Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ben Hartley: The Trials of Ecumenism

Today's post is by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at

Ecumenism is tough. For people who have been involved in ecumenical conversations over many years this is an obvious insight. Many Christians though have the impression that ecumenical dialogue or ecumenical cooperation is something that is easy – or at least should be. The impatience some people and institutions exhibit with regard to building ecumenical relationships is partly based on this mistaken impression.

For the past five years I have served as one of the United Methodist delegates to the Faith and Order conversations of the National Council of Churches of Christ. I have come to deeply value these conversations as I have also grown in my appreciation of ecumenism’s close tie to God’s mission in our world today.

That may be especially true for the people called Methodist. The depth of Christian fellowship exhibited in early class and band meetings was not incidental to the missionary zeal Methodists felt in their bones. Those early class and band meetings drew people from a wide array of Christian backgrounds – from Quaker to Catholic – and you can be sure that this diversity of background in the Methodist movement caused plenty of challenges, both then and now.  (For a good reflection on this in light of United Methodism’s current challenges see Glen Alton Messer’s recent blog.) Diversity of outlook and practices can also promote excellence in mission even if, in the process, working through our differences can also bring tremendous strain.

At our last National Council of Churches meeting in May I came to a new appreciation of that strain even as I hope it will eventually serve to strengthen our witness together going into the future. The incident I bring up here certainly can help promote reflection about the interrelationship of mission and ecumenism, and it is for that purpose that I share it here.

Toward the end of our three-day May 2016 “Christian Unity Gathering” in Baltimore, Maryland an invitation was extended over a lunch meeting for people at this meeting to pose for a photograph around a banner that read “We stand by our Muslim neighbors.” This photo invitation was born out of a desire of many (likely all) in our group to oppose the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in American society. The vast majority of Muslims around the world are, of course, not terrorists, so sure, let’s have a picture in front of a banner.  Sound simple?  It wasn’t.

An Eastern Orthodox representative at this gathering voiced strong opposition to the idea of posing by a banner that expressed solidarity with Muslim neighbors. He did not deny the reality of dangerous anti-Muslim sentiment in America, but he was also all too aware that in other parts of the world Muslim neighbors were killing Christian neighbors. So many of these Christian neighbors are Eastern Orthodox. He would not be standing by any banner that afternoon.

In this moment of ecumenical conflict over lunch all of us in the room realized in a new way that to stand by a banner that read, “We support our Muslim neighbors” raised difficult questions we needed to work through. Around my little table of eight I spoke out loud a question I was repeating in my mind: “Who is my neighbor?” It was something I practically murmured under my breath, but a chance lull in the conversation was such that it was heard by everyone. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the question is posed by a young lawyer in order to “score points” in a debate against Jesus. My question, I hoped, was more genuine.

The questions kept emerging in my mind and those of my friends around the table as we contemplated what we would do when picture-taking time came later in the afternoon. “What does it mean to ‘stand by’ a neighbor when another neighbor of like religious faith in a different place is killing other neighbors?” “Can I so simply make a distinction between American Muslim neighbors and Muslims and Christian neighbors in Syria or Pakistan?”  “Should I instead stand by my Eastern Orthodox neighbors who were refusing to be in this photograph? If so, why would I do that?” Was the decision to have this picture be taken made in the right way? If not, why not? How will the picture be used? How will it be interpreted by others?

Again, ecumenism is tough. What would you do? As for me, I chose to join the dozen or so people who refused to be in the picture. I did so for several reasons but mostly because I believed my most immediate neighbor at that gathering whom I needed to build a stronger relationship with were my Eastern Orthodox brothers in Christ. Indeed, I had a meaningful conversation with a fellow deacon (from the Orthodox Church of America) during the picture-taking session as we chatted in the hallway outside the hotel banquet room. Most of the people gathered at this event posed with the banner for a photograph. I look forward to further conversations with them at our next meeting about why their no less prayerful decision was different from mine.

There will be plenty of opportunity for those conversations in the next two years. I am a co-facilitator for a group in the NCC that is tasked with the responsibility of responding to two related World Council of Churches documents – one short (7 pages), one long (45 pages) – about Christian identity in a multi-religious world. The short version was jointly approved by the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as well. I look forward to talking about these documents with my students this semester too in a course intended to teach doctoral students in psychology about world religions. I invite readers of this blog into the conversation as well. Feel free to e mail me or to respond to this blog right here. Ecumenical conversations may be tough sometimes, but “so the world may believe” (John 17:21) it is vital that we give it the attention it deserves.


  1. Thanks Ben. The story gives real insight into the problems of ecumenism beyond doctrine. I'll add a further wrinkle in the picture. In many places Christians are hindering and even oppressing fellow Christians while in the US these groups have relatively warm relations. National churches, among them the Orthodox, are among the worst. There is real tension between ethnic-religious based states and a pluralistic contemporary reality. As there is between global affiliations and regional rivalries.

  2. Excellent article. We are a global church. We must do theology from the context of the entire globe. Unfortunately, most prefer to privilege their own context and ignore the larger reality. Perhaps it would be good to have a banner that acknowledges the suffering of religious minorities all over the world. Since many in the ecumenical movement have questioned or denied the reality of Christian persecution, it would also be good to stand with Christian survivors of the global persecution. Last month, while teaching mission theology at West African Theological Seminary, I heard many stories of burned villages, murdered pastors, kidnapped women, and destitute widows. At the same time, my pan-African students expressed love for the Muslims and a desire to plant churches among them. Certainly, we can learn from that.

  3. With Robert and Bill, thank you for this thought-provoking reflection, Ben. I've lamented for some time the cost of United Methodists' unrelenting U.S.-driven denominational agenda. Your reflection points up this cost in stark terms. And for that I thank you. Were United Methodists genuinely, and in a sustained manner, to adopt the ecumenical stance you outline here, and take seriously the questions provoked by it--just for our own "worldwide" denomination alone--I daresay the hackneyed and predictable debates about marriage and sexuality currently threatening to divide the church would receive much-needed theological nuance. For example, what would happen if we attended seriously to the complexity of marriage and sexuality in the Christian-Muslim context in Africa; and the dilemmas and challenges U.S.-focused denominational debates raise for peaceful and respectful coexistence in these places? And with large number of African United Methodists living on or near the tenth parallel, the question is anything but academic.