Ecumenism of the 21st Century: Insights from Samuel Kobia’s Thoughts.

The term ecumenism, common though it is in Christian theological vocabularies and in high level conferences and consultations, is still not so well known at the grassroots level. To put it very simply, ecumenism is concerned with relationships which encourage and facilitate listening, learning, mature criticism, mutual edification and change, commitment and solidarity, thereby continuously moving people on to increasingly loving, responsible, just and peaceful integration with God and all creation. Ideally speaking, ecumenism should be a movement. However, most movements usually tend to set up their own structures and institutions. It is best that these structures and institutions are flexible, and keep on changing in line with the spirit and emphases of the movements in the light of the changing contexts. Over the decades, there is a danger for any movement to be reduced to its structures and institutions. The movement of ecclesial ecumenism, which came to prominence during the twentieth century, is now faced with the question: How will this ecumenism find expression in the twenty-first century? While one look at this question from a global perspective, one has to keep in mind its importance from the grassroots perspective.


One might immediately recall the well-articulated presentation of Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches on “New Visions and Challenges to Ecumenism in the 21st Century” made on 18th November 2006 in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. (

In that address, he first highlights the changing ecclesial scenario:

The decline of Protestant churches and of ecumenism in Europe and North America

Kobia observes:

Protestantism in Europe is changing: the number of church members is declining, their influence vis-à-vis the state seems to be decreasing, and financial arrangements are changing. At the same time, the agencies or specialized ministries associated with these churches have become important – and increasingly independent – actors in their own right. The situation in North America – another pillar of the ecumenical movement – is quite different in many respects, but in other ways is quite similar. The mainline churches are experiencing decreases in membership, funding for the national church is becoming more difficult, and access to those in power seems to have shifted to a different set of churches. The growth of non-denominational mega-churches is more a US (NA) phenomenon than a European one.


If those trends continue and the churches become weaker and experience financial problems, then there could be far-reaching implications for the agencies associated with them. They, too, could become weaker in society, have less influence with their governments and may not be able to support the ecumenical movement in another 20 years to come. Or they could become more secular in orientation and less inclined to support ecumenical structures.

Likewise he says there are challenges for the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

The growing Church in the global South

Once again Kobia observes:

Christianity is thriving in the countries of the South. New churches are springing up in all regions. For example, there is vibrant church growth in Africa and Asia. The Korean Church has emerged as a major player in missionary work overseas. Korean missionaries are active in other parts of Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and in Europe. We recognize that the centre of Christianity is shifting to the South.

The challenge to the churches in the global South is the extent to which they are prepared to embrace their responsibility as the centre of Christianity. What kind of Christianity will emerge in these contexts, especially vis-à-vis the search for visible unity and ecumenical social responsibility? Will the new Christianity of the global South be one which is two miles long and one inch deep?

It is in such a context that Kobia goes on to outline important features of ecumenism of the future and some of the challenges they pose.

Features of the Ecumenism of the Future

Kobia draws attention to the following important constitutive features of 21st century ecumenism (sub-headings being given by me in this and the next section for easier reading):

The Significance ofSouth’ Theology for Ecumenism

Scholarship of theologians from the South will need to be taken more seriously and be allowed to impact ecumenical thinking.

Wider Church Ecumenism

Ecumenically well-established churches, including Lutherans, Reformed, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc., are confronted with a multitude of unfamiliar and uncultivated relationships among the emerging Pentecostal and charismatic communities which are having a strong influence on their (ecumenical churches) members and forms of worship. For their part, the Pentecostals, Evangelicals and charismatic groups, at least at the local level, are having to discover ways of relating to established ecumenical systems with which they have no historical linkage, but to whose social agenda they may now subscribe.

Local Spiritual Needs as Basis for Ecumenism

These emerging realities call for a new basis for ecumenical engagement in the 21st century; a basis that goes beyond traditional bilateral dialogues to embrace the local spiritual needs. A pointer in this direction could be a renewed ecumenical emphasis on spiritual gifts which could be shared more widely.

New Role for Ecumenical Conciliar Bodies

The programmatic activities that have characterized ecumenical work over the years are likely to decline. This means that ecumenical conciliar bodies at different levels will be challenged to pay more attention to and develop capacities to assist the churches in articulating the relationship of self-understanding (ecclesiastical) and self-representation (ecclesiology) among different churches and communities (Wolfgang  Vondey, Widening the Circle, p.2). This presupposes a new role for NCCs, regional ecumenical fellowships and regional ecumenical organizations (REOs), a welcome development given that NGOs are gaining greater capacity to undertake development work which in many parts of the world was the preserve of ecumenical organizations.

Multi-faith Relationships in Ecumenism

Ecumenism in the 21st century will have to take into account the growing phenomena of living in a multi-faith context. This is particularly evident in Canada as in many other countries. This challenges us to consider more deeply the concept of broader ecumenism and the relationship between deepening inter-church and inter-faith dialogue and relationships.

Life-centred Ecumenism

Life-centred vision will inevitably be a key component of ecumenism in the 21st century. Konrad Raiser had already anticipated this: “…It has become ever clearer that the perspective on ‘the whole inhabited earth’, based on a traditional human-centred view of the world and of history, is still too limited. One major challenge facing the ecumenical movement is thus the need to develop a life-centred understanding of the oikoumene which embraces all of God’s creation” (Konrad Raiser, To Be the Church, p.19).

Challenges for 21st Century Ecumenism

Having outlined important features of the ecumenism of the future, Kobia discerns significant challenges for 21st Century ecumenism:

Youth and Ecumenism

Historically, ecumenical formation has been rooted in the ecumenical youth movements and in the lay training centres. Both of these have been stimulated and supported by Protestants in Europe and North America. Today youth movements associated with the mainline Protestants are decreasing, while the evangelical and Pentecostal youth movements are growing. Where are our future ecumenical leaders being formed?

Broadening ecumenical fellowship

In recent years, we have devoted significant resources to broadening the ecumenical fellowship – to reaching out to Evangelicals and Pentecostals and to strengthening our work with the Roman Catholic Church. If we are serious about broadening the fellowship, we need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to make the costly compromises which might be entailed in creating something new. Are we willing to give up, for example, our conceptions of membership? Our insistence that all assistance be given on the basis of need alone? Our structures?

Confessionalism and Ecumenism

A related, and perhaps more sensitive issue, has to do with the relationship between commitment to ecumenical and to denominational/confessional structures. Until now, the churches have been able both to support ecumenical institutions and global confessional bodies. But the time may be coming when all of these global structures can no longer be sustained. There may be a time in the not-too-distant future when churches are forced to choose between supporting a global ecumenical organization and a global confessional body.

Importance of Listening in Ecumensim

One of the most essential tasks on the mission frontiers of the early 21st century is to learn to listen, and to teach others around you to listen with care. Create models of receptive listening and clear communication within your own churches, and within troubled sectors of your towns and cities. Listen to those with whom you disagree. Listen to members of other churches, and to members of other faiths, and to members of none. By all means, we shall continue to follow the ecumenical adage, “Speak the truth to power!” But we are also challenged to put just as much of our energy into listening to the powerful, and to the powerless, instead of simply assuming we know what either of them has to say.

It is a time for listening. We need to listen to the cries and agonies of the world, but also to expressions of joy and hope. We need to understand the weight of others’ burdens, as well as their capacity to love. And having listened and having understood, we shall be expected to respond to those whom we have heard in faith and love.

Spirituality and Ecumenism

There is an equally compelling trend of a yearning for spirituality, among young and old alike. To what extent are we capable of meeting these needs for spiritual growth, for spiritual enrichment? Have our structures become too bureaucratized to respond to this hunger for spirituality?

Today Christians in the South and elsewhere are challenged to build on contextual theologies as part of their ecumenical social responsibility in addressing contemporary issues of justice, peace and reconciliation. What is needed is a spirituality that takes hold of real-world as well as local challenges, and will not let them go unresolved.

Such a spirituality may begin in a profound encounter with the self, but from the beginning we must be prepared to move beyond self into close community, and from there into action in the world God loves.

Thus one discerns many implications for twenty-first century ecumenism in the address of Kobia. The question is: How does all this translate at the grassroots level?


Ecumenism at the Grassroots

At the local community level, people have been practicing spontaneous inter-denominational, interfaith and inter-ideological relationships. To give specific examples, a Roman Catholic marries a Protestant or Orthodox person, a Christian marries a Hindu or a Muslim and so on, a religious person marries an atheist, and so on. Similarly in the neighbourhood, people participate in one another’s times of personal joys and sorrows, and in religious feasts, festivals and solemn observances. There are occasions when all people in the neighbourhood transcending all boundaries get together get together for some particular cause, be it some relief work or some campaign. Is this ecumenism? It could be termed as ecumenism at a very basic level, signifying that people transcend boundaries to relate to one another on occasion.

However the relationship, in many cases, doesn’t go deeper than that. It is reflective of the popular Indian perspective: “All religions lead to the same goal; so we respect one another’s traditions.” But usually people do not venture to enter into a deeper mutually edifying relationship. At that stage it is “I mind my own business; you mind yours.” A similar phenomenon one observes in so-called inter-denominational Christian fellowships. Christians transcend their denominational labels to come together for some evangelical fellowship, to work together for some religious cause such as the publication of the Bible or a hymnal, to agitate against some parliament or assembly bill or law which is seen as anti-Christian, and so on. However in such cases, more often than not, while there is a sense of solidarity and togetherness, there is not much attention given to learn from one another’s Christian traditions.

In many cases ecumenism is understood as the peaceful coming together of people of different denominations and cooperation among them. But such ecumenism still upholds patriarchal ways, in which women, youth and children are not given their due space of respectful partnership. Such ecumenism will still turn a blind eye to the evil of caste; people of the same caste from different Christian denominations may come together, but they would keep their brothers and sisters belonging to another caste from within their own denomination at arm’s length. Similar is the case with people living with disabilities. They are not usually included in the fellowship of able bodied Christians, unless they are exceptionally gifted such as a blind person who is a great singer, or a disabled person who is a good mouth painter-artist. One could thus go on with a list of so many persons of different characters and orientations who are not embraced ecumenically by churches and by people in society.

Alternatively there are attempts to organize relationships in plural society and heterogeneous creation according to particular perspectives. One is the way of tolerance. One does not approve of the existence of the other, but puts up with the other for the sake of maintaining peace in the society. Another approach is that of incorporation by which the other is included within one’s own community, but at the loss or alteration of the other’s original identity. There could a third way of approaching plurality in which the majority rules, while the minority is advised to quietly submit to the majority for the sake of its own good and for ensuring that there is no violence in the community or society. In all such cases people may still make propaganda about “unity in diversity.” Is this ecumenism?

In a context which is still characterized and controlled by the ways of patriarchy, heterosexuality, ability (physical, mental, technological), caste, race, ethnicity, class, ecclesial denominationalism, communalism, fundamentalism, globalization, militarization, terrorism and war, the question arises: What is the meaning of ecumenism today?

Ecumenism should not be simply a programme or method of inter-church relationships. It should rise beyond celebration of the annual Unity Octave (January 18-25). It should transcend the meaning of grassroots as the coming together of people of particular caste, ethnicity, gender and so on; important as such grassroots movements are for highlighting the importance of their just and rightful inclusion in the community, there is a danger of them becoming and remaining exclusive.  Ecumenism should be a life-style of community living. It should be a movement facilitating and deepening love-justice-peace.  Such ecumenism at the grassroots would then blossom into national and inter-national ecumenism!

Rev. Dr. Roger Gaikwad
General Secretary,
National Council of Churches in India.

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