standing against all violence and all war, against all forms of injustice, hatred and exclusion.. 
  • - It is a oneness that will find its life fed by regular sharing in worship, prayer, especially in celebration of the Lord’s Supper where all are welcome. 
  • Unity, not uniformity.  Diverse, but not divided.  
  • Being led by the Spirit, and welcoming the full inclusion of all God’s children as brothers and sisters in one family.  
  • Known for our real-life activities on behalf of and service to a suffering world – to making a difference in the lives of the poor and hungry, and lost and lonely, to those on the margins of our society and world.    

It’s a new day.  It’s a new agenda. Thanks be to God.