The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era

Witnesses of These Things: Ecumenical Engagement in a New Era

Response to John Buchanan Plenary Address at National Council of Churches

by Katharine Jefferts Schori


Ecumenism in the next century must consider the realities of the contexts we inhabit and the changes to those contexts we can see quickly arriving.

We are far more interconnected than we were for much of the last century - and we know it. The image born of chaos science, that a butterfly's wingbeats in China may affect the course of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, is daily reality if we will only notice. Those who are gathered here preach and teach frequently about the many and interconnected parts of the body of Christ - and that understanding is foundational to our presence in this place. There is an even deeper and more pervasive understanding of our interconnectedness - the whole of God's creation, which Sallie McFague has famously called the body of God. A careful examination of our shared theology invites us to remember that the saving work of Jesus of Nazareth has implications for all that God has made. If we would enter a second century of ecumenical cooperation, it must be with an expanded view. Our common work must be concerned with all of creation, all of humanity, and all people of faith.

Our interconnectedness is becoming evident not just in instantaneous communications or the rapid spread of pandemics around the globe, but in the very real consequences of oil spills off these shores on those who live hundreds or thousands of miles away. We are beginning to understand that pumping carbon into the earth's atmosphere is increasing the melting of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic, and the rising level of the oceans that results is beginning to submerge the homelands of Kiribati and Bangladesh. Our use of additives in food, antibiotics in commercial dairy and meat production, and the panoply of organic chemicals in our daily lives is beginning to impact the reproductive biology of human beings around the globe - as well as the fish in our backyard streams. Violence in one part of the globe is easily exported to surrounding nations as well as those at a distance. The economic storm of the last two years has had repercussions on human society far beyond its origins on the exchanges of Wall Street, London, or Hong Kong - and beyond the capacity of individual governments expected to regulate the commerce of their own nations.

We are all interconnected in ways that we are only beginning to understand incarnationally. This body of God has many, many parts, and the ancient prophetic dream of a healed world expects those parts to work together for the glory of God and the benefit of the whole.

Our task as Christians in the coming decades will be more challenging than ever, and the task is going to need all of our varied and unique gifts. The voices of people of faith must be a prophetic source for lasting change that moves toward healing the body of God. If we can begin to affirm our place in that body of God, in concert with other people of faith, both Christian and not, we will discover that the Holy One has been here before us.

The God we worship, whose son we follow, is luring us into an unexpected and radically open future. The question is whether we have courage to try new ways, to build a world where economies are understood as servants of all human beings rather than a few, and contribute to the health and prosperity of a far wider swath of humanity. The challenges of greed, and the idolatry of power and wealth, are not new ones, but the contexts in which we live will require new methods. Local solutions are no longer enough; we must think globally, we must consider the whole body of God, not simply our local congregations or single denominations, nations, or faith traditions.

There is an immensely urgent example in the current anxiety in Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement negotiated five years ago, with the assistance of other nations, including this one, expects a referendum in January of 2011, to permit the southern Sudanese to decide their future - whether to remain connected to the Khartoum government and northern Sudan, or gain their independence as a separate nation. The added complexities include the fact that most of the Khartoum government's financial resources come from the sale of oil, two-thirds of which is in southern Sudan. At least two million southern Sudanese live as IDPs in northern Sudan. There are religious and tribal differences compounding the divisions, for most of the north is Muslim and the south is primarily Christian or practices native African religion. The environmental destruction and human displacement over the last two decades of war have caused untold misery. Violence continues, though at lower levels than before the CPA. At this moment, exactly two months before the scheduled referendum, there has been no preparation and no one has been registered to vote. Archbishops of the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and the head of the Sudanese Council of Churches spent two weeks here in October as witnesses, urging the United Nations and our government to attend and respond. Those religious leaders expect that more innocent people will die, whether or not the referendum is held. The likelihood of another bloodbath like Rwanda is very high.

The role of bodies like this one is to be a witness to Jesus Christ's saving work on behalf of all creation. It is only as God's body, reaching across not only Christian difference, but into the hearts and hands of our interfaith partners, that we have any possibility of joining Jesus' witness on behalf of the least of these. The situation on our own Gulf Coast following Katrina required a similar urgent clamor by people of faith, as has the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake. Our future as ecumenists requires our active and urgent response.

Will we be witnesses of these things? Will we become witnesses who join the lament of wanderers in the desert and the widow seeking justice? We can look and not see, listen and not hear, or we can witness and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers as part of the body of God.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]