May 26, 2023

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Building relationships must be at the heart of ecumenism

Fr. Rick GintherThe National Workshop on Christian Unity is an annual gathering of people who work to foster a spirit of ecumenical understanding, dialogue and relationship.

Many participants are ecumenical officers. That is, they are someone assigned by a bishop or lead minister to lead this ministry in their faith tradition.

Held in Milwaukee earlier this month, workshop participants included Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Evangelicals. Other Christian denominations were represented as well.

Our theme was “Do good; seek justice” (Is 1:17)—the same as this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January.

It might seem odd that the work toward unity was not the focus, but we gathered as fellow Christians rooted in biblical justice. And as Catholics, we recalled the roots of our social teaching.

The presentations of four speakers were notable for what they said.

Bishop Richard J. Sklba, the 87-year-old retired auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, preached the opening prayer service at Redeemer Lutheran Church. His resonant voice held us to our theme: do good, seek justice.

A day later, he reminisced about Oct. 11, 1962. He related how he snuck into the opening session of the Second Vatican Council by helping carry a bishop’s luggage. There, he heard Pope St. John XXIII lay out the purpose of the council: to renew the Catholic Church, reconcile Christianity and launch a new evangelization.

He noted those purposes remain yet today. He hoped that the ecumenical movement would permeate all people. Paraphrasing St. Augustine, he concluded, “Nothing happens except through friendship.”

Friendships are strained in our world. That strain was the focus of the other three speakers, each from a different perspective.

Alexei Laushkin, an Evangelical and president of the Evangelical and Pentecostal Ecumenism and Dialogue Association, remarked that it is imperative that “I see the divine in you.”

He urged his audience to widen the table to include a greater array of Christians in their ecumenical journey. He concluded: talk less, listen more, pray for what you don’t understand.

Rev. Jay Wittmeyer of the Church of the Brethren spoke as executive director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in Lombard, Ill. He focused on how to speak constructively amid conflict. He emphasized Eph 4:14-16, particularly the call to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).

Rev. Wittmeyer quoted several sources, but two stand out:

• “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

• “Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God, but never without a belief in the devil.” (Eric Hoffer) It reminded us we must beware of demonizing others.

Finally, Rev. Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopalian and canon to presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, spoke and focused on the signs of the times, the reality of racism and any attitude that demeans the “other.”

Regarding all relationships in this age of polarization, she cautioned about the danger of “self-centrism,” which assumes that I (or my group, my nation, my race, my religion, my kind) is at the center. It also believes the rest of humanity and the Earth itself are organized to support my/our singular needs, demands and ability to flourish.

As Christians, we understand this latter point is not found in any Scripture verse.

She asked her listeners a pointed question: “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be in relationship?”

The speakers’ messages made it clear our gathering was truly about ecumenism throughout the entire world. Relationships and how we value another person are key to society, to equality, to human rights, for justice and doing good.

As Christian ecumenists, we all need to keep this in mind as we work toward unity.

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs. He is also the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis.)

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