Rev. Dr. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity, says divisions within the Church 'breaks with the heart of Christ'.


Rev. Dr. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity, says divisions within the Church 'breaks with the heart of Christ'.

June 6, 2011

These are serious times for the ecumenical movement. We are experiencing new divisions, and people are wondering: Is the 'winter' of the ecumenical movement becoming a permanent season?"

So spoke the Rev. Dr. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in his keynote address at this year's National Workshop on Christian Unity in Pittsburgh, May 9-12.

Welsh proceeded to cite a variety of voices and perspectives which, he said, reveal a surprising convergence concerning the ecumenical landscape today. First among them was Cardinal Walter Kasper, recently retired president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity:

"After 50 years of significant engagement, what did we achieve? Does it still make sense to engage this issue? Is it a useless utopia? Is ecumenism a dead relic of Vatican II?"

Kasper's response to his own questions, reported Welch, is that ecumenism is not a human invention. Neither is it a political interest or issue. Rather it is founded on the words of Jesus Christ: "That they all may be one" (John 17.24).

Welsh next cited the general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon: "The ecumenical movement is in great danger of fragmenting between an ecumenism that focuses on bilateral dialogues; another that focuses on action for justice and peace; and a third that focuses on eucharistic sharing and common witness.

"But God has the power to unite these various efforts, and make of them signs of God's coming victory."

Welsh also cited Dr. Douglas Hall of McGill University in Montreal, who said the present divisions of the churches are not those of earlier centuries, but issues of our society today: issues around sexuality, ordination of gay and lesbian persons, stewardship of the earth, issues of war and violence.

At the same time, Welsh noted, theologians from the Southern Hemisphere are calling for us to be more in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed if the Church is to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus.

All the above emphases, he observed, find a place in British Cardinal Cormac-Murphy O'Connor's proposal for three complementary approaches to ecumenical work today:

The ecumenism of truth represented by the work of the formal dialogue commissions;

Spiritual ecumenism — prayer and sharing of spiritual gifts - which Vatican II called the "soul" of the work for unity;

Ecumenism of life, where we join hands with other Christians in meeting the needs in our local, regional, and international context.


The three enemies of ecumenism today, according to O'Connor, are suspicion, inertia (paying lip service to the work for unity but not living it out), and impatience.

Welsh then identified three major frontiers in ecumenical and interreligious work today. The first is to harvest and receive the joint and agreed statements produced during the last four decades in international dialogues. "They now comprise three thick volumes, 2,310 pages. Who can read all that stuff? Who wants to?

"I can understand why lay people ask: 'Where is the visible outcome of your illuminating discussions?' The next frontier is to make that harvest available to the people in our churches or they will soon spoil and rot on the shelf and lose their value."

A second frontier is in the realm of interreligious dialogue and engagement. Here Welsh lifted up A Common Word Between Us and You from Muslim leaders to Christian leaders in 2007. In it they identified what Jesus described as the two greatest commandments - love of God and love of neighbour — as common ground for Christian-Muslim witness and collaboration in our world today.

Bringing evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches into the ecumenical movement represents a third frontier, said Welch.


Here, new ecumenical instruments like Christian Churches Together in the U.S. and the Global Christian Forum, are exciting and promising developments. Both represent new forums where Christians who had not even spoken to one another can come together in an unthreatening context.

Ninety-six per cent of the world's Christian communities are represented in the Global Christian Forum. The challenge is to bring same networking to the local level.

We must recapture a sense of the scandal of division among Christians, said Welsh. Ecumenism is not just one more program on the Church's agenda; it is at the core of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. He shared how his daughter married a Roman Catholic, and then became a Catholic herself.

"Each of her three darling children have been baptized at a Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, at which I, though a participant, could not receive Holy Communion," Welsh shared.

"Our divisions within the Church are not just institutional. They are also personal. These divisions break hearts in interchurch families and among relatives and friends, and it breaks the heart of Christ."

(Paulist Father Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.)